|September 5, 2001||atimes.com|
Is North Korea Stalinist?
By Aidan Foster-Carter
Some people find Stalinism offensive. Not the reality, which would be understandable considering the body-count - but the word, as applied to North Korea.
Sometimes this is what the late Nobel economics prize winner Gunnar Myrdal called "diplomacy by terminology" - as in the phrase "developing countries", many of which aren't.
True, it can be irritating when the Seoul press lazily uses "the Stalinist state" as a homonym for North Korea or the DPRK: either to put the boot in, or just avoid repetition. They do this less now, under the "Sunshine" policy. But it still crops up - even sometimes in quotes from sources who couldn't possibly have used that particular turn of phrase. This of course is just sloppy journalism.
A more interesting objection is analytical. Here, two of the academics whose books I recommended in an earlier column take different views. For the American historian Bruce Cumings, the DPRK reflects mainly indigenous Korean traditions - but if generalizing, he'd file it under "corporatist", not Stalinist.
Adrian Buzo begs to differ. In his book The Guerilla Dynasty, this Australian analyst and ex-diplomat makes the most cogent case I've seen for why the word Stalinist can rightly be applied to North Korea. In fact, he lists no fewer than 24 separate points, under four headings: party organization and political style, ideology, economic policy and personal style. Here I try to summarize and illustrate his case.
Politics first. Buzo's rigorous argument is about more than mere Marxism-Leninism. If anything, he stresses the points where Stalin and Kim Il-sung alike departed from the M-L model - such as breaking their own rules on how often party congresses should be held. Other traits include exalting violence and debasing political debate with both military imagery and grossly abusive language (stooges, etc).
In ideology, Buzo notes several traits which those ignorant of wider history wrongly think are peculiar to North Korea. One is the theme of remaking human nature, which is straight from the New Soviet Man. Another is voluntarism, meaning an emphasis on sheer human will (man is master) as against Marx's materialism.
Just as un-Marxist is the use of kinship metaphors: Kim Il-sung was not the first Fatherly Leader. The cult of personality has wider consequences. The leader wipes out his rivals, both literally and from the history books. Stalin did it to Trotsky - with an ice pick, and touching up photos - just as Kim did it to a whole raft of Korean communists. Conversely, the leader is responsible for everything good - so all policies have to be buttressed by quasi-religious quotations from what becomes holy writ.
On economic policy, I don't wholly follow Buzo. Some of his themes - a highly centralized planned economy, over-emphasis on heavy industry, "grand nature-remaking projects" - strike me as harking back to Lenin or even Marx, rather than as Stalinist aberrations. On the other hand, Stalin's utterly un-Marxist "socialism in one country" was clearly the model for juche or jarip (economic self-sufficiency, so-called). And North Korea's endless "speed battles" to boost output are straight from Stakhanov, the Soviet model worker whose alleged feats were trumpeted under Stalin to make everyone work harder.
Personal style, Buzo's final category, has some striking similarities: from the dreary list of compulsory honorifics (respected and beloved leader, iron-willed commander, etc) right down to using a special bold typeface for the thoughts and name of the leader, and no other. Omniscient and infallible, the leader pronounces on every topic under the sun - often in written answers to easy questions from so-called news agencies. Even the Myohyangsan museum of gifts to the Great Leader - and now also the Dear Leader - has a precedent; Stalin had one too, in his birthplace in Georgia. (Bet it wasn't as big.)
But I'm less sure of "highly interventionist working style" - true in spades of Kim Il-sung's on-the-spot guidance - but Stalin rarely went out, and formidable grasp of detail isn't quite the same thing. Again, Stalin's suspicions of science and mathematics don't really jibe with the DPRK's praise of these.
Yet overall, Buzo's case seems to me unanswerable. As he says, "It is hard to imagine the DPRK as we know it without a Stalinist blueprint." Nor is this surprising. The young Kim Il-sung spent four years (1941-45) in Stalin's USSR, before coming home as a Red Army major. Thereafter, both for his project (rapid development) and himself as the boss, Stalin was his abiding role model. And now Kim Jong-il is continuing with the same system. (But even Stalin didn't go as far as hereditary monarchy.)
This is not to deny that there were other influences too, such as Mao Zedong. Nor is Stalinism the only possible comparison. Read North Korean propaganda in German, and the emphasis on der Fuhrer and the triumph of the will suggest a very different (or is it?) totalitarian comparison.
Bruce Cumings' idea of corporatism is helpful too. And let no one down play Kim Il-sung's own contribution in taking what was already extreme just that bit further.
But at the end of the day, anyone familiar with North Korea who encounters Soviet materials from the Stalin era - books, magazines, pictures, films - cannot fail to have a powerful sense of deja vu. Stalinism with Korean characteristics, to be sure. But it is Stalinism.
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