Sunday 23 August 2015

Making Sense of North Korea

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea made one of its occasional forays into the international headlines this last week. There were reports of shelling and small arms fire across the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas as tensions rose over a couple of disputed incidents. The South claims two of its soldiers were injured by a mine, allegedly planted surreptitiously by the North, while the North are loudly objecting to the resumption of propaganda broadcasts by the South. When you run a regime as brutal and brittle as the DPRK's Stalinist monarchy, news from outside its heavily fortified frontiers is far more dangerous to it than carpet bombing Kim Il-sung Square. However, time and again, lazy Western observers take the regime's blood-curdling rhetoric, its ludicrous pomp, and the Bond villain-esque disposal of previously trusted adjutants as signs of collective madness, of a nuclear capability nation prepared to sacrifice millions of Koreans because Kim Jong-un got out of the wrong side of bed.

In truth for all its totalitarian exoticism the DPRK is eminently knowable. It does not defy the sociological laws of gravity as fevered media reports pretend, and the basics can be understood with a bit of knowledge of modern Korean history and grasp of the dynamics of Stalinist - for want of a better word - regimes. Beginning with the latter, it's worth revisiting Trotsky's critique and defence of the Soviet Union in The Revolution Betrayed and In Defence of Marxism. His argument was that civil war exigencies, general backwardness, and the devastation wrought on Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power subverted the world's first successful socialist revolution and turned it into its opposite. Increasingly, the party and the state merged and substituted itself for the classes on whose behalf power was taken. As all areas of social life became bureaucratised, so democracy, accountability, and freedom of criticism disappeared and a caste of office holders (promoted and led by Stalin) took over the running of the country. However, their power rested on their offices, and their offices were tied to the new forms of economic relationships the revolution ushered in. The crucial period, as far as I'm concerned, was the simultaneous launch of the first five year plan and the collectivisation of agriculture. This extended state direction of the economy and rooted out market relationships that were allowed under the post-civil war New Economic Plan. It was a brutal business as millions of peasants were forcibly stripped of their holdings and assets and herded into larger agricultural combines. Famines stalked the land, particularly in Ukraine, and anyone who resisted was dubbed a kulak - rich peasant - and were deported internally, imprisoned, or summarily shot. A tragedy that deserves better commemoration than cheap shot polemics against democratic movements.

Writing in the period of 'high Stalinism', Trotsky argued that while the bureaucracy was anything but socialist, the property relations it rested on were progressive. These were the "gains" of October and were the reason why the USSR needed to be defended by revolutionary leftists everywhere. While a position many Trotskyists still hold today, given how the dictatorial bureaucracy and detailed economic planning were intertwined its "progressiveness" vis a vis capitalism was, in my opinion, overstated. Nevertheless Trotsky was right in viewing Stalin's Russia as a post-capitalist society, and as this being the root of international hostility to it. As an substantial area of the globe sealed off to market penetration, it existed as unrealised opportunity and threat. Opportunity because of untapped markets and profits, which as we have seen since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the opening of China were/are considerable; and threat as the presence of an alternative, and one closely aligned with - at least at the level of rhetoric - the subterranean contradictions of capitalist systems. The rulers of the USSR were aware of this also, and the various twists and turns of their foreign policy during the 1930s make perfect sense as means to prevent non-intervention in internal Soviet affairs, and only secondary as hegemon of the global communist movement.

After the Second World War, the Stalinist system was exported into Central Europe and the Far East. As part of Japan's articles of surrender, the Korean peninsula was split between Soviet and American-administered zones. In the North, the occupying authorities abolished landlordism and nationalised key economic sectors as per the home "model", while in the South peasant uprisings against the land owners and the US-led authority were sporadic but nonetheless popular. The North's invasion of the South in 1950 was partly based on the assumption that they were Korea's "legitimate" government (the South had languished under the US-backed anti-communist dictator, Syngman Rhee, since 1948) and would therefore be welcomed as liberators, and was quietly backed by the USSR. In practice it was about securing the last remaining corner of East Asia with a Soviet land border for a friendly regime.

After the devastating Korean War which saw no corner of the North untouched, the establishment of the Cold War frontier stabilised the regime. Like is Soviet forebear, setting up a command economy replete with dictatorial bureaucracy saw the country quickly recover from war devastation. Up until the mid-1970s, the North was ahead of the South on most economic indicators. The grotesqueries of Kim the Younger's personality cult were not present at this point under Kim the Elder. However, the basis for what it became was laid. Firstly, in the Sino-Soviet split Kim sided with Mao's China as opposed to Khruschev's USSR, and began pursuing a more independent foreign policy a la an excommunicated Yugoslavia. As a measure of Moscow's displeasure, Soviet military aid was scaled back and a Warsaw Pact-style guarantee of mutual protection rescinded. From North Korea's perspective, this meant plugging the gaps of their own Cold War frontier themselves - somehow their military had to stare unblinkingly across the border at a Southern army backed by Americans armed with nuclear weapons. The distorting dynamic of what the North now calls the military first policy was present back then, but the "modern" North came into being after Mao's death in 1976. Objecting to China's own attempt to seek detente with the US, the North split from them too. This is more or less the period from which the Juche idea - self-reliance - starts affecting all aspects of state propaganda, and not at all coincidentally the cult of personality takes off. After all, if you're thrown onto your own resources it makes sense from a totalitarian point of view to overemphasise the expansive talents of the leader.

Here then we have a regime determined to cling to power, believes its enemies are out to get it (remember George W Bush and the Axis of Evil?), and pursues policies it hopes will ward off an attack. For example, the pursuit of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile technology does not spring from Kim Jong-un's megalomania but are bargaining chips when it comes to negotiations with the South and the Americans. It's also cheaper and less distorting of one's economic development to have nuclear missiles than keep a huge army equipped and fed. Nevertheless, the existence of the frontier also suits its interests, to a degree. For Kim it's a clear and visible threat it can harangue its long-suffering citizens about, helping shore up patriotism and social solidarity while the country copes with market reforms, a consumer boom, and recurrent disasters.

This, however, is only the starting point. One should resist falling into a "poor little DPRK" trap. It may be under external pressure, but none of that excuses the criminal character of the Kim family's regime. Yet the slow marketisation of the North balanced with Kim's steady reforms is opening the country up. It's becoming complex and messy, and in the long-run - however long that may be, one cannot say - the huge state apparatus cannot keep a lid on the forces it's unleashing forever.


asquith said...

Has Jezza got any "friends" there? Are they not, in fact, a nice progressive regime heroically resisting "Zionism", a bit like Venezuela but even better?

And if you don't agree with that, you're obviously a crypto-Tory, a reactionary imperialist hyena and a lapdog.

David Parry said...


Come on. This is scraping the bottom of a barrel big time. Really.

Anonymous said...

Resisting Zionism is a good thing. Even rogue nations can do some good things, just like 'civilized' ones are not immune to carpet bombing civilians, hey but when 'civilized' nations commit mass murder they are always doing it for the best of reasons, aren't they?