‘Odd one out’: the Politics and Philosophy of North Korea

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.

Kim Il-sung, the ‘Great Leader’

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:

A Means to an End (of Exploitation): Marxism and Utilitarianism

Over the past hundred years, I won’t deny that many ruthless and otherwise unjustifiable acts have been carried out in the name of socialism. Sometimes, these actions were directly harmful (such as the use of state terror), whereas in other examples they were not (such as the introduction of strict economic policies that later caused suffering), yet many perished all the same. This is why communists today, require adequate justification for what’s been going on in these countries, and it would seem to me that this comes most naturally in the argument that the end may justify the means, or if you’re Trotsky, ‘the end may justify the means so long as there is something that justifies the end’ (I know it sounds slightly pretentious).

This is a core idea of utilitarianism, an ethical theory predating Marxism, which argues in a very general sense that an action is defined in terms of its consequences. Thus even concepts like genocide, which we’d normally consider horrific, are permissible if they bring about greater happiness than would have otherwise been the case, the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people lying at the heart of the philosophy. Just from this, one can see key similarities between Marxist and utilitarian thought; they both exist with an eye to the majority; they both strive for the wellbeing of the masses, and in both schools of thought it is upheld that violence, be it in the case of class conflict (Marxism) or the ‘Trolley Problem’ (utilitarianism) may be used to achieve the greater good. So I’m writing to discuss the similarities between these two philosophies, whether or not Marxism can operate in a utilitarian way – or vice versa – and finally, whether or not utilitarianism successfully justifies the many otherwise-atrocious actions committed in communism’s name.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that Marx’s ideas entail an element of sacrifice. Friedrich Engels once stated that ‘The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of reactionary peoples.’, and the fact that he followed it up with ‘this too, will be a step forward’ confirms the utilitarian character of such thinking, which treated these horrors as a necessary part of the communist struggle. On top of this, it has to be remembered that Marx’s interpretation of what capitalism would inevitably lead to, whilst a scientific interpretation, also bore the label of justice, equality, and all that was right. Thus, science and morality merged with the Marxian prediction that from capitalism there would arise communism, the latter being a better moral alternative as well as an inevitable on. This was simply because it was upheld the idea of a better world, the best, in fact, of all hitherto economic systems (except possibly Primitive Communism). True, that’s an incredibly vague interpretation, but I think it’s obvious that the specific ideas of classlessness or an end of exploitation are credited as they result in a happier society. This is why the Greatest Happiness Principle, as it’s referred to, is very definitely present in scientific Marxism and underpins the core Marxist ideas and theories.

If we can thus accept that these ideas are utilitarian ones, I think it’s also true that they are justified in a utilitarian way. The kind of violence Marx and Engels spoke of wasn’t without reason; why would anybody advocate ruthlessness when they didn’t feel it was necessary? And when I talk of its necessity, I refer to progression – forward movement in the direction of liberty and equality – in the direction of greater happiness. It could be argued that Marxism is not a science and that communism is not an absolute truth, so therefore there’s nothing to justify what has been done in its name, yet firstly, whether or not Marx was right is separate debate, and secondly, even if Marx was proven wrong; even if we find that there is no inevitability in communism, such a brilliant concept is surely still worth fighting for.

I conclude by saying that Marxism’s utilitarian nature should be realised, as the two theories will likely benefit from what the other has to provide; currently, whilst many do acknowledge why Marx’s ideas should be vindicated, many don’t, and a sturdy, underling justification would do a good job in providing a simple explanation in this regard. I think it’s even possible to argue that, similarly, utilitarianism lends itself to a Marxist interpretation, due to the ideas it values placing the state of the majority in society above all else, which is also an idea worth exploring. The political views of Jeremy Bentham, one of, if not the most important figure in the founding and development of contemporary utilitarianism, reflect this.

Marxism is a Science, not a Religion

As promised, entries resume today, making it an appropriate time to address one thing that’s been on my mind in the weeks after my last post…

Despite the differences in opinion among communist circles, there are really only two variants of communist.

Some, I’ve noticed, manage to incorporate Marxism into their lives as a viewpoint, a belief, and nothing more. The orchestrators of the Russian October Revolution, namely Lenin and Trotsky, are good examples; they acted, commanded, spoke and wrote using Marxism as a tool, a guidance, and a scientific philosophy on the basis of which they would carry out their principles.

Others, just as knowledgeable in Marxism, and just as eager to apply it, look at the philosophy from a different stance. They treat communist theory as if it were the words of a prophet, and look to Marx, Lenin or Stalin as if they themselves were the divine preachers of such theoretical wisdom. Their great appreciation of socialist ideas transforms itself into a cult-like and almost religious appreciation of socialism, to such an extent that they begin to forget the central tenants and ideas of their philosophy.

As you might imagine, this presents a series of problems…

First of all, this tendency, which glorifying communism, actually contradicts it. Where it clashes with Marxist theory is not obvious, but we must remember that Marxism, whether correct or not, is a theory of science. It exists based on the idea that the development of society runs parallel to the development of the natural world, applauds rational and scientific thought, and is hardly compatible with the backward, illogical and religious adherence to ideology exemplified by many of its followers (especially Marx famously referred to religion as ‘opium for the masses’). Ask yourself this: in terms of this spiritual ‘opium’, where does Christianity differ from Marxism-Leninism? When both are treated as religious doctrines, it doesn’t.

An extreme example of the blurring between Marxism and religion is that of Stalinist Russia, in which the Communist Party was practically allowed to replace the Orthadox Church. ‘Lenin is with us, always’ was a phrase popularised under Stalin, who seemed not to let it trouble him that he was cultivating belief of a spiritual nature akin to the religions he was also trying to supress. Other examples can probably be found throughout history, but I hope (for any Stalinists/Stalin sympathisers reading) it does the job of highlighting just how irrational such regimes can become. Lenin was a great leader and a great theorist, but he wasn’t Jesus. Marx, Lenin, Mao and Stalin; they’re human beings, not deities, and perhaps we’ll remember these people for their contributions to the socialist movement, but to look upon them as divine and holy beings is beyond ridiculous.

In addition to this, I’d like to point out that many in this category, which often tends to be the Stalinists and Maoists of this world (I’ve noticed that communist philosophies to the left of Marxism-Leninism don’t tend to adopt such views), are highly illogical in their assessment of society, and especially of the communist world. In this respect, what I was talking about (the almost holy glorification of both the theory and its practitioners), can lead to further problems; if you look to Stalin, Mao or Kim Il-sung the way a religious believer may look to God, it’s not surprising that to you, these individuals must be heroes, and thus you’ll go to extreme measures to ensure they are so. At the same time, one may go to ridiculous extents to prove their theories or writings are true to word, immune from the possibility of even minor falsification, as certain Christians may claim about the Bible. This is, of course, just as irrational.

Yet equally bizarre is the manner in which these people prove such to be true, or simply justify their beliefs: a favourite technique of these types of people, and one which is not criticised nearly enough, is historical denial. Just look at the number of leftists who deny Stalin’s crimes, who claim that the repression which exists in the DPRK is merely a conspiracy cooked up by imperialist western media. There are a surprising number of people who end up falling into such trap, to the point where they distort the whole of history to support their beliefs.

Nope. Definitely not a Gulag. Can I get away with blaming this on western imperialism? Probably...

‘Nope. Definitely not a Gulag. Can I get away with blaming this on western imperialism? Probably…’

Is this Marxian? Is this the kind of mentality you’d expect from those who uphold a view which thrives off the analysis of class history? It’s well known, even outside of communism, that the philosophy relies on the observation of historical patterns. It’s thus obvious that anyone distorting history in this way, altering the past to suit their ideals, is transforming events which could prove vital in understanding society from a Marxist perspective. In other words, these people, who tightly cling to communism as an ideology rather than a philosophy, actually demonstrate an ignorance and a betrayal of Marxist principles whilst attempting to defend views which they believe to be Marxian. What’s worse is that, on the whole, I don’t believe these people know they’re altering history. They believe the atrocities we hear of are a concoction of lies drip-fed to the population by the government, and this is a dangerous thing. Certain stories are undoubtedly twisted, and some, if not all, are obviously biased, but we can’t escape historical truth, and communists, perhaps more than anyone, should accept this.

So, if this is the case, then what can be done about it? What is to be done (Leninist reference intended) about the fact that a great proportion of Marxists globally have managed to turn the theory on its head and produce something of an embarrassment to the traditional principles of communism? Sadly, I don’t feel there’s a lot that can be done. We just have to accept that a great deal of the world, including the former communist world, lives (or lived) according to these strange and perverse views. Nonetheless, I urge any leftists out there not to let themselves be absorbed into this twisted form of socialism, and as for those who glorify Mao or Stalin (or, for that matter, Marx or Engels), who look to their works like a holy scripture, and who consider themselves the rightful heirs of ‘Mao Tse-tung thought’ or whatever other titles they grant themselves, I encourage you, quite frankly, to wake up from this delusional dream.

The image was provided by Gerald Praschl from Wikimedia Commons. Here is a link to its license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en