North Korea at 70
10 October 2015 was officially the 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers Party (KWP), the North Korean communist party. This past weekend saw a huge military parade through Kim Il Sung Square (the central plaza of Pyongyang). Foreign journalists were flown in for a rare 'privileged' (read: manipulated) view of the party and military in full glory. Kim Jong Un even spoke, a genuinely rare event. A high-level foreign dignitary from another ostensibly 'communist' one-party state — China — also showed up.
Observers who remember the Cold War will immediately see the resemblance to old Soviet-style parades, and, in the surfeit of red banners, party slogans, and communist iconography, one could be forgiven for thinking this is still a Marxist-Leninist party. As Andrei Lankov has noted, the KWP maintains the structure of such a party, as well as its real goal: the maintenance of totalitarian power.
Ideology is surprisingly important
North Korea acts as if ideology is hugely important. All citizens attend weekly 'ideology classes.' Kim Il Sung, the regime founder, put a Confucian writing brush into the party symbol to emphasise ideology alongside labour. The regime relentlessly touts the theoretical achievements of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il as authors and thinkers. It flogs the notion that juche, Pyongyang's communist-offshoot regime ideology, is a widely studied, globally relevant philosophy. Both Kims are credited with writing huge numbers of books and pamphlets on communist theory.
When I visited Pyongyang, we were taken to a museum dedicated solely to Kim Il Sung's thousands (yes, thousands) of publications. One could buy them in shops everywhere (they are also downloadable here), and most are communist in tone, with lots of Marxist jargon about the revolution, bourgeois dogmatism, Hegel, the 'iron laws' of history, and so on. North Korea even still has one of those bloated, ostentatious communist monikers; the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (to which Voltaire's famous quip about the Holy Roman Empire equally applies).
So given that this KWP anniversary ostensibly celebrated the cadres leading Korea toward this juche ideal, it is worth considering just how 'communist' the DPRK is in practice.
North Korea, much like East Germany, was built around the notion that it was a socialist alternative to a decadent capitalist failure. When I teach North Korea to South Korean students, I usually start here, because such language formally defined North Korea for so long. South Korean college students, by national security design (unfortunately), are not actually taught that much about North Korea, and almost none of them know the teleological 'stages of history' which Marxist states avowed for decades. By that standard, North Korea is in the post-revolutionary, dictatorship of the proletariat stage, the revolution having been Kim Il Sung's take over. The purpose now — again, by strict Marxist-Leninist ideology — is to guard against counter-revolutionary revanchists at home (hardly a threat anymore at this point), as well as external bourgeois foes (the Americans, South Korean 'puppets,' and the Japanese) who would undermine the new order. When this project is secured, the state can 'wither away'.
Communism ain't what it used to be: North Korean 'deviationism'
Like every other Marxist state though, the DPRK state never withered away. In fact, it got larger — much larger. North Korea has also failed or drifted so far from anything like socialism, communism, or Marxism-Leninism, most analysts did not take this KWP anniversary seriously, focusing instead on the military bombast. The following are a few of what Marxists of yore would have called 'deviations'.
Firstly, North Korea is a monarchy. The sheer oxymoronic ridiculousness of a 'communist monarchy' has always struck me. Nothing demonstrates the ideological contortions of the DPRK as much as a family succession. That is a feudal practice, of course, which is exactly the type of thing communism was supposed to eliminate as backward and repressive.
Marx and Lenin were bitingly harsh in their critiques of feudalism. One of Marx' most mean-spirited comments was his famous complaint of the 'idiocy of the peasantry,' meaning they stood outside of history as passive, uninformed spectators mired in ignorance. And, of course, the primary historical claim of just about every Marxist theorist and leader was that history moved in stages and the communism was the next one after capitalism. When Khrushchev said 'we will bury you', he meant exactly that: these large Marxist-metaphysical forces of history were working against capitalism, no matter what it did to stop them, and communism was the inevitable future. This is why leaders like Stalin and Pol Pot were so harsh on their feudal-agricultural communities; they were 'behind' in the Marxist historical mechanic. Even Mao had the good sense to avoid the 'familiasation' of the Chinese Communist Party (his wife did not last too long) and famously criticised Confucius as a feudal reactionary.
Yet here we have a communist regime openly going back to a pre-capitalist mode rather than moving forward into the post-capitalist era as its own ideology says it should. One wonders how KWP ideologues must work to square this blatant neo-feudalism with regime ideology.
The second deviation is North Korea's flirtation with nationalism, racism, and, arguably, fascism. It is pretty well established that North Korean ideology emphasises the unique racial characteristics of the Korean people (theminjok). This too is a pretty egregious violation of twentieth century Marxism-Leninism, with its ideological insistence on 'internationalism' and its use of the struggle against fascism to legitimate itself. Even China just celebrated its own victory over fascism. Yet as early as the 1970s, east bloc diplomats were noting just how bizarre North Korea was becoming along these lines, and there is a school of North Korea interpretation which says it is really Japanese fascism in a Marxist guise. Nationalism is vastly more important than class, especially when even class in North Korea is defined by blood.
Next come corruption and marketisation. The first two deviations are political: North Korean monarchic governance and emphasis on blood explicitly contradict any conventional interpretation of nineteenth and twentieth century Marxism. But economically too, North Korea has effectively given up public distribution or 'socialism' in exchange for informal marketisation coupled with oligarchic rent-seeking.
If one defines socialism as economic distribution guided by the state, then this collapsed in North Korea in the late 1990s. The famine decimated the pubic distribution system (PDS). In a terrible irony, it was the cadres who most believed in the system who died first. They waited in vain for the PDS to supply them and refused to indulge in the corruption and illicit trade with China that helped others survive. Almost everyone outside of the elite who survived the 'Arduous March' engaged in some form of illicit trade, private agriculture, or corruption to survive. These informal market mechanisms have proven hard to root out. At this point, the state may no longer be trying, as these non-state provisions help keep the population healthier and likely less restive. Marketisation from below has also fueled growing corruption which, like the food trade, may actually be informally tolerated by the regime to keep it afloat.
So if you wondered why last weekend's party extravaganza did not so much celebrate the party as the military and the state's nuclear program, this is why. The KWP is an ideological shell. After two monarchic successions and the collapse of the PDS, it is no longer a vehicle for the 'workers' nor a communist 'vanguard party.'