In many things pertaining to North Korea you have probably heard the “Worker’s Party of Korea” or in Korean “조선로동당” (Chosonrodongdang) get mentioned many times. For those not too familiar with the country’s politics or affairs, this may seem a tad confusing. Just what is the Worker’s Party of Korea and how does it fit into the DPRK’s broader system? It is easy on a cliche level to assume that North Korea is after all just a one man show and that little else is important beyond Kim’s name and will in how the country is governed. However, it is a tad more complicated than that. Like all Communist states, North Korea’s political order is cased together in what is called a “ruling party” or a “Party-state system“, that is one legitimated organization that encompasses everything. For the DPRK, that happens to be the Worker’s Party of Korea. Here, we explain just what that party is and what it is designed to do in the operation of the North Korean State. Let’s go.
As termed just above, Communist states which utilize a leninist political system conduct politics through the prism of what is known as a “ruling party”, that is one authorized political organization which encompasses the entirety of that country’s government and bureaucracy. For example, in a plural democracy such as the United Kingdom, there are multiple political parties who contend against each other for power. These parties may become the government. However, even as a party obtains power and directs policy, the institutions of the state remain officially separate from that party. For example, the British army and civil service do not “belong” to the Labour Party. In Communist states however, this is different. The government and the state bureaucracy are one and the same under a single party label, with one political organization encompassing everything. Essentially, the party is the state.
Why is this the case? In Leninist political theory, Vladimir Lenin having created the world’s inaugural communist state which was then utilized as a model by others, what is called a “vanguard party” is seen as essential for furthering revolutionary politics. At least in theory, the working classes would lead the country through a single political institution which would facilitate absolute unity and in turn shape the “revolutionary consciousness” of others through espousing a single line and direction. Thus, a party state system is theorized to be a “dictatorship of the proletariat” whereby the interests of workers are entrenched and the emergence of counter-revolutionary elements are suppressed. The centralization of power was saw as necessary in doing what was needed to be done.
On this background, when the Soviet Union occupied the North of Korea in 1945, they lent their political structure as a model for Kim Il Sung to build his new state around, accumulating in the establishment of the Worker’s Party of Korea that September. The Worker’s Party would come to represent the entirety of the North Korean state with the leaders sat at top (Kim Jong un assumes the leadership of the party), depicting itself as the vanguard of all Korean interests in both a class based and nationalist sense alike, thus commanding a “party line” which is to be followed in the collective sense. The party’s founding and development are tied in with the broader narratives of national liberation from Japanese colonialism achieved by Kim Il Sung.
Whilst the institution has continued to uphold its revolutionary designs as Leninism theorizes, its ruling ideology has nevertheless expanded and deviated to incorporate Juche thought into it which places emphasis upon the force of human will and agency than materialism, further leaning to the goal of North Korea’s own exclusivity and sovereignty from the outside world. This has led the party’s symbolism to concern not only the narratives of liberation and resistance, but also its role as a revolutionary agent of Korean innovation, achievement and progress. The party’s three symbols involve the hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush, representing industry, agriculture and intellectualism.
Therefore, in summary we might describe the worker’s party of Korea as the “agent” or instrument of the Korean revolution. Under the wing of the country’s leaders and subsequently embodying the values and teachings which they advocate, the party is designated as the true representative and will of the Korean people and the means of economic advancement, armed with a commitment to collective action which penetrates everyday life. In this light the Worker’s Party of Korea is effectively North Korea itself, operating as both the state and the government. Still, that does not mean every citizen has the right to join it. Far removed from its theoretical intentions, it is quite obviously an organization of status and privilege. If you want to be anyone in North Korea, you need to be a part of it. Not all have that right.