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The Peninsula

Is North Korea Communist?

Published November 13, 2012
Category: North Korea

By Gilbert Rozman

Much is made of dynastic succession, of long periods when the organs of communist party rule are moribund, and of the military first policy in North Korea. To many, these are incompatible with the communist system. Yet, the meaning of this system keeps changing from Karl Marx to contemporary Chinese rule. Taking Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong as the two main architects of the system and Vladimir Putin and Deng Xiaoping as the two central figures in transforming its legacy with an eye to maintaining the core of its national identity thrust, I apply below a six-dimensional approach to national identity to assess whether North Korea merits inclusion in what I label the Communist Great Power National Identity Syndrome.

Recently, I introduced a framework for comparing national identities and am close to completing a book manuscript applying it to the communist legacy in China and Russia.[i] On each dimension of identity I found strong similarities between the two as well as compelling differences. Without denying important differences in the case of North Korea, I explore the similarities here in order to ascertain if the label communist is suitable for its national identity seen from a comparative perspective.

Of course, North Korea is not a great power. This syndrome is perceived as an outgrowth of a state following an autonomous path in the building of socialism and regarding itself as independent in political authority, cultural purity, and foreign policy. After they had consolidated their power, Stalin and Mao charted paths that put their countries at the center in all dimensions of identity, but so too did Kim Il-sung. Despite lacking the international presence of China or the Soviet Union, his country differed from all other countries under communist rule in its insistence on an exclusive ideology and identity as well as a military posture that left little chance of foreign pressure or intervention, a legacy that has not receded since his death. It is reasonable to expect that similarities prevail with the communist great powers.

The ideological dimension is an obvious basis of comparison, since for a long time communist states were similar in quoting Marx and Lenin, if not others, as the infallible voices of a doctrine of biblical significance. What Stalin and Mao proved, on the foundation established by Lenin, is that ideology deemed to be communist, can be twisted to serve a personality cult and a single nation’s autonomous course. Each put the superstructure of “class consciousness” above the substructure of command economy. Anti-imperialism as well as opposition to socialist reform thought loomed high. In these respects, North Korea under Kim Jong-un is consistent with his father and grandfather in maintaining the ideological identity. Deng and Putin have shown how ideological identity survives even after a wave of questioning and pragmatism. Quotations recede or disappear. Class struggle is disavowed. Control over the peaks of the economy is reaffirmed after privatization occurs in its troughs and cronies are rewarded with riches if they prove deferential to state authority and corruption. In North Korea crony enrichment seems to be at an early stage, while Kim Jong-il left the cult of his father intact, extending it with his own cult, consistent with the legacy.

Although the precise mix of socialism, anti-imperialism, and Korea-centrism is not the same as the role of anti-imperialism in China and Russia today and the way socialism is prioritized more in China and sinocentrism and Russocentrism are brought into the amalgam, ideological identity does not depart from the pattern. We should have long ago rejected the notion that some wrinkles in how leaders may be quoted and which principles may be cited mean that communism has been rejected. Whether or not Russia is included in the Communist Great Power National Identity Syndrome, due to the abandonment of communist party rule, North Korea deserves to be included, according to the standards fitting for both old leaders and new ones.

The temporal dimension poses a separate challenge for national identity. It is expressed in communism’s stage theory of development, which reigned supreme to the late 1980s when Deng and Gorbachev stressed borrowing from capitalist states. Yet, key elements survive in the 2010s: the history of the West and Enlightenment is deeply flawed and not superior; movements against imperialism were heroic; and in their achievements in building socialism past leaders deserve heavy praise. For the North Korean leaders there is special appeal to the argument that convergence must not be allowed, because it would result in a sharp setback to national identity and the advance of national power. South Korea poses a threat on this dimension, and in China and even to mainstream Russian writers opposition to the United States in the Korean War is vindicated in the battle with imperialism. If North Korean rhetoric is more extreme, that does not obviate the fact that some basic similarity still exists.

North Korea shares with China and Russia the view that the Cold War in Asia is not over. They agree in assessing the period since 1990 as a time of ideological threat from the United States, which is still driven by anti-communism. Rather than the Six-Party Talks producing a consensus of 5 vs. 1 behind de-nuclearization as the priority in a new age centered on joint responsibility by the great powers to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and terrorism, Beijing and Moscow seconded the view in Pyongyang that Washington’s “regime change” and “universal values” thinking is a throwback to the Cold War, which all must oppose in order to resolve the nuclear crisis and lay the foundation for a new era when alliances are dissolved.

Of course, communism has long been characterized by veneration of leading voices in the history of the movement. While shared adoration of the same pantheon of leaders has lessened, each country’s preoccupation with salvaging its own figures is a unifying feature. Russia is the outlier, but Putin’s partial rehabilitation of Stalin has narrowed the divide. While treatment of North Korea’s past leaders reverts to the “cult of personality” approach of old, contrasting to China’s relative silence on Mao, the pattern is within the boundaries of how communist states deal with this.

In the case of sectoral identity, North Korea has long been insistent on its autonomous path (juche), despite an inability to export its model, unlike the Soviet Union and China in their ideological heyday. As first China and then Russia modified its economic national identity by accepting globalization, including the importance of the WTO, North Korea adheres to old thinking hostile to the market. Yet, as the limits of Chinese and Russian support for a shared economic model with capitalist countries have become more apparent, prevention of heavy dependence on the outside can be seen to have parallels to North Korean psychology, notably toward allowing South Korean economic leverage. Opposition to Western models of political identity is also shared. Finally, hostility toward cultural penetration that threatens to cause “Westernization” unites China, Russia, and North Korea, although North Korea’s economic, political, and cultural identities are an extreme version of Maoist China and Stalinist Soviet Union.  Autonomy is not a sign of eschewing communism.

For a time there was uncertainty about how far leaders in Moscow and Beijing were going in breaking away from the established communist models of economic, political, and cultural national identity. Pyongyang’s refusal to allow similar openness left it in a rut in the 1990s when communist identity appeared passé. Yet, beginning with cultural identity and proceeding to economic identity, Moscow and Beijing have buttressed what is increasingly a distinct political identity.  One reason they fear the collapse of North Korea is that this outcome would cast new doubt on their identity claims, while reinforcing Western triumphalism.

Vertical identity refers to claims about the uniqueness of the way society is organized, always a bulwark in communist contrasts to capitalist societies. While in China and Russia the theme of class conflict is dead, contrasts have grown sharper of late with the West amid insistence on “non-interference in internal affairs.” Rarely do Chinese or even Russian authors criticize North Korea’s internal affairs. The fact that North Korea offers a reminder of the extremes of Stalinism and Maoism is not used to criticize it nor has the North continued to criticize the domestic policies of these other two states. The comparative study of communism never gained traction in Russia after its distorted role in discrediting China during the Sino-Soviet split, and it was stopped in China in 1987 for being too threatening to party legitimacy.

Vehement rejection of critiques of human rights is shared in the three states. They each contrast this approach to the “regime change” obsession in the West. It is not that they agree on how much terror to allow in suppressing dissent or freedom to condone in allowing individuals to pursue personal interests as long as there is no danger of a civil society forming, rather it is their opposition to the threat of external influences fueling NGO activism or democratic movements that leads to an overlap.

The military first policy puts North Korea at the extreme in prioritizing its armed forces, but this has parallels. The Soviet Union allowed military leaders to have an enormous say on all sorts of policies until Gorbachev’s reforms, which after much obfuscation revealed the true dimensions of the diversion of funds away from the consumer sector and the deference to the military in both foreign and domestic policy. In the Cultural Revolution, Mao turned to the military as the primary source of authority and, after decades of Deng’s adjustment in priorities, the military again has a special say outside of the state system and critical at times when leadership transfer is occurring. In 2010-12 its voice has been magnified to an extent that still is not easy to decipher. Under Putin, the term “siloviki” is used to refer to a mixture of security services, including the military, who have come roaring back to power. It is insufficient to say that “military first” disqualifies North Korea as communist.

The horizontal dimension is serving to draw China and Russia closer to North Korea. This is seen in the shifting manner these states have approached the problem of U.S.-North Korean relations. Both China and Russia have cautiously cooperated with the United States on rebuking North Korea and Iran for their nuclear weapons programs, sustaining an active bilateral dialogue with the United States and even voting for some resolutions at the United Nations Security Council. In principle, they have agreed on a shared endeavor. Yet, in the way they often frame the disputes, the culprit appears to be the United States, whose role is distorted in a manner to widen the identity gap with their own country. Diplomacy may at times have appeared somewhat promising, but identity rhetoric reveals that necessary trust is missing. What is more, North Korea’s outlook on how to transform regional security and manage a process of reunification is closer to the views of China and Russia. They agree on the desirability of weakening U.S. alliances and forming a new, multilateral security structure in Northeast Asia, while preventing South Korea from taking the lead in reunification and sustaining its close U.S. ties.

Finally, there is intense emphasis on national identity with no sign of reversal in each of the three states. China’s intensity has been building since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Russia’s intensity has mounted since Putin renewed his claim to the presidency in 2011, and North Korea’s hyper-intensity shows no signs of diminishing as Kim Jong-un establishes his legitimacy. Since the time of Lenin campaigns to showcase the special nature of one’s country have repeatedly characterized the Soviet Union, Mao gave them the highest priority, and North Korean leaders have followed suit. Communist-led states feature this type of rhetoric, and the fact that North Korea’s narrative weighs dynastic authority and uniqueness highly does not signify a break with the general pattern. Many argued that Stalin had broken away from the communist model, then that Mao had, and finally that North Korean leaders have. A comparative approach casts doubt on this view.

Photo from Nedko’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


[i] Gilbert Rozman, ed., East Asian National Identities: Common Roots and Chinese Exceptionalism, (Washington, DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2012); Gilbert Rozman, ed., National Identities and Bilateral Relations: Widening Gaps in East Asia and Chinese Demonization of the United States, (Washington DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2012). The new manuscript is Gilbert Rozman, “The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order: National Identities Compared and Bilateral Relations Transformed.”

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