Corporatism and the Chuch’e Idea
Marxism presented no political model for achieving socialism, only an opaque set of prescriptions. This political vacuum opened the way to an assertion of indigenous political culture and could even be said to demand it by virtue of the very paucity of political models. The strongest foreign influence on the North Korean leadership was the Chinese communist model, and so Kim Il Sung was very much a “mass line” leader like Mao Zedong, making frequent visits to factories and the countryside, sending cadres “down” to local levels to help policy implementation and to solicit local opinion, requiring small-group political study and so-called “criticism and self-criticism,” using periodic campaigns to mobilize people for production or education, and encouraging soldiers also to engage in production in good “people’s army” fashion.
The Ch’ollima or “flying horse” Movement inaugurated in the late 1950s was a typical example of a Chinese-inspired strategy. North Korea, like China but unlike the Soviet Union, also maintained a “united front” policy toward noncommunist groups, so that in addition to the ruling KWP there were much smaller par-ties—the Korean Social Democratic Party and the native Ch’ondogyo religion’s Chongu (Friends) Party—with mainly symbolic functions.
There are many differences from China and the Soviet Union, however, and many of them have been there from the beginning. The symbol of the KWP, for example, was a hammer and sickle with a writing brush superimposed, symbolizing the “three-class alliance” of workers, peasants, and intellectuals. Unlike Mao’s China, North Korea has never excoriated intellectuals as a potential “new class” of exploiters; instead, it has followed an inclusive policy toward them, perhaps because postwar Korea was so short of intellectuals and experts, and because so many left the North for the South in the 1945–50 period. The term intellectual, of course, refers to experts and technocrats, not dissenters and critics, of which there are exceedingly few in North Korea, even when compared to China and the former Soviet Union.
The relatively sophisticated industrial structure that North Korea began in 1945 also required a higher proportion of experts and created labor shortages in agriculture, thereby stimulating mechanization of farming, another difference from China. In contrast to the typical Marxist–Leninist model, the KWP was less a tiny vanguard than a big “mass party,” as mentioned earlier, which then raises the question, what was the vanguard? It was what Kim Il Sung called the “core” or “nucleus” at the commanding heights of the regime, consisting of himself and his closest associates. All “good things” emanate in top-down fashion from this core, in sharp departure from Maoist dicta about the source of good ideas being the mass of peasants and workers.
North Korea’s political system was therefore a mix of Marxism-Leninism, Korean nationalism, and indigenous political culture. The term that perhaps best captures this system was socialist corporatism. Although corporatism historically was associated with conservative, even fascist regimes, since the 1920s there has been a particular strain of leftist corporatism, which argued that in the twentieth-century nation-state, conflict replaced class conflict as the motive force of history. Romanian Marxists were among the first to spell this out as a type of socialism particularly appropriate to colonial or less-developed countries, now usually called developing nations.
North Korea was the first example of postcolonial socialism; the colonial heritage of dependency and underdevelopment deeply affected North Korean politics and still does so today. If nation-state conflict was the point, then you would emphasize masses rather than classes, that is, national unity rather than workers fighting bourgeois intellectuals; you would have a mass party, not a class party of proletarians. North Korean ideology has followed suit, burying Marxism–Leninism under the ubiquitous, always-trumpeted chuch’e idea.
One cannot open a North Korean newspaper or listen to a single speech without hearing about chuch’e. The term was first used in a 1955 speech in which Kim castigated some of his comrades for being too pro-Soviet—thinking that if the Soviets eat fish on Monday, Koreans should, too, and so forth. But chuch’e really means keeping all foreigners at arm’s length, which resonates deeply with Korea’s “hermit kingdom” past.
Chuch’e has no meaning for a Marxist, but much for East Asians. It shares a first Chinese character with the ti-yong (essence and practical use) phrase popular in late nineteenth-century China and a second character with the Japanese kokutai (national polity) of the 1930s. The ti-yong concept built on Chinese learning as the basis of the ideology and Western learning or technology for its utility. Kokutai was a somewhat mystical term meant to distinguish all that was uniquely Japanese from all that was alien and foreign. Chuch’e combines both meanings, taking Korean ideas as central, foreign ideas as secondary; it also suggests putting Korean things first at all times, being ever “subjective” where Korea was concerned. By the 1970s, chuch’e had triumphed fundamentally over Marxism–Leninism as the basic ideology of the regime, but the emphases have been there from the beginning.
Corporatist doctrine has always preferred an organic politics to the liberal, pluralist conception: a corporeal body politic, not a set of diverse groups and interests. North Korea’s goal of tight unity at home produced a remarkable organicism, unprecedented in any existing communist regime. Kim was not just the “iron-willed, ever-victorious commander,” the “respected and beloved Great Leader;” he was also the “head and heart” of the body politic (even “the supreme brain of the nation”). The flavor of this politics can only be realized through quotation from Korean Central News Agency releases:
"Kim Il Sung ... was the great father of our people .... Long was the history of the word father being used as a word representing love and reverence ... expressing the unbreakable blood ties between the people and the leader. Father. This familiar word represents our people’s single heart of boundless respect and loyalty .... The love shown by the Great Leader for our people is the love of kinship. Our respected and beloved Leader was the tender-hearted father of all the people .... Love of paternity ... is the noblest ideological sentiment possessed only by our people ....
His heart is a traction power attracting the hearts of all people and a centripetal force uniting them as one .... Kim Il Sung is the great sun and great man ... thanks to this, great heart national independence is firmly guaranteed."
This verbiage was especially strong when the succession to Kim’s son was publicly announced at the Sixth KWP Congress in 1980. The KWP was often referred to as the “mother” party, the mass line was said to provide “blood ties,” the leader was always “fatherly,” and the country was presumably one big “family.” Kim was said to be paternal, devoted, and benevolent, and the people were said to respond with loyalty, obedience, and mutual love. Unlike the Maoists, the regime has never tampered with the families of citizens per se, and indeed the family was termed the core unit of society in the constitution, and the society was called a “great integrated entity”.
North Korean socialism demonstrates an apparent volunteerism, something also redolent of corporate politics. North Korean propagandists say that “everything is decided by idea,” directly contradicting the materialism at the heart of Marxism. And, of course, the leader’s ideas are the best, compounded by his firm “will,” always described as “iron-like,” or “steel-like.” Kim Il Sung invented chuch’e, and all Koreans “must have chuch’e firm in mind and spirit,” and only then can they be good “Kimilsungists,” and only then can the revolution be successful. The more one seeks to understand chuch’e, the embodiment of Kim’s rule and will, the more the meaning recedes. It was a state of mind, not an idea, and one that was unavailable to the non-Korean. It was the opaque core of North Korean national solipsism.
The North Korean system was not simply a hierarchical structure of party, military, and state bureaucracies, but also a hierarchy of ever-widening concentric circles. At the center was Kim Jong Il. The next circle was his family, followed by the now-elderly guerrillas who fought with Kim Il Sung, and then the KWP elite. These individuals form the core circle, which controls everything at the highest echelon of the regime.
Here politics was primarily personalistic, resting on something akin to oaths of fealty and obligation. The core must constantly be steeled and hardened, while moving outward and downward concentrically to encompass other elements of the population, and to provide the glue holding the system together. As the penumbra of workers and peasants was reached, trust gives way to control on a bureaucratic basis, and to a mixture of normative and remunerative incentives. Nonetheless, the family remains the model for societal organization. An outer circle marks off that which was Korean from that which was foreign, a reflection of the extraordinary ethnic and linguistic unity of Koreans and the country’s history of exclusionism.
This corporate system was instinctively repellent to anyone who identifies with the modern liberal idea, or indeed with the modern Marxist idea. North Korea’s simple adherence to its corporatism would be one thing, but by trumpeting the system’s worth far and wide, it has earned widespread disbelief and ridicule. Nonetheless, the system was different. In 1990, when many Marxist–Leninist regimes had collapsed, the North Koreans proudly stated that they were still hewing to their well-worn path, of “nation-first-ism,” placing the nation first in everything.
The North Korean difference can be explained only by reference to the tradition and the political culture from which it derives. It was a mixture of Confucian holdovers, Korean traditionalism, and socialist corporatism.
The strength and stability of the system rest on marrying traditional forms of legitimacy to modern bureaucratic structures, with the peculiar charisma of Kim Il Sung providing the transition and the glue between the two. The weakness was that core political power seems still to rest upon personalistic ties, with trust barely extending beyond the leader’s family and his long-time guerrilla associates.
This was the reason that Kim Jong Il was deeply involved in party and government activities for at least 25 years before he took power, and an entire generation of party faithful and government bureaucrats was rewarded over these same years for supporting his succession. Nor was father-to-son succession in any way alien to East Asian political culture: many huge South Korean firms are headed by the founder’s son.
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