The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is one of the most mysterious countries in the world. This is partly because most of the world knows very little about it, and partly because what we do know, or at least think we know, most don’t seem to like. Yet it’s also because so much about this country and its political system just seems bizarre, such as the fact that Kim Jong-il’s birth allegedly caused winter to turn into spring. In an article featured in the Huffington Post capturing the last two, Tim Urban writes:
If you merged the Soviet Union under Stalin with an ancient Chinese Empire, mixed in The Truman Show and then made the whole thing Holocaust-esque, you have modern day North Korea.
The realities of day-to-day life in this country are even stranger; this is a nation in which the populate venerate their leaders as if they had mystical powers, where adults must wear lapel pins of Kim Il-sung, and where a cloth is given to each household for one purpose: to clean the portrait of their Great Leader. The regime impacts upon every aspect of both public and private life, and instigates all sorts of beliefs among ordinary people, many of them lies. The question is, why is this country so odd?
The DPRK (it’s actually illegal for North Koreans to call it North Korea) was founded much like the states of the Eastern Bloc; it was created by the Soviet Union after the Second World War, but it seems to have evolved in an entirely different way to other countries in its position, which is likely a result of several factors…
First of all, the philosophical foundation of the North Korean State differs from that of the Soviet Union and many Soviet-aligned nations; the Juche idea, a concept devised by Kim Il-sung, is centred around the emancipation of the individual. This tenant, which is essentially an ultra-humanistic interpretation of Marxism, seems to clash with the structuralist interpretations of the philosophy and the community-centric, macroscopic lens through which Marxists often make sense of the world. It has also led to cultural perversions in the DPRK, such as the hardline nationalist and isolationist current that is strong in the country. In short, when looking at why North Korea has taken a steep trajectory in its own, bizarre direction, Juche may be able to explain a lot.
However, it is important to take into account the attitudes of the leaders themselves, and especially those of Kim Il-sung, who ruled the country from its birth right up until the 1990s. Perhaps the reason his country is structured this way today is less a result of his theories, and more of his pragmatic actions and contributions whilst in power. Following in his wake, his son and grandson will likely perform/have performed in a similar fashion, keeping the structure of the country intact.
Though to what extent a nation can be shaped purely by who is in charge is debatable. The ideas and theories of individuals certainly play a large role in how political systems are crafted, especially in countries where such a large degree of responsibility rests on the shoulders of individuals, but this certainly does not mean that the significance material conditions inside that country should be overlooked in favour of individual ideas and actions. In the USSR, for example, Leninist theory provided the theoretical basis for the political system, yet I do not believe that the attitudes of individual Soviet citizens can be attributed to his personal views than the reality of Soviet life.
Additionally, an important factor that must also be considered is cultural heritage, and we must examine the people in the region, their culture and their tendencies. Much of what we see in the DPRK can also be seen across the region, and throughout different periods of history. The complete veneration of an individual and a strong, patriotic desire to serve one’s country, for example, can both be exemplified in the former Japanese Empire. Thus, it would also be sensible to argue that the reason why North Korea is so starkly different from many of the other communist states is due to the cultural tendencies of those living there.
This would perhaps be able to explain why many of these traditions and ideas held by many North Koreans are not only very strange, but also incredibly reactionary, un-progressive and counter-revolutionary as well. Considering North Korea proclaims itself to be a modern example of revolutionary socialism, and is heralded as such by many self-proclaimed revolutionaries, it clings strongly to ideas and tendencies you may expect such a country to reject, but perhaps cultural baggage plays a greater role than a commitment to the international socialist cause.
At the end of the day, it is obviously futile to try and pinpoint any individual factor as to why this is such a bizarre nation, and it’s likely a combination of all of the above, alongside others. Take this post as a suggestion, however; a brief insight into the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ why it’s driven by such an unusual ideological dialogue, and why it differs so significantly from the other socialist states of the twentieth century.
Thank you for reading,
The poster of Kim Il-sung was provided by yeowatzup from Wikimedia Commons and is a derivative work of http://www.flickr.com/photos/yeowatzup/2921982778/
Here is a link to its license: