The DPRK was founded in 1948 in the north of the Korean peninsula after a bloody national liberation struggle against Japanese occupation. The annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910 had been followed by brutal subjugation of the local population, and although those bitter years of colonial oppression were brought to an end with the help of the Soviet Union, the formation of the DPRK was as an independent state led by the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) under the leadership of Kim Il-sung. The local Communist Party apparatus in the years immediately preceding the founding of the DPRK had been directed by Moscow, in line with the Comintern policy of utilising local parties around the world as diplomatic tools of the bureaucracy, but was quickly absorbed into the KWP, as were the local people’s committees across the north. This was one year prior to the seizure of power by Mao in China, note. Soviet forces were withdrawn in 1948, and the DPRK was then on its own, despite some continuing trade links and imports of fuel and food, isolated, forced to be self-reliant, an extremely compressed impossible attempt to construct socialism in one country. Or, worse, only part of a country, the only consolation being that it was the north that was centre of heavy industry with a head-start over the more rural south.
Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung intended Seoul, which is south of the 38th parallel, to be the capital, not Pyongyang, which is to the north of that line. There were uprisings in the south against military rule culminating in a rebellion by the Jeju islanders which was crushed and a dictatorship was established in South Korea under Syngman Rhee, actively supported by the United States. The US henceforth underwrote the regime in the south of the peninsula, and although its own military was formally withdrawn in 1949, covert operations and a build-up of forces preparing for war against the DPRK continued from its base in occupied Japan. The 38th parallel was the line drawn across the country by the US, the new colonial masters in the region after the Second World War, and then transgressed, the trigger for the Korean War 1950-1953, a further ordeal for the DPRK in which much of the material infrastructure was bombed to bits, and so successful defence of the regime in the north entailed further deep costs, not least to the internal structure of the regime. Defence and closure against external enemies intent on destroying an independent state which declared itself to be socialist, enemies that really were intent on the restoration of capitalism in the north, necessarily led to defence and closure against internal enemies, and so it was that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea took the form it has maintained until the present day.
Trotsky once pointed out that each specific country operates as a particular combination of factors at play on a global scale. Complete independence of any nation state once capitalism took hold as a global system is an illusion, in some cases it is an unavoidable illusion that sustains national liberation struggles that then gives way to a process of building economic and political ties and international solidarity. The Soviet Union had at its disposal the Comintern, the remains of the Third International, to buttress Stalin’s own ridiculous anti-Marxist claim to be building socialism in one country, and political-military manoeuvring and then ‘peaceful coexistence’ were the international conditions for that bureaucracy to survive until 1989. The DPRK did not even have that, and so the illusion of independence became more dangerous, more toxic to the population even when that illusion was fed to its people as if it were a panacea.
That practical impossibility of socialism in one country – political-economic isolation – was accompanied by another kind of isolation, with deadly consequences. The formation of the First, Second, Third and then Fourth Internationals was predicated on the revolutionary Marxist understanding that successful combat against capitalism and its eventual overthrow depended on the accumulation of experiences from diverse parts of the world, from parts of the working class and from among its allies. Anti-capitalist struggle is complemented and enriched by the experience of anti-colonial movements, anti-racist movements, and by women’s liberation and sexual liberation, ecological struggle and other dimensions of resistance against exploitation and oppression. Such heterogeneous complex political experiences must be drawn from across the globe so the working class itself can come to realise in its own practice the way in which its specific circumstances are intertwined with the operation of those multiple elements on an international level. Among the consequences of isolation, and as an insidious feedback loop in which the problem is reconfigured by the regime as if it were a virtue, are some weird aspects of representation of the regime both to the outside world and to its own people, a double-edged duplicitous self-representation.
‘Mysterious’, that’s the word for it offered by the Chinese plain-clothes policeman at the northern border. It was meant as a question, provided as a possible answer to another question he had just posed to a shifty-looking group of Westerners at the small border town: ‘Why do you want to go to North Korea?’ That it might be ‘interesting’ as a first answer did not satisfy him. Border security has been tightened in recent years by China, fearful of what the consequences might be if the DPRK regime falls hard, not only because floods of refugees might head further north and to the west but also because the social unrest might also spread, infect and unsettle a carefully managed transition to capitalism guided by Xi Jinping. At the end of the 1990s after severe famine in the DPRK, what is described by the regime as ‘The Arduous March’, there had been some incursions into Chinese border towns across the Tumen river to the north; some desperate DPRK soldiers had come across, held up households and taken stuff back across the border. China does not want this to be a sign of things to come.
You can only get into the DPRK as part of a carefully-managed tightly-controlled group in which you will be accompanied by two guides and a driver. Even on ‘individual’ tours, you will be visiting as one of a gang of four. Our group had been briefed in Beijing on what not to do. Don’t take photos of the military, and don’t take photos of any construction sites because those are administered and staffed by the military. Take pictures of the beautiful scenery, but don’t take pictures of the little people, particularly of those pushing heavy loads on their bicycles or those working on the roads, for such images could be used as propaganda against the country. Don’t refer to ‘North Korea’, that is disrespectful because the DPRK views itself as a regime in the north attempting to make links with the south, and that means that you should not wear the T-shirt you’ve just bought for which the tour company made the mistake of showing an image only of the north of the country, it should have depicted the whole of the peninsula. Take photos of your itinerary because that might be confiscated at customs because the print-out lists key national monuments as if they are tourist sites when, of course, they are no such thing.
Members of the group had already signed a declaration to this effect on signing up, and also agreed not to publish images taken or any written account of their visit before it was vetted and approved. On another parallel tour the same month a hapless Western tourist joined a Chinese group only to be whisked around the Pyongyang monuments on a bus that refused to stop to allow the visitors to get off and have a look around. He complained and showed the tour itinerary on his phone to the local guide who snatched the phone away and started checking through it. When the group got to their hotel that evening, the lone Westerner was asked by the receptionist to go to a room up the corridor where three men in black suits were waiting for him; they questioned him about why he was there and what his problem was. The interrogation ended with him signing a declaration that he would not speak or write about what had happened to him and then he was invited to fill out a customer satisfaction questionnaire – when he put the wrong answer a new sheet was put in front of him until he marked ‘good, very satisfied’ on all the items. Then he was free to go.
We were told not to ask local people, including the local guides, what they thought would happen when Respected Marshal Kim Jong-un, the current leader, died because that would confuse and upset them, and, of course, we should refer to the leaders of the three generations – Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung – with respect; not, for example, ever to refer to ‘fat Kimmy’. The main guide in Pyongyang told us that this was a chance for us to put aside our preconceptions and really see how things were in the DPRK, told that ‘seeing is believing, right’. No, dead wrong. The DPRK is a perfect working example of how ideological systems of rule wherever they are, in the capitalist or so-called socialist world, cannot be so easily dispelled by simply seeing things as they really are; to ‘see’ here in the DPRK, particularly as a tourist, is to see what is staged. This tourism is no mere façade. Tourism and foreign investment are priorities for the regime, with more resources poured into impression-management than school-education or distribution of vaccines. The service sector now runs at a third of GDP after mining and just above agriculture and fisheries. Most foriegn trade, over ninety percent, is with China – minerals and some armaments out, and fuel and food in. I spoke to an INGO aid worker back in Beijing who viewed tourists as unwitting voyeuristic parasites colluding with the regime’s agenda and effectively obscuring what is really going on. You need some political-historical theoretical grasp of the reality that is being presented to you in order to go beneath the surface, and to go beyond the liberal platitudes served up in smiley crinkly-eyed benevolent BBC travel programmes, Michael Palin’s recent tour east being a case in point.
The visitor circuit around Pyongyang and down to the Demilitarized Military Zone (DMZ) at the border with the Republic of Korea to the south was tightly-orchestrated, a closed circuit, from the main hotel for foreigners, a forty-three story total institution with restaurants, pool, bowling and barbers, down to the restaurants populated only by other tour groups. One of our group bought a new hat with a red star on the front at the DMZ and lost his old cap somewhere along the way, perhaps at lunch. The following morning our second local guide, the minder, turned up on the bus wearing the old cap, and handed it over – it had been retrieved by another tour group from the restaurant where we had eaten lunch, its owner identified and returned to our group guides.
On another occasion, second example of the closed circuit, one of our group had done a runner. Don’t wander off, we had been told back in Beijing, only move around as a group, and if you do wander off it won’t be you who gets into trouble but your guides. This guy had already made a break for it on the first evening from our hotel in Hoeryong but had turned back after finding there was nothing to see down the dark road leading off into the unknown, turned back to find the guides looking less angry than very relieved. Anyway, on his second outing during the day-time near a monument we were visiting our intrepid explorer had wandered into a park, encountered some locals, and made it back again before anyone noticed. As if. At our next stop barely an hour later he was stopped by our guides, and his camera examined. He had been spotted, someone had informed the authorities, and he was quickly tracked. It was clear that if we had got away we would not have got far. One of our guides, an older KWP member with some clout among the locals, accompanied a couple from our group back to our hotel by taxi, but only after ten cars had refused to stop on the street and after protracted negotiation at another hotel. Taxi-drivers were unwilling to take foreigners on board.
And if we had got out, how would we have talked with the locals, about what, practised choice Korean phrases we had rehearsed together on the bus, which included the rather useless ‘Saranghamnida’ (‘I love you’), or what? We did talk to some school-kids, staged encounters in classrooms, but these were rather limited and closely monitored. Schools and educational extra-curricular institutions were a key selling point on the tour; as one of the Kum Song Youth Publishing House puts in the title of one of its pamphlets, Child is King of the Country. We were told that illiteracy does not exist, which might be true. I asked one boy about twelve years old what he had for lunch and he thoughtfully rolled out a list of dishes, all of the food items he knew the English names for. In another school, four school-girls fourteen years old asked me how popular the British Broadcasting Corporation was. They had been told, and this phrase was repeated to us at least twice by our main guide in another part of the country outside Pyongyang, that the Korean people should ‘keep their feet firmly planted on the ground and look over the wall’. They did look over the wall, but what they saw was also filtered in a particular way, corresponded with a DPRK-centred view of the world; a common misconception inside the DPRK is that most people around the world speak Korean.
A guide, an older and more trusted working-class KWP member, a more trusted minder than the younger middle-class main guide, told me that he liked Russian films and some English films; the three English films he named were Bend it like Beckham, Titanic and Love Story. Our main guide later said he was surprised that The Lion King was not in this top three. The KWP guy told me that there was a nice river cruise in Pyongyang, but he had never been on it. At one point he said he had never been outside the DPRK, though he told someone else that he had been to China fifteen times the previous year. When they were on their own, away from the main group as we walked around a monument or wandered around the country-side and were encouraged to take photos of the beautiful scenery, and when they were drawn into more detailed conversation about their lives, guides looked over their shoulders as they spoke, literally looked around and over their shoulders. There was a double-problem for those of us keen to search out the contradictions, peer through the cracks, try to look behind the scenes. One aspect of this double-problem was the deliberate staging of what we would see as foreground and at the edges, and the other aspect was the insidious layering of deception on self-deception, protection of the image of the DPRK and self-protection of those who might be punished for leaking something else between the lines. We kept in mind two warnings, and you should too.
The first warning is in the Russian documentary about the DPRK available on Netflix called Under the Sun. It is, yes, a rather hypocritical exposé from the vantage point of the Putin regime that itself relies on a muddling of truth and lies to cover over its full-blown embrace of the free-market, but anyway what we see in the documentary is a chilling staging of ‘everyday life’. It transpires that the father does not actually work in the factory he is shown in, and neither does the mother work with the bemused colleagues she is shown chatting and joking with. The cheap trick the Russian crew pull as they film these encounters is to keep swapping the memory cards in their recording equipment and to keep the cameras rolling between and after scenes. So, we see father giving wise guidance to his workers referring to grading of textiles, and then him being instructed by the minders to specify the cloth weight in more detail. They tell him how. The scene is re-shot. We see mother being given an award for hard work, and then, between takes, her colleagues being told to laugh more, with more enthusiasm. We see the family having dinner, and the father telling his daughter that she is at a good school, and then, as the camera keeps recording, the minder coming into shot to tell him to say it again, but to say it is a great school. When the parents tuck the daughter up at night it is not in her own bed, but one readied for her by the DPRK production team. Seeing is not believing, and it is not even clear what they themselves believe.
The second warning is to be found in the South Korean Suki Kim’s 2014 account of working in a Christian college on the outskirts of Pyongyang Without You There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Suki Kim gets into the college by posing as a teacher, and the college itself keeps going in the DPRK by promising not to evangelise to the students, the crème de la crème of Pyongyang high society being groomed for leadership roles in the regime. This itself is profoundly paradoxical, for Christianity as such is a no-no in the DPRK, the religion practically wiped out after the regime was instituted back in 1948. Pyongyang had actually been a cultural centre for Christianity in Asia, known in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the ‘Jerusalem of the East’. The regime now hedges round this history and its legacy in claims that Christians do participate in one of the two minor political parties, the Korean Social Democratic Party, and tourists are sometimes even taken to a church to prove how open and tolerant things are. The other minor party, the long-standing Chondoist Chongu Party which brings together followers of Confucian and Shamanist Chondoism, had at one time during peasant uprisings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries more members than the Communist Party and was an important base for resistance to the Japanese occupation. These two minor parties now participate in the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland led by the KWP. Other parties did also once contest elections, including one party which represented Buddhists, but these were already hollow shells.
We visited a Buddhist Temple in mountains in the north-east of the country and a couple of monks wandered around. It was here that we first saw evidence of the increase in internal tourism – mainly wealthy Pyongyangites come to see their country cousins – and they dressed up in the Buddhist regalia to have their photos taken. At another site a guide had apparently made the mistake of greeting one of the ‘monks’ as ‘comrade’, an embarrassing slip which threatened to blow the gaff, to reveal to the tourists that these orange-robed guys are actually dressed up for the part, part of the regime, not Buddhists at all.
Back to Suki Kim’s account of teaching the elite, one in which she becomes increasingly demoralised as it becomes clear that she cannot believe one word the boys say, whether that is what they think about the regime or what they did that morning. She can see with her own eyes that they were out on one side of the campus when they tell her they have been somewhere else. In some cases it might be that they simply do not know what the right answer is and are filling in the blanks for a curious foreigner asking awkward questions. There were some awkward moments also for us in the same vein.
We visited a museum in the north-east of the country devoted to Mother Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung’s wife, mother of next in line for the leadership, the rather more seedy-looking dark-spectacled Kim Jong-il. We were told by the local guide that Kim Jong-suk gave birth to Kim Jong-il in 1942, and the common story here is that Kim Jong-il was born in Mount Paektu, the ur-site of the Korean nation celebrated interminably in the popular song ‘We’ll go to Mount Peaktu’ – the refrain came up from the streets in the middle of the night, to encourage the workers working on the bridge, we were told, and recurred in every school-child performance, including by the three year old creepy automatons being trained for later work on dance and Karoake shows for tourists in the restaurants. Kim Jong-il was actually born in the Soviet Union, which makes more sense since this is where Kim Il-sung was then regrouping the liberation forces before 1948. We were then told that Kim Jong-suk died in 1949, a year after the liberation and formation of the DPRK, and we noticed that this was incredibly young, age 32. Awkward question for the guide; I asked ‘how did she die?’ and was told, after some blushing and shuffling of feet, that this was ‘unknown’. Another guide later answered the question by saying she died as a result of complications in the birth of Kim Jong-il, but then this would mean she took seven years to die. Look, the issue here is not only the lies as such, not what is concealed, but the very process of concealment. All of the paintings of Kim Jong-suk in the museum showed her smiling, none of the photos showed her so. We could not be sure in what sense the first encounter between Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk was, as was claimed, love at first sight.
None of the guides knew whether Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s fourth child by one of his lovers, was married or not (he is, to Ri Sol-ju) nor whether he had any children (he has at least one, Kim Ju-ae, and perhaps two others, though it is not clear if these were by his wife). Not a whisper about the wives chosen for Kim Jong-il by Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung, let alone the lovers, and not a hint, of course, about Kim Jong-il’s first-born Kim Jong-nam who was heir-apparent until he made a botched attempt to visit Disneyland in Japan in 2001 and met his maker in Kuala Lumpur International Airport sixteen years later. You won’t find this information online in the DPRK because in place of the internet there is a closed-circuit ‘intranet’, the Kwangmyong. We were shown students busy on computers in Schoolchildren’s Palaces and Houses of Study, but they were either working on the smart-art paint-shop software or watching online study programmes. In some cases the kids arrived in the room after us to take their places in front of the screens, and we had to persuade ourselves that they had always already been making use of the generous electronic resources. We were shown foreign-language books available for study, which included Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and the Diary of Anne Frank. Who chose those to show us, and who were they hoping to impress?
For the elite things are a little different, perhaps a little closer to what we were being shown, but perhaps actually very different from what we were being shown. Linkedin recently published data showing that that social media platform is still the medium of choice for wealthy North Koreans, even though they are migrating from Facebook to Chinese sites like Weibo and Alibaba. Although there is no internet access for the ordinary folk and the poor tourists, and no international phone link outside Pyongyang, there are four different kinds of mobile phone SIM card, one of which will give complete international access to data. That is not for the little people.
This is the kind of thing that was maddening for Suki Kim in the Christian college. She does not know who or what to believe by the end of her time there. Or perhaps we should not believe what Suki Kim says, and mark her account down as imperialist propaganda. Maybe she is the one telling the lies. You cannot believe what you see or hear, whoever it is who is showing or telling you. Welcome to the DPRK.
1948 was a military victory, the DPRK could have been born in no other circumstances at that time, at that place, and the military are at the core of the regime. Questions to the local guides and minders about compulsory military service were also awkward, opening out onto awkward silences and a refusal or inability to answer the direct question about how long it was. Eventually, we were told that that was a ‘secret’. Later I said that I had heard that it was nine years, and another guide told me that some friends had served two and some had served seven years. A younger guide who was not, it seems, yet a KWP member because he had not done his military service had escaped it because, he said, if you were a ‘genius’ you were excused; if you had learnt Chinese or English that would be useful for tourism work – a significant choice of example – it would be a shame, he said, if that knowledge was then lost or time wasted.
Go to work and get married. We were told that divorce was rare, and difficult, though not so, it seems, for the Kim dynasty. On one occasion, a figure of 0.5 percent was cited for divorce in the DPRK, and this was contrasted with the south where it was, we were told, 50 percent. One guide had a friend whose wife had gone back to live with her mother five years ago, but she had not been able to divorce her husband. The husband had apparently been controlling rather than directly violent. We were told that Korean men are ‘intense’ and want to be in charge in the home. There are no domestic violence services or refuges. The DPRK authorities claim that the number of rape-convictions per year is in single-figures, so no problem there. This goes against recent Human Rights Watch research which documents widespread sexual abuse by officials alongside general repression. A foreign aid worker with nearly ten years experience inside the DPRK told me that military service was hell, and this is aside from the network of camps for those who have fallen out of line. The notorious camp in Hoeryong in the north-east has reportedly been closed, but there are others scattered around the country in rural areas. We saw prisoners wearing striped clothing working on the railroad supervised by guards, but then that is not such a big deal if prisoners have been put to work after a fair trial.
There are no lawyers, questions about legal training were met with incomprehension. You do not need lawyers to complicate the process when you have an efficient justice system. There are no lesbians or gay men in the DPRK, they simply do not exist, they are a Western phenomenon, and so it is unnecessary to have laws against them. I asked about mental health provision. The good news is that there no mental hospitals or even old asylums. The bad news is that when I asked what happened to people with such problems, my question was met with another question, ‘prison?’ In all my time in the DPRK travelling through thousands of kilometres of road in the countryside and in cities and walking the streets, I saw only two wheelchair users, elderly men who could both have been honoured war veterans, and no disabled people or with Down syndrome. Difference is erased, invisible at least from public space. An INGO worker told me that services for the elderly are almost non-existent, even if the official retirement age is 60.
There are different internal passports. The right passport will get you quickly waved through the numerous checkpoints in the countryside or through police checks in Pyongyang, the wrong one will see you held up, repeatedly held up. One passport, for Chinese-Koreans, is quite useful now because that not only marks you as a registered minority – this in spite of claims that Koreans constitute a homogeneous pure nation – but as a minority with access to trade networks. Chinese-Koreans, along with the elite – I was shown photos of sleek DPRK citizens in Beijing restaurants – travel abroad, surf backwards and forwards across the border. Russian as a second-language in schools has now been replaced by Chinese and English. Another passport, for Japanese-Koreans, is more problematic. Those who were lured to the DPRK with the promise of a better life, and as themselves following through on critical reception of Japanese propaganda, understandable reaction to the blatant lies told against the DPRK in Japan, were useful for a while, but now they are suspect, tracked, many regretting the move, displaced and marginalised.
In one of the middle schools a group of school-girls, running out of questions, asked me what my favourite colour was. I said ‘red’. ‘Why?’, they asked. ‘Because I am a communist’, I said. Blank looks, nothing. It was in their living memory, surely, that there were statues of Marx and Lenin in Pyongyang, but those monuments were ‘temporarily’ removed for refurbishment in 2012 and never replaced. The word ‘socialism’ still appears in the constitution of the DPRK and in the little books of Kim Jong-un’s aphorisms as well, of course, in the writings of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, texts that cannot be so quickly and easily erased, but Marxism itself has been explicitly replaced, transcended by Kim Il-sung’s own guiding philosophy, one signalled in many of the slogans on the public buildings and on the roadsides as ‘Juche’. The tallest stone tower in Pyongyang is the Juche Idea Tower, topped with a glowing red ersatz flame, but if you ask what exactly Juche is you won’t get any further than a statement that it means ‘self-reliance’, and if you trawl through the books about Juche on sale in the souvenir shops you are led in circles around the same kind of claim. While Marxism is concerned with the ‘material’, a guide told me when I pressed, Juche is concerned with thought. ‘So, it is idealist’, I said, and she agreed, yes, of course, it is idealist, and so it is.
Juche means that we can do anything if we are self-reliant. This is socialism in one country gone mad. We are not subject to the ‘material’, but can alter it, and it is ‘man’ who will carve out a destiny for himself, making the world, the natural and social world, serve man better. The little pamphlet Juche Idea: Answers to Hundred Questions published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House and dated the year Juche 101 (that is 2012 Western calendar, that is, 101 years after the birth of Kim Il-sung) tells us that ‘man is the master of everything’. But there is a twist. If you think of society as being like a giant organism, the pamphlet continues, and this is no mere ‘as if’ metaphor being evoked here for we are directly told that homogeneous Korean society is an organism, then there must be a ‘brain’ guiding it. That brain is the leadership, a ‘top brain’ as the pamphlet puts it. Everything is explicitly hierarchical, top-down.
Some of the stranger formulations by the guides on the coach in the north-east now began to make more sense. They would tell us, for example, that Kim Jong-il ‘read the mind of the people’, discovered what they wanted, and then directed them to build a road, and so they did, or that Kim Jong-un ‘read the mind of the people’ and, in line with that, advised them to build a new monument to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. It is not clear whether the guide really believed this as he said it, and there were moments when he looked a little embarrassed telling us, telling us while the other guide, his minder, a KWP member, watched him. Alongside Juche runs the repetitive ridiculous evocation of Mount Paektu as mythical point of origin, part of the same nationalist ideological package.
You can get into the DPRK as a Christian, as Suki Kim’s college outfit clearly shows, and they are probably playing a long game, but you have to keep shtum about it. You declare what cameras and phones you have at the border as well as what foreign publications you have on you, and you are specifically asked if you are carrying any Holy Bibles. We were told by one foreign guide – and even the foreign guides are accompanied by local guides, remember – that a Christian tour group recently visited, declared their Holy Bibles at customs, had them signed in and then signed the same number out. The local guides were apparently bemused by this, commented that it was downright strange that there was all this singing on the coach about baby Jesus; ‘Well’, our foreign guide telling us this story, commented, ‘I wanted to say, what does that mindless adulation remind you of?’
Juche looks at first sight like a quasi-spiritual belief system, and then it would be tempting to treat the DPRK population as bewitched followers of some kind of cult, attributing their leaders with supernatural powers. That seemed to be the Michael Palin line as he gently pushed his interviewees to admit to some possible faults in their leaders or shortcomings of the system, things that could be fixed, perhaps with a little dose of democratic freedom. Actually, the ‘Juche Idea’ texts and the garbled repetition of key phrases by the embarrassed guides would rather indicate that it is the kind of belief system that works because everyone is assuming that everyone else plays along with it; no more than that, but no less powerful for that.
What the turn to Juche as a full-blown alternative to Marxism does indicate, among other things, is that full-blown transition to capitalism is on the way. The leadership are preparing for this, and, whether they read the minds of the people or not, there are plenty lower down the food chain who are itching for it, even already carving out a space for it. One of the guides discovered that one of our tour group was involved in company research and asked for contacts for foreign investment options to help build a local tourism and hotel business. The same guide also made a proposal of marriage to another member of the group, noting that he very much liked the country she came from, and so he was clearly keeping his options open.
This guy was pretty symptomatic of the rising entrepreneurial middle class. He described his father as a ‘businessman’, and was puzzled when I was puzzled that there could be such things in a socialist economy. He told me his dad ran an ‘import-export’ business. For people like this, I was told, membership of the KWP is actually viewed nowadays as rather a hindrance. The good moral standing of KWP members and the moral surveillance and regulation of their lives that goes with it, inhibit the construction of more opportunist networks of money and power, networks that tie the two things together. These two elements of DPRK life are intimately intertwined. Without money in the DPRK there is no power, and without power there is no money. In the DPRK now that is Chinese money, the currency of choice for most business being the RMB rather than the North Korean Won.
Many of the little kiosks along the side of the road and at the base of apartment blocks operating as little corner shops were private enterprises, loosened from state control by oiling their way to greater entrepreneurial freedom of manoeuvre by giving kickbacks to those immediately above them in the chain of command. We were told not to take photos of the large supermarket where middle-class Pyongangites were doing their weekly shop, and there was clearly bulk buying going on, loaded trolleys of goods that would then be taken to other smaller outlets and sold at a profit. There were well-stocked shops in Pyongyang selling a range of consumer goods – in the department store there was a furniture range called ‘IKEA’ – enterprises that the regime would prefer not be widely advertised outside the country; no photos of that please, we are socialist. I took a photo of a little shop selling kitsch fluffy toys in the ground floor of a large block on the way up to a restaurant and the shop-worker raced out and forced me to delete the photo. The shop was a franchise of a Japanese store chain operating illegally.
The existence of private enterprises of any kind was denied when I asked another guide, a KWP member, about them. ‘No’, she said, there is no private enterprise; these apparently private firms are all, finally, part of the state. And there is some truth in this. There is a loosening of the internal economic gear system, a preparation for fuller more explicit privatisation of enterprises, but as yet the decisive shift has not been made. This, while Kim Jong-un makes it clear that the DPRK would like to join the World Trade Organisation, and will abide by its rules, rules which we well know will entail privatisation of state organs of production and distribution along with education and welfare services. The question is not whether it will happen but when, how it will happen and how that process will be embraced or resisted by the masses of people who will lose so much when they might think that they are simply gaining more freedom.
For all this, for all of the restricted access to the showcase educational facilities which are geared to gifted children, for all of the limitations on consumer choice, this is a political-economic system that has kept going as a space snatched away from the capitalist global economy, maintaining itself longer than did the Chinese regime as a socialised property regime, if not actually socialist, if but a bureacratised parody of what socialism should and could be. It is the longest-lasting non-capitalist space on the planet, and the key question is, when the regime falls, whether it will be to a more genuinely socialist democratic self-consciously organised Korean working class that looks outwards to make international links, or whether it will it fall inward, collapse Ceaușescu-style into a desperate competitive and nationalist grasping for goods, a grotesque parody of capitalism.
The bizarre fantasy peddled by the DPRK leadership is that rapprochement of some kind with the south will make it possible for there to be, as they repeatedly put it, ‘one nation, two systems’; capitalism in the south of the 38th parallel, though this is never actually named as such, as capitalism, and socialism in the north, socialism under erasure and already replaced with a self-reliant Juche regime still governed by whoever is the designated ‘top brain’. Kim Jong-un, educated in Switzerland and fond of Gruyere cheese, is probably putting his bets on a transition to soft symbolic rule in which there is a shift of balance between power and money, from brute power as such to money as a medium by which one can buy a freer life for oneself and one’s kids.
At the ‘mass games’ in the 115,000-capacity Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in October 2018, a proud acrobatic and musical display of DPRK history that commemorated 70 years of the regime, one that involved 17,000 Middle-School kids behind the display screens and 100,000 performers, there was a symbolically significant moment towards the end, a culmination point. A giant video image was screened across the side of the stadium showing Respected Marshal Kim Jong-un stepping over the DMZ line that divides north and south to shake hands with President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (ROK). What was curious about this crucial element of the display was not that there was applause, but that it was not more enthusiastic, not the ecstatic embrace of reunification that the official narrative would have it. It is quite possible that the toll of the years of separation and the cynicism of a people subjected to quasi-military discipline and surveillance is too heavy now for it to be so easily remedied. There is, I was told by one INGO aid worker, widespread resentment at the elite as well as widespread depression and stress. His bet was that if people had a chance they would string up the ruling family and care nothing about links with their compatriots south of the DMZ line.
This would be a betrayal of the history of struggle that gave birth to the DPRK and to the ROK. Indeed, the achievements of the Korean people in the north have already been betrayed. As Suzy Kim underlines in her 2013 study Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, the people’s committees across the peninsula functioned until quite late on in the revolutionary process as self-governing organs of popular rule. These committees functioned at a local level and mobilised the mass of the population in political-educational projects as well as operating as distribution centres under democratic control with active involvement of women on an equal basis with men. The incorporation of the people’s committees into the DPRK state apparatus was much smoother than in the south were they were forcibly dismantled and many of the key activists imprisoned. This, Kim argues, helps explain how the DPRK regime gained much more popular legitimacy than the Syngman Rhee dictatorship.
For all of the problems in the north – democratic deficit being the least of it – it must be set in the context of the ROK to the south which has lurched from military regime to military regime interrupted by the April 1960 student uprising, mass protests in 1970 and the Gwangju massacre in May 1980. The war against the Japanese and then the US – the Korean War of 1950-1953 – were national liberation struggles which involved the overthrow of capitalism and consolidation against all odds of an infrastructure that could now be collectively seized by the people in what will undoubtedly be a dramatic transformation, perhaps, we hope, entailing what Trotskyists have traditionally referred to as ‘political revolution’ against the bureaucracy.
It is the history of popular protest and democratic self-organisation that links the people of the north of the Korean peninsula, with those in the south. Those in the south, temporarily perhaps, now have more room for manoeuvre than their comrades north of the DMZ line. The real revolutionary dynamic for reunification and the building of a genuinely socialist Korea is more likely to come from the south than from the north. Then the top-down Juche system and the ideological veneration of Mount Paektu will need to be swept away in a return to something much closer to the Marxism that underpinned those progressive independence movements in the first half of the twentieth century. A leap into the past will be necessary to really make possible a leap into the future.
This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles