North Korea – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to use its formal name – is a perennial issue in global politics, and major foreign policy challenge for some of the world’s leading powers. For new Biden administration, managing this and the broader implications of the country’s presence in the sensitive geopolitics of Asia, it is an issue that shows every sign of being an ongoing headache, if not a very important test of its resolve. President Biden has indicated a willingness to meet its leader Kim Jong-un, but pledged: ‘I would not give him all he’s looking for, international recognition as legitimate, and give him what allowed him to move in a direction of appearing to be more serious about what he wasn’t at all serious about.’
He was ‘under no illusions’ about the difficulties involved here. The world will no doubt follow this with keen interest.
At the same time, media reports indicated North Korea is cracking down on mullets, skinny jeans, body piercings and K-Pop. Rodong Sinmun, the journalistic mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, commented: ‘History teaches us a crucial lesson that a country can become vulnerable and eventually collapse like a damp wall regardless of its economic and defence power if we do not hold on to our own lifestyle.’
No doubt this is less interesting for the international community than the fate of a nuclear arsenal, but this is one of those drips of information that provide some insight into what must rank as the world’s most secretive and inaccessible society – and quite possibly its most repressive. It may also be of great importance.
Winston Churchill famously remarked that Russia was ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, which defied attempts at understanding. Yet even at its most repressive, Russia (more accurately, the Soviet Union) was a subject of intense study. Its role in the world forced open windows of contact and scrutiny – for its own people and outsiders alike – that its authorities might preferred to have kept bolted. And for Churchill, it would at least act in its own interests.
North Korea might wear Churchill’s appellation with greater accuracy. Its accessibility somewhat likened to night time satellite images of a darkened landmass framed by the glittering lights of its neighbours, it has been termed an information ‘black hole’. Such basic details and the birth dates of its leading figures are disputed. Intelligence services have often been reduced to analysing flora in pictures to determine when an image may have been taken. A ‘hermit state’ in popular newspeak.
Indeed, quite how it sees its own interests is not obvious.
A history that brought it to this point
History seems to have conditioned the country for this. The Korean peninsula remained isolated from the Western-dominated world of the 19th Century even as neighbouring China and Japan – themselves highly insular societies – opened up (or were forced open). The description ‘Hermit Kingdom’ actually dates from this time. Korea’s entry into the emerging global society of the late 19th and early 20th century was entwined with the expansion of Japanese imperial power, ultimately being annexed by Japan in 1910. Japanese rule was harsh, economically exploitative, and socially disruptive. It remains a source of friction between Japan and both North and South Korea.
Following the Second World War, Korea was cut from the carcass of the Japanese Empire, and immediately became a theatre for Cold War confrontation. North Korea was the Soviet-inspired outcome of this geopolitics in the Korean peninsula, a putatively Marxist state, broadly analogous to the position of East Germany in central Europe, and North Vietnam after the crumbling of French rule in Indochina. Historians have noted that in North Korea, three authoritarian streams of history converged: Korea’s own monarchical tradition, Japanese militarism, and Soviet (Stalinist) Marxist-Leninism.
Assuming the leadership of North Korea, under Soviet patronage, was Kim Il-sung. Respected as a guerrilla leader against the Japanese, most of his life had been lived in and for the communist struggle. He set about establishing a highly politicised and combat-ready army, which he launched against the South – pro-Western, and under US protection – sparking the devastating Korean War. It needs to be emphasised just how close to extinction North Korea came in the conflict. After initial North Korean successes, American reinforcements reversed the course of the war, and Allied (technically, United Nations) troops moved up through North Korea, approaching the Chinese border in late 1950. Were it not for the commitment of Chinese troops, it is doubtful that North Korea or its leadership would have endured.
The Korean War continued until 1953, ending with a ceasefire, but not a peace treaty. Millions of Koreans on both sides, civilian and military, had been killed. The North had taken a beating from American aerial bombardment (it has been said that in Pyongyang, only one building remained intact).
The North Korean leadership felt that their Soviet patrons had failed to provide the support necessary to ensure their victory – while the South had been actively protected by theirs. The US retained significant military forces in South Korea after the war, and security guarantees for South Korea were made by many of the allied coalition (these still exist, although almost forgotten in the practical diplomacy of most of the countries concerned). And while the Chinese intervention had kept North Korea alive, long-standing historical suspicions of its larger neighbour lingered.
North Korea, therefore, has inherited an authoritarian political culture; its leadership was steeped in a totalitarian outlook, common to its ideological peers. It also had a traumatic experience of military conflict that confirmed fears of its prospects for survival (even though North Korea had initiated the conflict – something it emphatically denies today).
Onto this was affixed a personality cult. Unassailable personal leadership was not unusual at this time. It had been inherent in fascism, and was very much the case in with Stalin’s Soviet Union. Another would develop around Mao in China in due course, as well as – in varying degrees – around some of the heroes of the decolonisation movement across the world.
The near deification of Kim Il-sung, and the dynasty he created has been the source of enduring fascination. In a sense, this is one of the most obvious outward differences between North Korea and other Marxist societies. Kim Il-sung was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il, and he in turn by his son, Kim Jong-un. Personalised leadership has taken on an almost theocratic register. Moreover, the leadership transitions were not achieved by moving successors into existing offices, but by arranging institutions in such a way that the death of the incumbent would see power shift seamlessly into the role of leader. So, during Kim-Il sung’s presidency, his son was installed as head of the National Defence Commission, a position which in terms of the extant constitution was (conveniently) the second most powerful office in the country. When Kim Il-sung died, Kim Jong-il was placed to succeed. He did not assume the office of president, and it was subsequently abolished. How, after all, can one replace someone irreplaceable?
Kim Il-sung was declared Eternal President in 1998. In 2012, Kim Jong-il was pronounced Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commission. In 2016, the North Korean constitution was amended to recognise them as ‘Eternal leaders of Juche Korea’.
Kim Jong-un has bucked this trend somewhat, having taken the title of General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 2021.
An ideology to define a society
Bizarre as this may seem to an outsider, there is an internal logic to it. To appreciate this, one must understand the concept of Juche. This has a pedigree in North Korean political thought and was initially presented as a national expression of Marxist thought: the concept was incorporated in the country’s 1972 constitution as ‘national in form and socialist in content’.
Kim Il-sung would describe it in these terms: ‘Establishing Juche means, in a nutshell, being the master of revolution and reconstruction in one’s own country. This means holding fast to an independent position, rejecting dependence on others, using one’s own brains, believing in one’s own strength, displaying the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance, and thus solving one’s own problems for oneself on one’s own responsibility under all circumstances.’
While self-reliance is an ordinal principle of Juche, it embraces much more. North Korea’s 2009 constitution expunged references to Marxism, with Juche being presented as a uniquely Korean nationalist and socialist ideology. In this sense, it is a distinct, replacement ideology from those of its erstwhile Marxist peers. It provided ideological justification for the idiosyncratic conduct of the North Korean state.
This ideological framework underlines North Korea’s sense of exceptionalism. Within its official worldview, it has achieved a near perfect society and without question, the socio-political philosophy to underwrite it. Indeed, Juche is the envy of the world, something that allies may seek to emulate, and foes necessarily to destroy.
North Korea consequently remains fiercely independent and insular with respect to its own territory. As Grace Lee, a scholar of North Korea, has written: ‘In practice, this political stance has caused North Korea to truly become a hermit kingdom because of the huge stigma Juche places upon cooperation with outside powers. According to Juche as interpreted by the DPRK, yielding to foreign pressure or tolerating foreign intervention would make it impossible to maintain chaju, or the defense of national independence and sovereignty.’
As Lee indicates, the imperative of protecting the country from enemies real and imagined takes pride of place. Hence the role of the military, always formidable, in North Korean society. The country’s 2009 Constitution put forward the principle of seongun sasang, otherwise known as ‘military first’. This accorded the military a central place in the country’s political institutions, the duty of protecting the country from threats (and also protecting the ‘leadership of the revolution’, in effect tying the military to the Kim dynasty), and giving it unabashed priority in accessing state resources. From an outsider’s point of view this would be a truncated explanation for how a country facing economic ruin (of which more below) could nevertheless run a programme to acquire nuclear weapons.