The origins of the DPRK: From Division to Reunification

The propaganda on which we were raised had it that the Second World War came to an end through the decisive action of the United States in dropping a couple of atomic bombs on Japan. Then, US troops immediately moved to the Korean Peninsula to ensure that the freedom-loving Koreans were not subjected to the totalitarian rule of evil communists. They were not entirely successful, because the north had been overrun by the Soviet Red Army, which brutally imposed collectivisation and socialist methods on the north. They then appointed a puppet as leader, Kim Il-sung. A few years later, the United States and troops from other nations such as Australia defended the southerners from aforesaid evil communists when the latter tried to take over the whole peninsula during the Korean War. Since then, the people of the south have earnestly wanted reunification, but the totalitarian ‘regime’ of the north has simply not been interested.

Needless to say, this account is more than a little biased, so let me see if I can provide some correctives.

To begin with, as war historians have long pointed out (see, for instance, Geoffrey Roberts), Japan began suing for surrender as soon it became clear that its colonisation of Korea and parts of China would soon be over. This occupation had been in trouble for some time, with Chinese and Korean fighters – led by the communists – undermining the occupying forces. But the decisive moment came when the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrived, fresh from the capture of Berlin and after having spent more than two weeks on the Trans-Siberian railway line. As Japanese troops were routed, Japan began suing for peace.

Somewhat alarmed, the United States hastily decided to drop an atomic bomb. This was entirely unnecessary for ending the war, since the Japanese were about to surrender. But the United States had its eyes on the post-war situation, using the two bombs to show the world, and especially the Soviet Union, its new firepower. In this light, the use of the bombs actually constitutes a war crime. Not satisfied, United States troops made haste to land on the Korean Peninsula and push as far north as possible.

At this point, the situation began to resemble Germany after the Second World War. In the north were Korean communists, led by Kim Il-sung, supported by Chinese units and the Red Army. In the south were American troops, which established the Allied Military Government. Now it becomes interesting. In theory, the Soviets and the Americans were allies, but they did not behave so. Kim Il-sung proposed that the Korean people should decide on the post-war situation in Korea. This entailed the removal of foreign forces from north and south. Negotiations over this process went on for three years.

Or rather, people tried to negotiate. The American military governor in the south, Lieutenant General Hodge, refused to meet with delegations. Syngman Rhee, a staunch anti-communist strongman, was appointed as provisional leader. Under his direction and with American support, a series of uprising in the south were brutally crushed. In autumn of 1946, workers and peasants rose up against the American occupation; from April 1948 until 1953 islanders from Jeju rebelled; in October 1948 regiments in the southern Korean army rose up in the Yeosu–Suncheon Rebellion; in December 1949, Mungyeong citizens and their families were massacred since they were suspected of being communist sympathisers. In suppressing these socialist movements, swathes of villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

These repressions were all part of the mechanisms for establishing a separate state in the south. Indeed, it was declared in August 1948, with Syngman Rhee as president. In response, the north found itself needing to declare the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The comparison with East and West Germany is striking. There too, the Anglo-American forces stalled on negotiations for a united Germany, which was pushed by the eastern Germans, as well as Stalin and Molotov. There too, plans began in 1948 for a separate state in the western parts, which was foreshadowed by a new currency. There too the West German state was declared first, in September 1949. And there too the east had no option but to respond with its own state. Throughout, the aim was to keep Germany separated, despite the will of most of the people.

In light of all this, what has happened to the desire for Korean unification? It has been consistent policy of the Democratic Republic of Korea since its earliest days. But on what terms? A northern takeover of the south? Not at all. The policy is that reunification would be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. This position was made explicit in the Communiqué of 1972, after the leaders of both countries had secretly met. In 1973 and again in 1980, Kim Il-sung reiterated this position, proposing a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.

However, the most significant movement happened after the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration of 2000, between Kim Jong-il of the north and Kim Dae-jung of the south. Given that reunification has been a core northern policy, the change was obviously in the south. Here more progressive governments became open to the idea and agreed to the declaration. The change began with Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine’ policy of 1998. The result was the opening of borders, family reunions, a series of meetings between leaders of north and south, sports, cultural and economic exchange, and even the two Olympic teams marching together at the opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006.

But as is the way with the vagaries and uncertainties of bourgeois democracies, the south changed its tune in 2008 with the new president, Lee Myung-bak. His right-wing policies led to a hard-line approach more in tune with United States foreign policy. Cooperation ended and tensions once again escalated – the situation in which we find ourselves now.

The north Koreans I encountered view that time as one of hope disappointed, although they ardently hope for an eventual reunification along federated lines.

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Engels and the tale of the cotton bale

Engels’s tale of the cotton bale was one he used often, especially in his speaking tour of Germany in 1845. It had a great effect in showing how ridiculous a capitalist market economy is:

Let us, however, discuss present-day trade in a little more detail. Consider through how many hands every product must go before it reaches the actual consumer. Consider, gentlemen, how many speculating, swindling superfluous middlemen have now forced themselves in between the producer and the consumer! Let us take, for example, a bale of cotton produced in North America. The bale passes from the hands of the planter into those of the agent on some station or other on the Mississippi and travels down the river to New Orleans. Here it is sold — for a second time, for the agent has already bought it from the planter — sold, it might well be, to the speculator, who sells it once again, to the exporter. The bale now travels to Liverpool where, once again, a greedy speculator stretches out his hands towards it and grabs it. This man then trades it to a commission agent who, let us assume, is a buyer for a German house. So the bale travels to Rotterdam, up the Rhine, through another dozen hands of forwarding agents, being unloaded and loaded a dozen times, and only then does it arrive in the hands, not of the consumer, but of the manufacturer, who first makes it into an article of consumption, and who perhaps sells his yarn to a weaver, who disposes of what he has woven to the textile printer, who then does business with the wholesaler, who then deals with the retailer, who finally sells the commodity to the consumer. And all these millions of intermediary swindlers, speculators, agents, exporters, commission agents, forwarding agents, wholesalers and retailers, who actually contribute nothing to the commodity itself — they all want to live and make a profit — and they do make it too, on the average, otherwise they could not subsist. Gentlemen, is there no simpler, cheaper way of bringing a bale of cotton from America to Germany and of getting the product manufactured from it into the hands of the real consumer than this complicated business of ten times selling and a hundred times loading, unloading and transporting it from one warehouse to another? Is this not a striking example of the manifold waste of labour power brought about by the divergence of interests?

MECW 4: 246-47.

Communist Mystery: The Secret Appeal of the DPRK

Many are the reasons as to why one would want to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For some it is way off the ‘beaten track’. The fact that many people think you cannot travel to the place at all reinforces this sense. For some it provides a window into what the communist countries of Eastern Europe might have been like before 1989. Indeed, the tourist companies trade on this desire, offering Soviet architecture tours or plane tours in which you fly with Air Koryo’s fleet of Tupolevs. For some it is an effort at reinforcing their own ‘world’, to remind themselves of how ‘bad’ socialism really is and why capitalism is far ‘better’. For some it is a genuine desire to see what this form of socialism looks like, even to the point of sympathising with the sheer effort of maintaining the system. For these people, it is extraordinary that the DPRK has survived for almost seventy years.

For some, however, it is the appeal of what I would like to call ‘communist mystery’. By this I mean the profound sense that the DPRK is keeping much hidden from public scrutiny. More than once has the ancient foreigner’s title of Korea as the ‘hermit kingdom’ been used for the north. Indeed, whole projects exist – sponsored by the limited ‘intelligence’ services of countries such the United States – to try and find out what is happening in the DPRK. Most of that is pure speculation, since they really cannot find out all that much. Foreign journalists are forbidden to enter the country and one is not permitted to take in any GPS device. Add to this the fact that the telephone networks do not connect internationally, and that there is a separate phone network for foreigners who visit the country. The two networks do not connect with one another. And the DPRK’s computer systems also remain internal, without connection (mostly) to the wider internet. A visitor is therefore ‘off the grid’ when visiting the place.

This mystery, of course, generates a desire by some visitors to act as pseudo-journalists, attempting to find out about what is being kept hidden. It may take the form of trying to photograph items they think they are not supposed to photograph, or of ducking off from a tour group for a few minutes to see what might be seen. But let me give two examples.

When travelling the metro system, one is told not to photograph the metro tunnels. You may photograph anything else – people, metro cars, the glorious artwork in the stations, one another – but not the tunnels. So of course one or two try to photograph the tunnels. Who knows, they may hold some secret weapon stash, or some underground laboratories, or whatever. But as soon as the photographs are taken, a platform attendant immediately walks up, calls to a guide and demands that the photograph be deleted. This only exacerbates the mystery. I happened to be standing next to one such culprit when the deletion took place. The photograph merely contained a black space, with nothing to see. But the fact that you could not take a photograph of black space meant that it much conceal something.

The other example is the fabled ‘fifth floor’ of the Yonggakdo Hotel, one of the hotels where many visitors stay. The lifts skip by the fifth floor, jumping from four to six. And if one has bothered to check the internet, then stories abound of the mysteries of the fifth floor (check google or youtube). Many are speculations: here the guides are kept under guard so as not to be corrupted by foreigners; here is equipment to spy on visitors; here is a crack military squad ready to deal with any problem. To add to the mystery, occasionally a guard may appear and sternly demand that you depart. In our group, a few tried to get to the fifth floor by the stairs. One or two even managed a photograph. What did they reveal? Some pipes, perhaps a door or a wall or a corridor. And of course rooms with doors. Nothing else.

That is the point: nothing is there. The Koreans are very good at creating the impression that something is there, hidden from prying eyes. I suspect that they have created such zones precisely to maintain the mystery, for it appeals immensely to some foreigners, especially of the bleeding heart liberal type. Nothing actually exists in the metro tunnels except tracks for the trains. And nothing is to be found on the fifth floor of the hotel, except rooms and a possible guard to tell you not to enter. After all, if there really was something to hide, why have stairs with a door that opens on the fifth floor, or why have a ‘secret lift’ that visitors can actually use to get close to the fifth floor?

Let the mystery continue, for it keeps some visitors coming.

Closed Borders? Visiting and Leaving the DPRK

If you believe the steady stream of items propagated by the corporate media and government agencies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ with closed borders. People are not allowed to enter and its citizens are not permitted leave. If someone does happen to try and leave the ‘hermit kingdom’, he or she is dubbed a ‘defector’. Conversely, anyone who wishes to enter the DPRK is also a ‘defector’ – a recent example being the Chondoist leader, Ryu Mi Yong, who opted to leave South Korea and move to the north to join the bulk of her fellow Chondoists.

I must admit that I entered the DPRK with such a mindset. The warnings from a variety of regimes (Australia, Canada and the United States) did not help. They either warn against all travel or strongly advise you to reconsider your travel plans and go somewhere else. I believed that I could visit only with an officially sanctioned tour company (Koryo) and I had read that at most 2,000 foreigners visit the country every year. The very fact that I was able to visit amongst others should already have alerted me to a somewhat different situation, but such is the strength of preconceptions that it did not. Even more, the fact that the flight into the DPRK – a glorious Tupolev 204 – was filled mostly with citizens of the DPRK should have set me thinking. Yet again, it did not.

Only after arriving and spending a few days there did reality set in. Our hotel, Yanggakdo, was quite full, with tour buses clustered outside on any given day. People were constantly arriving and leaving, many of them Chinese but also a good number of people from other countries. For some reason, it seemed to me that Australians were everywhere. I had come with the assumption that we would be largely on our own. Clearly this was not the case. Even at the Demilitarised Zone close by Kaesong, there were buses aplenty, so much so that we were lucky in being the first in a long line of groups visiting the area.

I had to find out more. In one of my many discussions with the older tour guide, I asked. ‘How many visitors come to North Korea each year?’

He thought for a moment and said, ’10,000 or so’.

That made far more sense. Not a huge number by some standards, but way more than anyone would expect.

‘But is this the only hotel where visitors can stay? I said.

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘here are many places throughout the country where you can stay’.

‘So where could I travel?’ I said.

‘Most places’, he said. ‘You can travel in the far north, stay in the countryside, do some volunteer work on farms’.

Later I began to ponder the possibility of spending some more time in the place. I asked about foreigners working in the DPRK.

‘We have a quite a number at different levels’, said another guide.

‘What about universities?’ I said.

‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘foreigners come and teach at some of them. Many come as volunteers through UNESCO, and there is also the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology’.

‘Is that the one funded by Christian groups, with classes taught in English?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said, ‘and it teaches students about many facets of international education’.

‘Would I be able to spend some time at one of the universities?’ I asked.

‘What do you teach?’ he asked.

‘Marxism and philosophy’, I said.

He smiled. ‘Very interesting. I will see what I can do.’

I gave him my email address.

But what about Koreans travelling, working and studying internationally? I was admittedly quite astounded to find out how many from the DPRK do exactly that. Most go to China, but some travel further afield. Indeed, the week before, when I was in Harbin in the north-east of China, I had encountered students from the DPRK studying there. And this was only one example. To be sure, they need clearance from a government agency to do so. But I was reminded of the fact that I too need to request permission to travel overseas, albeit from my university rather than the government.

Even with this knowledge, on the day of our departure, I was still amazed at how many Koreans were boarding the train out of Pyongyang. On the platform were a few foreigners, but most were from the DPRK. Each day the train leaves for Beijing, carrying locals to various destinations outside the country.

Closed borders? If so, the gate is not securely fastened.

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Religion in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Most would hold that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) bans religion of all sorts, indeed that it has become a truly atheistic state. However, the various constitutions (1948, 1972, 1992) guarantee freedom of religion and non-religion. It may seem that such statements are not worth the paper on which they are written, but let us look at some facts.

To begin with, the local Chondoism – or ‘Religion of the Heavenly Way’ – is recognised and in fact favoured by the government. Based on the teachings of Choe Je-u (1824-1864), it melds Confucian influences and local religious traditions. It inspired the Donghak Peasant Revolution of 1894 and is seen by the current government as a revolutionary and thereby anti-imperialist movement. In an echo that will be familiar to many, this religion is characterised as minjung or ‘popular’. It has about 2.8 million adherents and 800 places of worship, and is led by Ryu Mi Yong, who ‘defected’ from south to north. Indeed, they even have a political party, called the Chondoist Chongu Party, or The Party of the Young Friends of the Heavenly Way.

But what about Christianity? Surely it is severely repressed. To be sure, its fortunes have been varied and its appeal has never been very strong. However, I am most intrigued by an article by Dae Young Ryu, ‘Fresh Wineskins for New Wine: A New Perspective on North Korean Christianity’, Journal of Church and State 48 (2006), pp. 659-75. It begins by noting a new openness of Christianity in the 1980s, with new churches built, a strengthened Protestant theological college in Pyongyang, and an increase in worshippers, now put at about 12,000. (This does not of course include foreign evangelical missionaries, who seem to want to spoil the party).

Is this a recent phenomenon, especially since the government itself has constructed the new churches? Not according to Ryu. He suggests it has a much longer history, going back to Christians of the 1950s who opted for Marxism-Leninism and supported the leadership of Kim Il-sung. This development is even more remarkable, since it took place in a context where Christianity was widely viewed as an imperialist, American phenomenon. Indeed, evidence indicates that the government tolerated about 200 pro-communist Christian churches during the 1960s. He writes:

Contrary to the common western view, it appears that North Korean leaders exhibited toleration to Christians who were supportive of Kim II Sung and his version of socialism. Presbyterian minister Gang Ryang Uk served as vice president of the DPRK from 1972 until his death in 1982, and Kim Chang Jun, an ordained Methodist minister, became vice chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly. They were buried in the exalted Patriots’ Cemetery, and many other church leaders received national honors and medals. It appears that the government allowed the house churches in recognition of Christians’ contribution to the building of the socialist nation (p. 673).

From this background, the role of the Korean Federation of Christians (a DPRK organisation) makes some sense. They established the Pyongyang theological college in 1972, published Bible translations and a hymnal in 1983, and oversaw the building of three new churches in 1988 with state funds. In all, five churches now exist in Pyongyang: three Protestant, one Roman Catholic and one Russian Orthodox (completed with state funds in 2006). The rise in numbers worshipping is attributed to the active search for Christians who are now enabled to worship openly. Even more, the Federation of Christians was crucial in enabling massive amounts of foreign aid into the north during the economic difficulties of the 1990s. Ryu writes that the ‘Federation has successfully established itself as a valuable organization that works for the greater good of North Korean society’.

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Above all, the Federation has been actively working with the south on a consistent campaign for reunification. Given that this is state policy in the north, it should be no surprise that the Federation has been seen in a positive light. Recently, on 15 August 2014, a worship service was held in Bongsu Protestant Church in Pyongyang, with prayers for peace and reunification. It was organised by the National Council of Churches of Korea (from the south) and the Korean Federation of Christians (from the north).

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DPR Korea, Pyongyang. 18 Oct. 2009 Visit to Bongsu Church with Secretary General Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia.

Brazen American Imperialist Aggressors: Seeing the World from the DPRK

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‘Brazen American imperialist aggressors’ – this is perhaps my favourite phrase from my first visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It appeared in a video shown at the museum of the Korean War. The video set out an alternative narrative, producing select pieces of evidence to show that the occupying US forces in the south had instigated the Korean War. Of course, each side in a conflict has its own narrative. The catch is that the US version has dominated accounts for the last 60 years, while that of the DPRK has not had the same privilege.

I was with a group of 20 people, all of us visiting the DPRK for the first time. They came from various countries in Europe, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In fact, one third of the group were Australians. Koryo Tours, based in Beijing, organised the tour, in conjunction with the Korean International Tourism Company based in the DPRK. We had one guide from Koryo and three from the Korean company. More details of that in another story, but I was struck by how many visitors come to the DPRK. Asking further, I was told by one of the guides with whom I had many discussions that more than 10,000 foreigners visit the north every year. Even more, many Koreans from the north travel internationally, mainly for study and business.

Our itinerary was packed from dawn to after dusk, with many sites visited in Pyongyang and then a trip along a bumpy road to Kaesong and the demilitarised zone between north and south. On the way, we often heard variations on my favourite phrase: ‘American imperialists’; ‘US aggressors’; ‘American colonisers’; ‘US occupation’. Some of the group became a little weary of the constant reiteration, preferring not to be reminded of the 70,000 US soldiers in the south, let alone the massive amount of military hardware and thousands of nuclear weapons.IMG_7412 (2) (320x203)

But the demilitarised zone itself was a real eye-opener. We were shown the place where the armistice was signed in 1953, the villages and farmers who live in the zone, and then taken to the 38th parallel. Here the feel was quite relaxed, with a smiling soldier telling us about the current situation and openly flirting with some of the women. We were free to photograph and joke.

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Looking out over the temporary border, we saw ten DPRK soldiers standing guard on one side. No foreign soldiers were present. However, on the other side only a couple of South Korean soldiers could be seen. The rest were clearly American soldiers. One soldier photographed us with a powerful lens as we photographed them all. But then, a small tour group from the other side appeared. They were led not by civilians, not by South Koreans, but by yet more swaggering US soldiers. Indeed, there were almost as many American GIs present as there were people in the group.

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The response in our group was palpable. They were clearly annoyed at the presence of so many American soldiers. Many spoke of the swagger, the arrogance of telling others what to do, the intervention in other countries. It seemed as though they had realised that the brazen imperialist aggressors were indeed present.

The Soviet Union as a Multinational State

Or what is China for that matter? It is becoming clearer in some of the more astute research that the Soviet Union was not a federation, not an empire, not a colonising power, not a nation-state, but an entirely new state formation.[1]

A federation assumes disparate groups that then slowly merge together to form a state, like the United States or Switzerland. The catch with the situation in the Soviet Union was that such disparate groups did not exist, except for a brief time after the ‘civil’ war that followed the October Revolution.

There are many still who like to apply the term ‘empire’ or ‘colonial power’ to the USSR, since these are known frameworks. Thus, it sought to impose its imperial will on subject peoples much like the tsarist autocracy that it overthrew, if not seek world domination; or it exploited the ‘border lands’ for the sake of raw material and was therefore a colonial power. But these do not get us very far. The Soviet government was extraordinarily careful to avoid replicating the patterns of the tsarist empire, which involved suppressing the many nationalities that made up the Soviet Union. Instead, they fostered the diversity of the cultures, languages and forms of governance of these nationalities (with the exception of some ‘enemy nationalities’ during the Second World War, who opted out of the project and toyed with aiding the enemy – they were, of course relocated). As for colonialism, the Soviets actually supported anti-colonial movements around the world, coming to see the October Revolution as in many respects also an anti-colonial revolution, especially among the various national groups within what became the USSR. For them, particularly the Belorussians, Latvians and Georgians, nationalism was a positive movement and was seen as one with the socialist project.

A nation-state is impossible to think now without Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community’ argument. But in the intense debates among socialists (German and Austrian Marxists such as Karl Kautsky, Karl Renner and Otto Bauer; the members of the Bund, the Jewish Workers Party, and the Bolsheviks) in the early twentieth century, ‘nation’ meant not the nation-state but what might now be called ‘ethnic minorities’. However, the problem with that term is that the nations in question were not predicated on ethnicity and they included both minority and majority nations. In order to get away from the traps of using the term ‘nation’, it is perhaps better to use the term ‘nationality’. Indeed, in the Chinese context, this term is still used: minzu. In light of this situation, the Soviet Union itself was not a nationality, not a nation, and not a nation-state.

So what was it? The terms they used the describe the Soviet Union are instructive. They preferred to speak of the ‘Land of the Soviets’, the ‘Soviet people’ and even the ‘Soviet Motherland’. The favoured term of the 1936 Stalin Constitution was ‘friendship of the peoples’. For Terry Martin, this was the ‘imagined community’ of the Soviet Union. But I would like to go one step further and suggest that the Soviet Union was not a nation-state but a multi-national socialist state. In this way it provides one model as to how a socialist state formation might develop. The fact that this model deeply influenced China in the 1950s also suggests that China has also developed into a multi-national state, albeit with its own inflections since then.

[1] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939  (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 15, 19, 461; Theodore R. Weeks, “Stalinism and Nationality,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6, no. 3 (2005): 567.