When someone mentions North Koreas political system, what pops into your head? A failed Stalinist dictatorship. 1984 brought to life. A communist dystopia. We tend to think of North Korea in absolutes, where all attempts at political or economic freedom are stamped out by an unbreakably dense system of state repression. Yet, much of the state apparatus that exists within North Korea, as well as many of its founding doctrines, bears little to no resemblance to the world of Marxism. Indeed, some fly directly in the face of anything vaguely close to socialism.
Let’s start with the very structure of North Korean society – the songbun system. Your position in society, that is, where you can live, your chances of entrance to a university, the job you can have or even chances of promotion within that job, all depends on what your ancestors were doing during the Japanese occupation and establishment of the North Korean state. There are three broad classes, the core, wavering and hostile. To take an example, if your grandparents were some kind of religious activists or worked for the Japanese colonial administration, you would be put in the hostile class. There is essentially no chance of escaping it.
What else is a big no-no in the books of Karl Marx? Hereditary succession. The North Korean government has been ruled by the Kim family since its establishment, and not just in the top job. The Kim family, including sisters, brothers, cousins and uncles have all occupied various positions in the upper echelons of the North Korean government. North Korea is much more of a family regime than anything like the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.
In fact, North Korea’s state ideology is tinged far more with fascist tendencies than anything else. While North Korea’s official ideology is ‘juche’ (often translated as self-reliance), much of its own state propaganda actually focuses more on a racial Korean purity and supremacy. The claim isn’t to physical superiority in the style of Nazism, but rather a moral superiority. This racial superiority also extends to how it sees the rest of the world and how the North Koreans depict their enemies. The USSR professed its Marxist ideology as superior, but was careful to not condemn all Americans, but rather the evil system of capitalism. They consistently tried to appeal to disenfranchised African-Americans through its proletarian internationalism, depicting them as more workers struggling to free themselves. For North Korea – all Americans are part of an inherently evil race. Hardly the ‘workers of the world unite’ of Marxism.
Since the mid 1990s, North Korea has also undergone fundamental internal changes that make it nearly impossible to now characterise the country as anything close to a communist nation. With a devastating famine and a state unable to feed its people, previously banned private markets flourished, as North Koreans took up widespread trading under a regime that had no choice but to tolerate it. Even with the end of the famine, little could be done to reverse what has become a fundamental change in the North Korean domestic economy. Many North Korean towns and cities have these markets at the centre of their economy, and an extremely basic form of market economy has taken hold.
Many appeals to look at the ‘real’ North Korea often invite you to think of it as a normal country, or attempt to ‘expose’ it as even crazier than you once thought. It’s pretty clear to anyone who looks beyond the surface, that North Korea is not, and arguably never has been, a communist country. Let’s look at North Korea as it really is – a failed family regime based on half-baked ideas of racial purity, with a collapsed economy that has survived only by transitioning to grassroots market economics. It doesn’t matter whether the DPRK is your rhetorical tool of choice for bashing communism or singing its praises. You’ve picked the wrong tool.
As seen in Edition 6: BARE in stands now.