Purist Pyongyang purges Marx

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Niccolo and Donkey
Purist Pyongyang purges Marx

Asia Times Online

Andrei Lankov

November 1, 2012

Recently journalists from The Guardian newspaper reported an important change during stays in Pyongyang: two large portraits of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin - long a prominent feature of Pyongyang's central Kim Il-sung square - were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the images have been replaced by a more dominating portrait of Kim Il-sung.

This news was repeated by countless outlets worldwide, but the reports were slightly outdated. In fact, the portraits were removed almost half a year ago, in early April 2012.

In a sense, the disappearance of the portraits is yet another sign of the ongoing ideological transformation in North Korea. Even though it is routinely described as a 'communist country' by outsider observers, North Korea has long ceased to label itself as a Marxist-Leninist state.

Nonetheless, until recently the North Korean ideological authorities have occasionally expressed some indebtedness to the Marxist tradition - but these expressions were largely for foreigners' consumption.

The North Korean state was created in the years 1945-48 by, essentially, an unequal alliance of Korean Marxist revolutionaries and Soviet generals (the latter being in nearly full control). It was meant to be just another Marxist-Leninist regime created according to the Soviet blueprints of the period. Predictably, it described itself as a state whose sole ideological foundation was 'the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism'.

In the mid-1950s there began a series of significant changes in the North Korean leadership. Initially a very important role in the North Korean leadership was played by underground communist activists from the pre-1945 era, most of whom were well educated intellectuals, fluent in foreign languages and well versed in the Leninist orthodoxy of the period. In the early and mid-1950s, though, they would begin to be purged by Kim Il-sung and his supporters whose backgrounds and worldview was rather different - they were, in the main, poorly educated farmers with little exposure to the outside world, but with strong (red) nationalist convictions.

Kim Il-sung's supporters did not spend their youth perusing works of Western classical economists or arguing over the finer points of Marx and Hegel - rather, they were waging a courageous, some would say suicidal, guerilla war against the Japanese colonial army in Manchuria. Many of them were indeed committed communists, but they were a rather different breed of communist for whom nationalist goals and a strong Korean state were of paramount importance. With their ascent to power in the 1950s, parochial nationalism, pervasive amongst Korean radical leftists until now, began to take over from the universalist abstractions of Marxism.

The first sign of the changes to come was the Juche Speech of Kim Il-sung in 1955. In this speech, Kim Il-sung, the young North Korean dictator, used the word Juche to mean something ideological - and it would later go on to become the governing ideology of his country. The word itself is often misleadingly translated as 'self-reliance'; but what it means is 'the main subject'. In a nationalist Korean context, Juche basically means: putting the nation first, ahead of other nations, stressing that the nation is important and should be protected.

In the speech, Kim Il-sung lambasted the uncritical acceptance of foreign (ie Soviet) culture and tradition, and stated that Koreans - especially officials - should never forget about their superior national culture and roots. Soon after, Kim Il-sung began to steer his country away from Soviet influence, and by the early 1960s his relations with Moscow had become very frosty (relations would partially recover after 1965, but North Korea still was more distant from Moscow than nearly all other communist countries, save China).

It took over a decade for Juche to be elevated to the level of coherent ideology - or something which could be passed for such. Until the early 1970s, North Korea claimed itself to be a Marxist-Leninist state. When relations between the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe went sower, the North Korean media claimed that much of the communist world had been spoilt by revisionists. It was also claimed that North Korean Marxism was perfectly pure and thus superior to that of Moscow or Warsaw, while Kim Il-sung was portrayed as the world's best living Marxist theoretician.

Things began gradually to change in the late 1960s. Around this time, the hitherto only occasionally mentioned Juche began to be transformed into North Korea's ideology. This was politically necessary because, at the time, the North Korean government was trying to maneuver between quarreling Moscow and Beijing, trying as best it good to remain out of the Sino-Soviet split. Pyongyang would indeed claim that they had their own ideology that was in fact superior to those of its giant neighbors. Juche was to become that ideology.

In 1972, the Juche Idea was elevated to that of the state ideology, and was enshrined in the constitution as such. It was however described as "the creative application of Marxism-Leninism to Korean realities". Around this time it became impossible for the average Korean to check how truthful this creative application was. In the late 1960s, the works of Marx, Lenin and, in fact, almost all non-Korean Marxist authors' works became forbidden reading for the average North Korean. These books were to be kept in special sections of the major libraries, being only accessible to a privileged and trusted few. A few very harmless books were exempted from this policy, and collections of quotations from key Marxist authors were also made available.

For a brief while, the North Korean authorities even coined a new term "Kimilsungism". It appears in fact that in the late 1970s the North Korean leadership (including the then young Kim Jong-il) toyed with the idea of a complete break from Marxism. At least, in 1976, Kim Jong-il wrote: "Both in content and in composition, Kimilsungism is an original idea that cannot be explained within the framework of Marxism-Leninism. The Juche idea which constitutes the quintessence of Kimilsungism, is an idea newly discovered in the history of human thought. However, at present there is a tendency to interpret the Juche idea on the basis of the materialistic dialectic of Marxism. (...) This shows that the originality of the Juche idea is not correctly understood".

In the mid-1970s, North Korea's philosophers and luminaries claimed that Kimilsungism would eventually displace Marxism and Marxism-Leninism as the leading scientific theory of the modern world. They stated that Marxism was a progressive ideology from the early capitalist period, while Leninism was its latter day adaptation to the period of high imperialism, but that Kimilsungism was the idea for the contemporary era - an age allegedly of collapsing imperialism and the spread of revolution worldwide.

This meant that, according to North Korea's agitprop, Kim Il-sung was the most far-sighted sage of our era (a distinction he probably did not mind), but also allowed North Korean dignitaries to position their country above both the Soviet Union and China. After all, both the Soviets and the Chinese were still following the vintage ideologies of another age while the North Koreans were equipped with the most cutting-edge progressive ideological weaponry.

For some reason, from around 1980, North Korea's ideologues significantly pared down their claims of Kimilsungism's independence from Marxism. They basically returned to the somewhat less ambitious definition of the North Korea's ideology as a creative application of Marxism-Leninism, and they stuck to this definition until the 1990s. The reversal seems to reflect the diplomatic need to improve relations with the Soviet Union - which at the time was becoming the major source of economic aid.

However, efforts to distance purely national Juche/Kimilsungism from imported Marxism-Leninism would again accelerate in the 1990s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and disintegration of the Communist bloc, there was little need to emphasize the common roots which once united North Korea with other radical leftist movements and governments. There were no more useful foreigners to woo with such claims. On the contrary, ethnic Korean nationalism became the only conceivable tool to ideologically mobilize people in support of the regime.

As a result, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, all references to Marx and Lenin gradually disappeared from North Korean publications. An important step was taken in 2009 when all references to the word communism disappeared from the North Korean constitution. As a result of earlier revisions to the North Korean constitution, explicit references to the Juche Idea's connection to Marxism were edited out as well.

This ideological shift to an indigenous and 'perfectly' Korean ideology was completely earlier this year. The fourth conference of the Korean Workers Party officially stated that "Kimilsungism and Kimjongilism are considered the sole ideologies of the party". And so the circle is now complete.

In this new ideological environment then, it is understandable how the portraits of Marx and Lenin have become anachronistic. And so on one morning in April 2012, the people of Pyongyang woke to discover that these two portraits had disappeared without trace. When a frequent visitor to Pyongyang asked his minder where the portraits had gone, his minder answered dryly and significantly: 'to a museum'.

Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.