Rodong Sinmun building, Pyongyang. Source
In my last post, I discussed how South Korea has “gone global.” Its business community has emancipated itself from the nation state and is now outsourcing employment to lower-wage countries and “insourcing” lower-wage labor. The eventual result? A downward leveling of incomes. And a profound ethnic and cultural transformation. South Korea is abolishing itself.
This self-abolition is of concern not just to South Koreans. There is the little matter of their neighbors, the North Koreans. What do they think?
A naïve observer might expect a positive reaction. Doesn’t the North support international socialism? And doesn’t that mean support for multiculturalism? At most, one might expect some sadness that the political Right is piloting this transformation of South Korea.
The North Koreans actually feel differently. In April 2006, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party, Rodong Sinmun, ran this editorial:
Recently, in South Korea, a strange game pursuing the weakening of the fundamental character of our race and making society ‘multiethnic and multiracial’ is unfolding.
Those responsible for this commotion are spreading confounding rumors like South Korea is a “multiracial area” mixed with the blood of Americans and several other races, how we must “overcome closed ethnic nationalism,” and we must embrace “the inclusiveness and openness of a multiethnic nation” like the United States.
The words themselves take a knife to the feeling of our people, but even more serious is that this anti-national theory of “multiethnic, multiracial society” has already gone beyond the stage of discussion. Already, they’ve decided that from 2009, content related to “multiracial, multiethnic culture” would be included in elementary, middle and high school textbooks that have until now stressed that Koreans are the “descendents of Dangun,” “of one blood line” and “one race,” and to change the terms “families of international marriage” and “families of foreign laborers” to “multicultural families.”
This is an outrage that makes it impossible to repress the rage of the people/race. To start from the conclusion, the argument for “multiethnic, multiracial society” cried for by pro-American flunkeyists in South Korea is an unpardonable argument to obliterate the race by denying the homogeneity of the Korean race and to make an immigrant society out of South Korea, to make it a hodgepodge, to Americanize it. (Koehler, 2006)
For some, the above editorial is proof that the North Koreans are nuts. They’ve gone Nazi, and there’s no longer any point in dealing with them. This is the message of a recent book that brands the North Koreans as being “ideologically closer to America’s adversaries in World War II than to communist China and Eastern Europe” (Myers, 2010, pp. 15-16).
The truth is a bit more complex. First, they’re not the ones who’ve changed. We have. We’re observing North Korea from a frame of reference that has shifted over time. Today, across our entire political spectrum, we view all forms of ethnic nationalism as outdated, if not evil. Sixty years ago, the same view was confined to the far left. It was even marginal within the leftist ideology that gave birth to North Korea.
What makes North Korea tick? Some background
Socialism, Marxism-Leninism, communism …. These are different words for the ruling ideology of the Soviet Union, particularly during Josef Stalin’s long term of office from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s. During the 1930s, and more so during the war years, Stalin partially rehabilitated nationalism, seeing national identity as normal, legitimate, and even progressive—especially if used to mobilize opposition to fascism and international capitalism. He also promoted autarky and the belief that socialism should be made to work in one country at a time.
Meanwhile, many Koreans were looking to Soviet communism as a way to take back their country. They were really nationalists who resented the way their nation was being made to serve Japanese imperial rule and a tiny landowning class. They also understood that many nations elsewhere faced similar situations. By lending their voices to the chorus of international solidarity, they believed they were encouraging others to become masters in their own house. They were also ensuring their personal survival, since many had to flee to the Soviet Union and China.
In 1945, with the defeat of Japan and the end of the Second World War, these émigrés were brought back to form an administration in northern Korea under the auspices of the Soviet Union. From the outset, their ideology was clearly a mix of communism and nationalism:
Thus Marxism-Leninism cannot affect the deep structures of thought and behavior in any society except over a very long period: it will be grafted onto existing, longstanding roots and, while seeking to transform the roots, will itself be transformed as peoples and cultures render it intelligible to their lives. Part of the roots will be whittled away, but the branches will be pruned as well.
This has proved truer in Korea than in many settings for building socialism, precisely because of the very alienness of the setting to this fundamentally Western set of ideas. Korea had a minuscule proletariat, the beginnings of capitalism, and far too much internationalism (capitalist-style) by 1945. It therefore took from Marxism-Leninism what it wanted and rejected much of the rest: a state with potent organization, capable of providing the political basis for independence at a future point; an economic program of rapid industrialization and a philosophy of subjecting nature to human will; Lenin’s notion of national liberation; Stalin’s autarky of socialism-in-one country (to become in Korea socialism in one-half-a-country, and now, as Kenneth Jowitt remarked, socialism-in-one-family). Autarky fit Korea’s Hermit Kingdom past, and answered the need for closure from the world economy after decades of opening under Japanese auspices. What was unusable was dispatched as soon as possible: above all the socialist internationalism including a transnational division of labor that the Soviets wanted and that Korea successfully resisted, beginning in the late 1950s.
In the 1950s, North Korea was more nationalistic than the rest of the communist bloc, but this difference should not be exaggerated. When communist Bulgaria pressured much of its Turkish minority to leave, the reason was that the Turks, as Turks, were incompatible with the Bulgarian nation state. When Mao offered to send Chinese migrants to Siberia, Khrushchev curtly refused: such migration would have endangered the region’s ethnic balance. There was no other reason.
The West was no less committed to the nation state. When the two power blocs went to war over the Korean peninsula, the West never condemned the North Koreans for ethnic nationalism—or the outdated idea that blood relationships are a key organizing principle of society. That idea was not yet outdated. In fact, our side accused the North Koreans of trying to subvert blood relationships—by undermining the authority of the family and by banning ancestor worship.
Since then, the North Koreans have hardly changed. But we’ve changed a lot. Today, in rejecting the nation state, we differ profoundly not just from the North Koreans but also from what we were back in the 1950s. We are strangers to everyone from that time, including ourselves.
Is this surprising? Change moves slowly in communist societies because the State keeps a tight rein on mainstream culture. There is only one authorized ideology, and it’s not easily tampered with—despite all of its revolutionary rhetoric. Any adjustments must be approved by the different organs of the ruling party, which are in the hands of individuals who have slowly risen through the party’s ranks.
The West, despite its superficial conservatism, offers much more leeway for sweeping change. The mainstream culture is an open system. It is much more vulnerable to being altered, and there is no lack of interest groups who understand the value of such alteration. By changing cultural norms, they can change how the average person thinks and behaves.
Cumings, B. (1982-1983). Corporatism in North Korea, Journal of Korean Studies, 4, 269-294.
Koehler, R. (2006). I guess this means the DPRK won’t be inviting Hines Ward for a visit (English translation of Rodong Sinmun editorial).
Korea Central News Agency (2006). Rodong Sinmun Censures Theory of “Multiracial Society” http://kcna.co.jp/item/2006/200604/news04/28.htm#7
Myers, B.R. (2010). The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves—and Why It Matters, Brooklyn: Melville House.