On Kim Jong-Il:
There are often two reactions to Kim Jong-Il: one in support of the predominant US narrative on North Korea and the other on defending it as a socialist power against US Imperialism. While the US narrative predominates in capitalistic media, it is important to put North Korea in its context. Kasama Project is right to say that it is both an oppressive state and in danger:
Kim Jong Il has long been head of the oppressive and isolated state ruling northern Korea — locked in a seemingly permanent state of war against the southern Korean state (which was occupied by the U.S. after world war 2). The North Korean regime,which calls itself the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), may well be weakened by Kim’s death and by long-brewing power struggles within the North Korean ruling circles.
There is both danger and opportunity in those possibilities of instability.
Certainly the people of northern Korea and their compatriots in the southern Korea’s peninsula have every interest in helping radical changes sweep their peninsula. They deserve the freedom to make their own difficult future choices freed from the interference and domination of great powers.
At the same time, any turmoil or instability in North Korea will signal intense and self-interested interference by the United States, and by those great powers (China, Russia and Japan) that border Korea.
Over and over Korea has been invaded, occupied, colonized, brutalized, exploited and threatened by outside powers — specifically Japan and the United States during the 20th century.
As I have pointed out, the name indicates quite a bit. In Korean, North Korea is 조선민주주의인민공화국. In it you see the name of the Confucian Dynasty prior which one does not see in the name of South Korea in Korean, 대한민국. As B.R. Meyers points out, North Korean propaganda doesn’t resemble even Stalinist propaganda of socialism in one nation, but has a very similar character to the Confucian propaganda used by the Japanese fascists. Yet it does inspire many North Koreans through appealing to a rather conservative ethnic nationalism that is concerned with purity. Furthermore, the cult of personality around the Kim Jong-Il has more in common with Hirohito’s cult than with Mao and Maoist personality ideology used by his father. I have my critiques of that as well, but it is not what is going on in the current DPRK. There is a continuity of the Confucian patriarchy and a deliberate inversion of Confucian male values. DPRK propaganda is interesting in that sort of duel nature: a refutation of Confucianism and an acceptance of it by mere inversion. Furthermore, it is a refutation of Marxist-Leninism while claiming to have “further” developed it. You don’t have to be a Trotskyists to see the problems there. Also, the racial propaganda in North Korea is anti-internationalist even against other socialist peoples, but the racial ideology is uniquely pulled from a Japanese colonial ideology which itself borrowed from Germans. Furthermore, Gary Leupp has been quite telling:
Still, those portraits of Marx and Lenin are there in Pyongyang. DPRK propaganda continues to describe the late Kim as “a thoroughgoing Marxist-Leninist.” Juche is described as a “creative application of Marxism-Leninism.” The Korean Workers’ Party continues to cultivate ties with more traditional, perhaps more “legitimate,” Marxist-Leninist parties including the (Maoist) Communist Party of the Philippines.
Some material by Marx, Engels and Lenin circulates in North Korea, and the Marxist dictum, “Religion is the opium of the masses” is universally known. But according to a Russian study in 1995, “the works by Marx, Engels, and Lenin are not only excluded from the standard [school] curriculum, but are generally forbidden for lay readers. Almost all the classical works of Marxism-Leninism, as well as foreign works on the Marxist (that is, other than [Juche]) philosophy are kept in special depositories, along with other kinds of subversive literature. Such works are accessible only to specialists with special permits.” (One thinks of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages restricting Bible reading to the trusted clergy, and discouraging it among the masses.)
I imagine some with those special permits are able to read Marx’s famous 1844 essay in which the “opium of the masses” phrase occurs:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”
Maybe the rare North Korean student of Marxism, acquiring some real understanding of the Marxist view of religion, can see all around him or her conditions which require mass illusions and delusions in order to continue. There are some signs of resistance here and there to the Kim cult, which would seem to be a good thing.
Having said that (and always trying to think dialectically), I don’t believe that life in the DPRK is quite the hell—another religious concept—that the mainstream media would have us believe it is. One should try to look at things in perspective. We hear much of the terrible famine that lasted from about 1995 to 2001, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions. But North Korea was not always a disaster. As of 1980, infant mortality in the north was lower than in the south, life expectancy was higher, and per capita energy usage was actually double that in the south (Boston Globe, Dec. 31, 2003). Even after the famine and accompanying problems, a visitor to Pyongyang in 2002 declared:
“Housing in Pyongyang is of surprising quality. In the past 30 years–and mostly in the past 20–hundreds of huge apartment houses have been built. Pyongyang is a city of high-rises, with probably the highest average building height of any city in the world. Although the quality is below that of the West, it is far above that found in the former Soviet Union. Buildings are finished and painted and there is at least a pretense of maintenance; even older buildings do not look neglected. Nothing looks as though it is on the verge of falling down. . .
“Although a bit dreary, the shops in Pyongyang are far from empty. Each apartment building has some sort of shop on the main floor, and food shops can usually be found within one or two buildings from any given home. Apart from these basic, Soviet-style shops, there are a few department stores carrying a wide range of goods. . . “While not snappy dressers, North Koreans are certainly clean and tidy, and exceptionally well dressed. . . There is no shortage of clothing, and clothing stores and fabric shops are open daily.”
There’s apparently one hotel disco and some karaoke bars in Pyongyang. No doubt Kim Il-songism can provide some with the “illusory happiness” about which Marx wrote, and it is possible that genuine popular feelings as well as feelings orchestrated from above have contributed to the production of the North Korean faith. The DPRK might not be all distress and oppression. But neither is it a socialist society in any sense Marx or Lenin would have recognized, to say nothing of a classless, communist society. It is among other things a religious society in a world where nations led by religious nuts are facing off, some seemingly hell-bent on producing a prophesized apocalypse. I find no cause for either comfort or particular alarm in the Dear Leader’s October 9 nuclear blast; if it deters a U.S. attack it’s achieved its purpose, and however bizarre Jong-il may be he’s probably not crazy enough to provoke his nation’s destruction by an attack on the U.S. or Japan. I’m more concerned that Bush will do something stupid in response to the test.
In any case, the confrontation here isn’t between “freedom” and “one of the world’s last communist regimes,” nor even between fundamentalist Christian Bush and Kim Il-songist Kim Jong-il. It’s between a weird hermetic regime under threat and determined to survive in its small space, using a cult to control its people, and a weird much more dangerous regime under the delusion that God wants it to smite His enemies and to control the whole world. Both are in the business of peddling “illusions of happiness.” Neither is much concerned about the “real happiness” of people. Both ought to be changed—by those they oppress, demanding an end to conditions requiring illusions.
Now, living in South Korea, I must say that the US influence here can be pretty distorting as can the dominance of several major corporations. But one must be honest and say that this is not even a vulgar Stalinist version of Marxism, but a regression to something far more primitive. Still one cannot argue that this is sound grounds for any US action. The fate of Korea is for those who live here to decide. It is not for the US to toy with.