Pyongyang's True Ideology

by B.R. MYERS, 08/07/2009


North Korea is no communist state.

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How long will the U.S. and its allies keep misperceiving North Korea as a communist state? For decades the regime in Pyongyang has preached the racial superiority of the Korean people, and still the red label sticks. Now the country is in the throes of a massive military propaganda campaign exhorting its citizens to increase productivity not to better the people's lives, but to strengthen national defenses against the racial enemy -- "the Yankee beasts in human masks," as North Korean television news put it last week. If Washington doesn't recognize Kim Jong Il's regime for what it is -- a hardline nationalist state -- it will make dangerous policy miscalculations.

Hardly had Pyongyang signed a disarmament agreement with Washington in late 1994 than Kim Jong Il, calling himself Chairman of the National Defense Commission, proclaimed a "military first" policy. Henceforth the country's economy would revolve around the army's needs. Kim's political convictions would be obvious to anyone familiar with fascist Japan.

That country was the world's first self-proclaimed "national defense state." Japan's leaders demonstrated that a leadership cult, a repressive security apparatus and a command economy do not a communist country make. In 1945 former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il's father, and his faction conducted a wholesale "Koreanization" of imperial Japanese propaganda, taking over everything from the cult of the parental Great Marshall on a white horse right down to the myth of a uniquely virtuous race surrounded by an evil world. The elder Kim paid lip-service to Marxism-Leninism even as he purged his young regime of Korean communists.

This ideological heritage is more obvious today than ever. Current propaganda extolling the ongoing "150 Day Battle," the most hysterical in a long line of production campaigns, likens every worker to a fighter. Signs reading "battleground" hang over the entrances to mines and factories. The nation's youth are exhorted, in ever more strident tones, to prepare to sacrifice their lives for the General, to become "resolve-to-die squads" (gyeolsadae) and "human bullets" (yuktan) in the "holy war" (seongjeon) against America. These are exact Korean translations of terms and symbols used in fascist Japan.

North Korea is a state more interested in enhancing national pride and strength than in raising the masses' standard of living. Its militarism is ideologically driven and not a reaction to U.S. policy shifts. This runs counter to current thinking on the left in Washington, which argues that North Korea, a chronic violator of contracts and treaties, would have adhered religiously to the Agreed Framework of 1994 if U.S. had only kept its side of the bargain. This is worse than mere naivety. The "military first" policy was premised on the principle that a normalization of relations with America was neither possible nor desirable. It proclaimed a mere 10 weeks after that agreement was signed.

Only by recognizing the true nature of North Korea's ideology can the U.S. understand the impossibility of what it now wants the country to do; namely, disassemble its nuclear program. A communist state could conceivably disarm and go back to pursuing its original goal of a workers' paradise. A hardline nationalist state, on the other hand, lives and dies by its record of standing up to the outside world. This is especially so for a regime that must maintain some degree of domestic support with a far richer South Korea next door.

Those in the West who still place their hopes in negotiations and trust-building measures need to ask themselves this simple question: How could the North Korean regime continue to justify its existence after trading national pride for an aid package? The simple answer is that it can't -- and won't.

This article was printed in the Wall Street Journal Asia, JUNE 30, 2009
Mr. Myers is a North Korea researcher at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea and was the guest speaker at the RAS Lecture on 7 July 2009 (the next RAS lecture will be held on 25 August 2009).

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