Ideas & Debates
A Trotskyist in North Korea
Our author visited the Democratic People's Republic of Korea as a tourist. His question: How does this society function? Is it the Stone Age? Or a cult? Or Dadaist art? A historical-materialist research trip.
December 14, 2015
On the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, a military parade took place in Pyongyang. The pictures went around the world: (alleged) nuclear missiles filed past the tribune. The plump young dictator in his black Mao suit held his first public speech in two years. Thousands of spectators waved, in perfect synchronization, colorful bouquets of plastic flowers. Present in the crowd were also surprisingly, Western tourists.
I know this because I was also in Pyongyang as a tourist this spring. I can imagine the scene exactly: a group which includes many American college students. They were told to dress respectfully, but at least one of them is wearing cut-off jeans and a borrowed tie slung over a t-shirt. They try to keep a serious face as the soldiers pass, but every now and then break out into laughter.
How is this possible? Every year, less than 5,000 non-Chinese tourists visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Firsthand impressions are practically impossible to get. Finally, holiday pictures that absolutely everyone wants to see!
Our tour group conducted a long and impassioned search for a theory to understand this country: Are the people in the street perhaps just actors? Why won’t the state guides tell us anything about the prison camps? Well, on an official tour of Washington, D.C., they also wouldn’t tell you right off the bat how the black population is thrown in prison and killed by police. No, every country wants to show its gentle side first. But we still need an explanation: What is this country, one of the last corners of the earth which is not subject to the iron laws of the market economy?
Is it the Stone Age?
"Stone Age communism" – this is the favorite phrase of the bourgeois press for the DPRK. But what is it supposed to mean? Among the hunters and gatherers of the Stone Age, there were no material differences between people. Under this "primitive communism", everyone was poor but everyone was equal.
In the North Korean countryside, one encounters very primitive means of production. However, even the farmer who works with a donkey and a wooden plow will still wear rubber boots and communicate via mobile phone. In the capital, many also have a smartphone.
In the Stone Age, a gentile leader enjoyed "unforced and unquestioned respect" (in the words of Friedrich Engels). In contrast, the respect for the Kims – or in the words of our tour guide, "the deification" – requires a bit of coercion.
So this isn’t the "Stone Age". What kind of system is it, then?
A hammer, a sickle and a paintbrush – this is the self-representation of the "Workers’ Party of Korea" in the form of a giant monument. The regime sees itself as socialist, but since the 1990s, all the images of Marx and Lenin have disappeared.
The state’s founder Kim Il-Sung, grandfather of the current ruler Kim Jung-Un, was able to supplant Marxism-Leninism with his own ideology. "Juche" means something like "self-reliance" and stipulates that the mountainous northern half of the Korean peninsula must be an autarky.
His son, Kim Jong-Il, expanded this theory with the "Sungun" idea: In everything, the army has top priority. In the ten principles by which all citizens are supposed to live, there is not a single one that does not involve obedience to the leadership.
This is almost as far away from socialism in Marx’ sense – i.e. the self-emancipation of the working class – as it is from the Stone Age.
Sometimes people talk about a "hereditary monarchy". And the Kims have ruled on their peninsula nearly as long as the Saud dynasty on the Arabian. Certain comparisons to absolutism come to mind, such as the ubiquitous images of rulers who supposedly have magical abilities. But the DPRK is strictly atheistic and everyone understands that the "eternal president" (who died in 1994) is not staring down from heaven, but rather lying dead as a doornail in his glass coffin.
The country kind of reminds one of a religious cult – I am constantly reminded of Scientology. The imposingly joyful tour guides seem to come from promotional videos for a particularly aggressive church. In Pyongyang everyone wears a steely smile along with the conviction that their miserable living conditions are among the best in the world.
Or is it something else? It’s likely that Kim Jung-un spent part of his youth at a boarding school in Switzerland. This summer, the Slovenian provocation band "Laibach", who likes to play with Nazi aesthetics, travelled to North Korea for a concert. Half the world speculated about this strange musical tour. Perhaps the North Koreans simply do not understand Laibach’s humor? After all, only a few hundred people in the country have access to Wikipedia. But what if the young dictator were a fan of Dadaist art? Could North Korea be a Dadaist Gesamtkunstwerk?
No. We probably need another theory.
Let’s start, in the spirit of historical materialism, with the relations of production.
The People’s Republic has, by and large, a planned economy. Most people work for the state, and most products are not traded on the market, but rather distributed by government authorities. This planning enabled the "Korean economic miracle" after the war – this term actually referred to the industrialization of the North. Only in 1975 did the rural South overtake the industrial North economically.
Nevertheless, the economic planning does not function as envisioned by Marx or Engels, i.e. by the democratic decision-making of the producers. "Kim Jung-Un Looking At Things" is the title of a popular website with pictures of the young ruler’s constant visits to factories and construction sites. These "on-site instructions" were already part of the daily program of the grandfather and the father. A Kim may issue a command that turns production on its head from one moment to the next. Contradiction is not allowed.
For example, when Kim Jung-un decides that the capital needs a world-class water park, the power of the entire economy can be focused on this one project. This reached absurd proportions when father Kim Jong-il ordered hundreds of thousands of people to his mass dance events which lasted weeks on end.
The "Marshal" (Un) undoubtedly lives a cozy life, but he is not the only one to enjoy material benefits. Upon arrival at the airport, one has another example: Many of the North Korean officials who are returning from abroad to pick up their golf clubs from the baggage carousel. Social inequality here is not nearly as grave as under capitalism, yet party functionaries can still drive cars and visit restaurants, which would be inconceivable for most people.
Economic planning in Korea has endured longer than in Russia or China. However, like in the ’90s in Cuba, first niches for the market are being opened up. Farmers in state or collective farms can now sow some fields themselves and sell the proceeds in markets. Thanks to Chinese imports, many apartments have solar panels, while children also wear Mickey Mouse clothing.
Tourism is supposed to bring foreign currency into the country – but the interest is notably limited compared to the beaches of the Caribbean. The youngest Kim opened a large ski resort in 2014 and dreams of two million foreign tourists per year.
As in China in the ’90s, there are special economic zones where foreign companies can invest. Wages go to the state, which passes on a small portion to the workers. One of these zones is in Rason, near the border with Russia; another in Kaesong, near the Demilitarized Zone. Tourists can visit the facilities in Rason under one condition – no pictures of the brands! Several multinational companies have been reluctant to admit that they have textiles sewn in the People’s Republic. Similarly, the state exports 50,000 or more workers to China, Russia or even Qatar – the majority of their wages also go directly to the state.
But there is a general lack of capitalist investors who want to finance a restoration of capitalism in the North. So the Kim regime is dependent on certain market niches which are avoided by other producers. According to unconfirmed rumors, the highly developed chemical industry, which finds no buyers for its products, now specializes in amphetamines. The whole speed market in China is supposedly supplied from Korea – a bit like the TV series "Breaking Bad" at the level of an entire country! In the same way, counterfeit US dollars of the highest quality show up in the region, which probably also come from the DPRK.
Within the tour group, the question is still unanswered: What is North Korea? It is a planned economy without democracy; all decisions are made by a privileged caste; at the head of this caste sits an infallible leader. So you could say: North Korea is Stalinism.
Yes, but that only raises the question: What is Stalinism?
A democratic planned economy requires a certain level of productivity: Only workers who are not on the brink of starvation can actively participate in the management of society in the form of councils. But in Korea, which had been bombed to the ground in the war, severe poverty was the norm (just like the USSR after the Civil War). In this situation, a privileged bureaucracy could emerge. Marx had already indirectly predicted this in 1845: A revolution without the development of productive forces could not prevail because "with destitution, the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business [Scheiße] would necessarily be reproduced".
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who was a leading figure of the October Revolution before he became a critic of the bureaucracy, described the situation with an analogy: "The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ’knows’ who is to get something and how has to wait."
One could add: If the queue is especially long, you need a Kim.
Trotsky called this system a "degenerate workers’ state". His program against this was a "political revolution": the nationalized ownership of the means of production must be defended, but the leading caste overthrown.
As poor as the people of North Korea are today, one cannot say their situation would necessarily improve with the establishment of a U.S.-friendly regime. Capitalist markets and democratic rights do not always go hand in hand. Until today, relatively wealthy South Korea has had dictatorial laws. The daughter of the last military dictator sits in the presidential palace, and a person who praises North Korean beer in social media can be arrested.
Tourists to North Korea are allowed to bring books, with one exception: the Bible and other religious writings. This is because missionaries of Christian sects are constantly trying to make headway in the country. So the writings of Trotsky, in which he calls for the overthrow of the bureaucracy, would theoretically be legal gifts for our Korean hosts. After this trip, I am eager to travel to the DPRK again. Sometimes it looks like a TV show from the 50s, but it can change quickly. Next time I’ll have Trotsky in my luggage.