One of the biggest questions we get asked is: Is North Korea Communist? in theory, it should be a straightforwards answer. Most casual observers assume the answer is a straightfoward yes: simply because the DPRK was founded by the influence of the USSR in the aftermath of World War II and participated in a cold war struggle for dominance on the Korean peninsula. However, for the more astute follower of Korean affairs the answer to such a question is more complicated. Whilst yes the DPRK has a clear communist origin and legacy, in many respects it is in fact different to Marxism-Leninism as it is understood internationally and has acquired many clear characteristics of its own. Owing to these factors, some communists have not been willing to accept the regime as legitimate. Thus comes the question, is North Korea communist? and if not, how is different? Let’s find out!
The Soviet Origins of the DPRK
The DPRK was indeed envisioned to become a Marxist-Leninist state within the realm of Soviet influence. Following the division of the Korean peninsula, North of the 38th parallel Stalin oversaw the creation of a typical USSR inspired regime with all the government organs of a typical communist structure. This included the establishment of a party state-system (the Worker’s Party of Korea), with all dimensions of power being centralized into a strict top-down hierarchy led by the Politburo and complete state control of the economy. Kim Il Sung, a former Soviet army captain, was christened to be its leader. In this form the DPRK would be officially proclaimed in September 1948,its initial ideology thus being Stalinism-Marxism-Leninism.
Communism with Korean Characteristics
However, the aspirations of the Soviets in creating a Korean client state did not work out. It should be kept in mind that the political context of post-liberation Korea was vastly different to that of Soviet created regimes in Eastern Europe. Korea had just achieved its independence from Japan. This had led to a surge in post-colonial nationalism and the aspiration for the state to uphold its self-determination. Owing to this, for Koreans, as noted by Andrei Lankov, the appeal of Communist ideology was not so much about the universal liberation of workers and altruism (traditional Korean political thought is not rooted in the universalism of the west) but instead, was particular to the ideal of the nation and people itself. In essence, Communism was for Koreans a means to an end to pursue nationalist goals.
In this era, it represented a form of progress, the opportunity for a backward to state to modernize itself, shake of oppression and pursue industrialization. Whilst we view it from a historical perspective of failure, back then it was an attractive option. Thus, even though the Soviet union installed a communist order, North Koreans themselves were not out to be puppets paying lip service to Moscow, but were aimed with their own beliefs and determination, driven by the events of recent history, as to what “Communism” should mean for Korea. Kim Il Sung ultimately aspired to create an independent country.
The Rise of Juche and “Family Rule”
Owing to these nationalist sentiments within North Korea’s political system, Kim Il Sung was in fact apprehensive of Russia. Whilst it was a useful partner to extract concessions from, for Moscow to be able to hold any influence over the country’s politics was unacceptable. After the death of Stalin, this produced a turning point. His successor Krushchev denounced his legacy and sought to undo elements of the dramatic totalitarianism of which his predecessor assembled. Seeking to maintain continual independence, this produced a threat to Kim Il Sung’s power in the view of factional based “revisionist” challenges. With Kim himself having utilized Stalinist statecraft, there was consequential fear of a domestic upheaval from pro-Moscow factions who would expand the influence of Kruschev into the DPRK state apparatus.
The result of this scenario is that Kim Il Sung began to place emphasis on the ideological independence of North Korea and forge his own path. Thus was born “Juche“, an ideology which emphasized the independence of the DPRK state as an agent in the world that must resist foreign domination and ideological subversion. In the midst of advocating this, Kim Il Sung purged all of his factional opposition and slowly consolidated the role of the “one man” Juche system over the decades. In 1972 the country’s constitution was revised to set out the self-reliance thought as its official ideology, downplaying Marxism-Leninist thought. Slowly but steadily, moments emphasizing the ideology sprung up around the country, including Juche Tower in 1982.
Simultaneously, In order to preserve this system indefinitely, Kim broadedly extended his own personality cult and wavered himself into an inseparable component of the history and legacy of the state. In doing so, the Kims drew from traditional Korean ideas and utilized Confucian characteristics in the construction and portrayal of their leadership. Thus “the family state” was born, establishing Kim Il Sung and his successors as the personalized embodiment of the North Korean regime itself, gradually severing the DPRK from the wider internationalist trends of the Communist world. The DPRK’s story thus became less about the liberation of workers, but the liberation of a nation from foreign dominion under the exclusive and unrivaled benevolence of the great leaders.
The end of the Communist World
This shift from Communism to Juche was finally affirmed following a dramatic change to the international system, that is the collapse of the Communist bloc and USSR in 1991. The demise of the Soviet Union allowed the United States to establish a hegemonic narrative that socialist based ideologies had ultimately failed and been politically defeated, setting out liberal democracy and capitalism as the victors. All remaining states of a Communist nature at this period of time were expected to simply collapse and reform into open countries, hence the “end of history thesis” by Francis Fukuyama. For North Korea, this dramatic external ideological shift had massive implications, it would accelerate the drift away from Communism altogether, erasing any lasting relevance of the USSR from the country’s history and reaffirming the Juche story. The subsequent death of Kim Il Sung and the ascension of his son, Kim Jong-il also proved a decisive event.
Conclusions: A unique case
So, is North Korea a Communist country? It’s a complicated case. Whilst the DPRK still professes itself to be “socialist”- history shows the country has far deviated from the norms of Marxism-Leninism in pursuit of its own political causes. From the beginning, Pyongyang never saw true interest in the ways of the Soviet Union and the broader socialist bloc, but instead pursued its own cause of post-colonialism nationalism, which would eventually accumulate in Kim Il Sung’s bid to purposefully exclude external socialist influence from the country through the creation of Juche and the establishment of a personality cult which has extended beyond any other. With the end of the Soviet world, this has thus persisted as the DPRK’s political order. There is no emphasis on a struggle between capitalism and communism, the focus is locked upon the independence and destiny of the state itself. Thus, whilst the original soviet inspired institutions and modes of statecraft technically remain, they have evolved into a unique political context in synchronization with the country’s own path, which offers no homeage to the Cold War design whatsoever.