North Korea: Beyond US propaganda
The DPRK's struggle for independence and unification
The International Manifesto Group sponsored on November 21 a Webinar on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, seeking to look beyond the Western stereotypes of the East Asian nation as totalitarian, economically bankrupt, and a threat to world peace.
The International Manifesto Group, panelist Derek Ford observed, is indicative of a trend in the academic left, which he characterized as the emergence of “anti-Marxist Marxists.” He noted that when neoliberalism emerged, Marxists and other leftists looked at neoliberalism from the vantage point of its impact on the workers of the North. But now there is a new trend that looks at the world-system from the vantage point of actually existing socialist projects, which is consistent with Marx’s scientific method. Inasmuch as the nations constructing socialism are in the Third World plus China, this approach takes us to analysis of the impact of neoliberalism on the peoples of the world beyond the North.
The panel was moderated by Radhika Desai, Professor at the Department of Political Studies, and Director, Geopolitical Economy Research Group, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada. She is the author of Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire (2013), which among other merits, provides the foundation for our understanding that the capitalist world-economy has entered a parasitic unproductive and decadent stage.
In her introduction to the panel, Desai observed that the Korean War is the true “forever war,” in that no peace treaty has been signed, and the USA remains at war with Korea. She noted that in interchanges with Trump, Korean President Kim Jong Un suggested that a peace treaty ending the war would be an important first step toward reducing tensions. Inasmuch as no treaty has confirmed the division of the Korean peninsula into two nations, Desai prefers to speak of the “unification” of Korea, rather than the “reunification.”
The first panelist was Keith Bennett, Deputy Chair of the Kim Il Sung Kim Jong Il Foundation and Deputy Secretary General of the European Regional Society for the Study of the Juche Idea. Bennett began by observing that Bruce Cumings’ 1998 designation of the Korean War as the “unknown war” remains appropriate. He noted that the extensive bombing of North Korea left some three million dead, approximately ten percent of the population at the time. The Armistice Agreement of 1953 has not been replaced by a peace treaty.
Bennett noted that the Western press portrays the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as an economic failure that denies human rights and is a threat to humanity. This false premise eclipses an analysis of the achievement of the Workers’ Party of Korea in remaining in power consistently since 1945, even longer than the Communist Party of China. The achievements of the DPRK include free medical care and free education, which is universal and compulsory for eleven years.
Bennett observed that the DPRK, like Cuba, has contributed to the struggle for human liberation far out of proportion to its size. Under the military leadership of Kim Il Sung, the Korean armed forces in the period 1946 to 1949 were central to the liberation of the northeastern region of China. During his long political career, Kim was comrades and friends with major Latin American revolutionaries, including Fidel, Raúl, Ortega, and Allende. North Korea has supported national liberation struggles in Africa, and Korean doctors serve in Africa. The DPRK has supported anti-imperialist struggles in Europe, and Korea welcomed well-known U.S. black liberation leaders in the late 1960s. Bennet concluded that there should be much more study of Korea’s long struggle for independence and socialism.
K.J. Noh is a peace activist, independent scholar, teacher and expert in the geopolitics of Asia; and a member of Veterans for Peace. Noh notes that following the liberation of Korea from Japan in 1945, the people of Korea, not divided between north and south, created in a matter of months a socialist republic rooted in the historic nationalist struggle. However, the United States, seeing the possibility for communism, outlawed the people’s committees and arrested leaders. The previous structures and personnel of the Japanese occupation were put back into place in 1945. But the people resisted, leading to a civil war and the Korean War, which resulted in the genocidal destruction of North Korea, during which one-fifth of the population was killed.
Noh observes that prior to 1978, it was the North, rather than the South, that was more industrialized and wealthier. The more recent wealth of the South has been built on forced labor and slave labor, including sexual slavery, creating a system in which the elite are removed from the people. There is ideological repression in the South, with the banning of the word “labor,” and with massacres carried out for ideological reasons.
The greatest obstacle to unification, Noh maintains, is the fact that South Korea during the Korean War turned control of its military over to the USA, which remains in control of South Korean military forces. This effectively blocks any movement toward unification, as the USA gives priority to the defense of its strategic imperialist interests in the region. Without control of its military, and with extensive U.S. military presence, the Korean government is not able to decide on its foreign policy with respect to the north, and defend its policy with its own military force.
Derek R. Ford is assistant professor of education studies at DePauw University, Indiana, USA; and author of six books, including Marxism, Pedagogy, and the General Intellect: Beyond the Knowledge Economy (Palgrave, 2021). He led the last US delegation to the DPRK before the travel ban in 2017.
Ford maintains that the U.S. War on Korea did not provoke anti-imperialist resistance by the people as did the later Vietnam War. This was because of the repression and McCarthyism of the early 1950s, an environment that included the execution of the Rosenbergs. There emerged an environment in which it was acceptable for academics and intellectuals to be Marxist, but they were expected to denounce every existing socialist project. This legacy is rejected by many in the International Manifesto Group, which is oriented to studying existing socialist projects that are being forged in several nations, in which revolutionary leaders have been brought to power by unified people’s movements.
As Marxists, we should recognize, first, that there ought to be a peace treaty to conclude the Korean War. Secondly, we should give priority to defense of the sovereignty of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And thirdly, we should understand the DPRK in accordance with a scientific method of analysis. When Marx formulated what he called a law, he immediately modified the law, on the basis of his observation of the particular situation. For Marx, laws are not hard and fast, and they are derived from the struggle itself. Accordingly, we Marxists ought to understand Korean socialism in the context of its struggle for sovereignty and unification.
Ford observes that we tend to not know much about Kim Il Sung. We ought to know the fundamentals. In the 1950s, there were debates in Korea concerning whether priority ought to be given to a consumer economy or industrialization, in which Kim successfully argued in defense of a focus on industrialization. At the same time, the Congresses of the Party have addressed the question with mature consciousness, and there has been much pragmatism in the strategies of industrialization.
Our task, Ford maintains, is to block U.S. imperialism, and to raise the consciousness of the people against imperialism everywhere. The people of the United States already know that the government lies to them, so that is our opening.
Xiangyu Zhong is a Marxist-Leninist political commentator and a Chinese hip hop artist based in Taiwan Province. He recommends two books on the Korean War: Hugh Deane, The Korea War, 1943-53; and Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History; as well as Cumings’ North Korea: Another County. These books rectify the gross distortions in the West with respect to the Korean War; and they correct the widely disseminated view of Korea as a “living hell,” an image that has emerged because of Korea’s refusal to bow to the imperialist powers.
However, Xiangyu maintains, we should not idealize Korea as a paradise. The sanctions have had their effect. History shows that universal freedoms, where everyone does what they want, can only occur when there is a level of material development. The sanctions have created a situation in which the discipline of the masses is required.
Xiangyu notes that many restrictions that are required by this situation are taken out of context. For example, restrictions on the Internet, which results in people not having access. This is a restriction that is shaped by the reality of an international media campaign, funded by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, which attacks the sovereignty of nations in the world, as we have seen recently with the media campaign against Cuba. Such media campaigns have led in some cases to regime change, and they constitute the most recent manifestation of a long history of overthrowing democratic governments by U.S. imperialism. Even if we disagree with Korean restrictions on the Internet, we ought to understand its context: it is seen as necessary to defend the sovereignty of the nation. Media disseminated propaganda is the strength of the USA. Korea does not have the same level of soft power, so it has to defend its sovereignty with hard measures.
The DPRK, Xiangyu observes, is led by revolutionaries who run their half of Korea in a way that they must, given the imperialist attack against them. Without the imperialist attack, Korea would be more relaxed. Limited freedom of expression in Korea is a response to imperialist attacks.
The freedom that leftist academics and activists possess, Xiangyu argues, is a delusion. We can talk about communism on line because the left is weak. We would not have so much freedom if we were a more powerful force.
Xiangyu further maintained that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was justified in developing a nuclear deterrent, in light of the threats made against it. This point was further developed by panelists Kiyul Chung and Sara Flounders.
Dr. Hugh Goodacre is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Economics, University College London, and Director of the Institute for Independence Studies. The Institute studies ideologies created by oppressed peoples through their own struggles, which provides the basis for a non-Eurocentric conception of scientific socialism. Goodacre founded the Korea Friendship Committee in the UK in 1982.
Goodacre asks, what good are Marxists? It is a reasonable question for many of us, taking into account the things that have been inflicted on us by Marxists. Something analogous, he observes, has occurred at global level with respect to Korea. Kim Il Sung developed an approach to Marxism that was necessary for the Korean context, and he was criticized by many Marxists, including the Communist International.
Goodacre maintains that we must evaluate socialist nations not according to preconceptions, but on the basis of their capacity to mobilize the people against imperialism. But often Marxists have failed to expand beyond the experiential base that was available to Marx.
The central concept in the teachings of Kim Il Sung is the Juche idea, a rich conceptualization that includes the process in which the people transform the world according to their interests. The Juche idea is an important practical guide in the anti-imperialist struggle. It is a way of looking at the world that is not found in nineteenth century Marxism, but it is not inconsistent with it.
Kim Il Sung, Goodacre observes, managed to maintain the unity of the Korean people; and he had relations with both China and the Soviet Union, in spite of the Chinese-Soviet split. In addition, the DPRK laid the foundation for succession and continuity, from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un.
No country can provide a socialist model for others, Goodacre declared in response to a question. But every revolution has something to teach, and in order to learn the lessons that a revolution has to teach, you have to encounter it, seeking to understand its insights.
Goodacre recalls an encounter with Kim Il Sung in 1990, for the purpose of deepening links of solidarity between Korea and Ireland. We all felt, he declared, that we were part of a global process formed by the intersection of ideology and anti-imperialist movement.
Dr. Kiyul Chung is Editor-in-Chief at The 21st Century and a Visiting Professor at a number of universities, including Beijing’s Tsinghua University, Tokyo’s Korea University and Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung University. Dr. Chung was born in Korea and left to pursue his graduate studies in the United States in 1980. He was based in the USA for the next quarter century, where he played a leading role in the progressive Korean community. He returned to Korea in 2005 as Adjunct Professor at the Methodist University and Senior Lecturer at Hanshin University, both in Seoul, but moved shortly to Beijing, to take up academic posts there. Dr. Chung was a key organizer of a 1989 international peace march for Korean reunification that aimed to march from the northernmost to the southernmost points of the Korean peninsula, but was prevented from crossing the DMZ by the U.S. occupation forces and the south Korean authorities.
Kiyul maintains that Korea must be understood in the context of an anti-imperialist struggle for self-determination, unfolding in the face of five centuries of imperialism. Since the armistice of 1953, which has never been formalized into a treaty, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has a history of non-stop miracles in the context of non-stop sanctions, blockades, war games, and threats, undertaken for the crime of not being subservient to imperialism and insisting on independence.
The DPRK has suffered for its crime of insisting on its right to self-determination and refusing to abandon its anti-imperialist principles, particularly since the collapse of the Eastern European socialist bloc. Unable to have free trade with its neighbors, it lacks energy sources, and it experiences food shortages.
Why, Kiyul asks, is the nation united behind the party and its leader Kim Jong Un, in spite of the hardships and the international isolation? The key is its uncompromising refusal to negotiate its independence or its sovereignty.
Something similar, Kiyul notes, has happened in Russia. Under Putin, Russia was able to regain its national pride by no longer negotiating its sovereignty, a turn in Russia’s foreign policy direction that followed a meeting between Putin and Kim Jong Il. The restoration of an independent Russian foreign policy is symbolized by Russia support for Syria in the imperialist proxy war against it.
Kiyul observes that the DPRK has adopted a “military first” strategy, giving priority to self-defense and to the development of its military, including a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent. This strategy has guaranteed its independence, in contrast to nations that lost their independence because they were defenseless. With three anti-imperialist nations with nuclear arsenals (Russia, Korea, and China), there is now a balance of power that prevents nuclear war and that enables these nations to protect themselves from imperialist aggression. These nations have saved Syria, and they are allied with Iran, providing a counterforce in imperialism in the Middle East. Meanwhile, in Latin America, nations like Cuba and Nicaragua have relations with Russia, Korea, and China, and they are attempting to stand on their own feet in the face of U.S. imperialist aggression. Kiyul maintains that the leaders of Russia, China, and Iran are playing an important role in international affairs today.
Sara Flounders is a political activist and author based in New York City. She is a leader of the United National Antiwar Coalition and the International Action Center, and she is the author of numerous books.
Flounders recapped key points that had been made in the panel. U.S. imperialism is responsible for the destruction of the Korean peninsula, for the division of Korea, and for the killing of many Koreans. Its military presence keeps Korea divided. Seventy years of U.S. sanctions, with support from the UK, Canada, and Australia, have created hardships.
Flounders maintains that this reality makes clear what is needed: an anti-imperialist people’s movement in support of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which has refused to submit to imperialism. Even when millions were killed, Korea did not bow.
Imperialism has failed in Korea, Flounders declares. Imperialist aggression was contained, and socialism has been constructed in the North. The media covers over the gains that have been attained in spite of the sanctions, which have functioned to strengthen the determination of the people. Koreans have learned to be self-reliant, and one can see in Korea today new housing construction, greenhouses, and urban agriculture. And there is 100% literacy and free health care.
Flounders maintains that Korea’s nuclear capability is a deterrent to U.S. aggression, and it therefore is a protector of peace. North Korea has never attacked the USA; Korea’s leaders have observed what happens to disarmed nations that seek sovereignty.
The people of South Korea support unification. But the U.S. Congress failed to normalize relations. It failed to end sanctions and to endorse a policy of non-interference and military withdrawal, as first steps toward unification and peace.
Our demand is US Out of Korea, Flounders declares.
The intellectuals and activists on the panel, reflecting from the perspective of Korea, emphasize the anti-imperialist nature of the people’s struggles. This is similar to what emerges from the context of Cuba, China, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as well as from the Third World in general, as is seen in the history of the Non-Aligned Movement.
It is not that an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist perspective is indifferent to socialism and questions related to role of private property in economy and society. Rather, what occurs is that the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movements are emancipated from capitalist ideologies, which have been disseminated throughout the world by a colonial process driven by the quest of capitalist enterprises for profits. Freed from the distorting ideologies integral to colonialism and capitalism, the anti-imperialist movements address the questions of socialism and capital scientifically and objectively, in the context of the needs of sovereignty and independence. If unconstrained by particular interests, this leads them to the conclusion that a socialist economy, directed by a people’s state, is the most advanced economic system, more capable of contributing to the social and economic development of the nation than is a capitalist economy, in which production and distribution are distorted by the interests of large corporations and a small number of persons. In the experience of the struggle for sovereignty and economic and social development, nations constructing socialism have learned that in their socialist economies directed by people’s states, some space for private capital aids the productive process, a lesson that enables them to further develop their productivity.
In the neoliberal stage of capitalism, the movements of the people have become more advanced, as several people’s states work in cooperation and solidarity in the construction of an alternative international economic order, as is suggested by Dr. Kiyul Chung’s comments with respect to relations among China, Korea, Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Meanwhile, the capitalist world-economy becomes increasingly decadent, as capitalistic enterprises, blinded by short-term profit, turn to parasitic financial speculation and collecting interest from weak states, rather than investment in the productive capacity of the economy. The capitalist class thus leads the capitalist world-economy toward self-destruction, of which the neocolonized peoples have the most advanced consciousness, a process that in a broad sense Marx projected, although in a conceptualization shaped by his place and time.
Also important are Kiyul’s observations concerning the capacity of independent and anti-imperialist foreign policies to restore national pride. This has been an important aspect of the endurance of revolutions, even though with setbacks, in Russia, China, Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Bolivia. The left in the North ought to take note of this phenomenon. The people of the nation are effectively called to a revolutionary national project not through a critique that disparages the essence of the nation, but through a critique that demonstrates the betrayal of the nation and its values by the political establishment, and through the formulation of an alternative vision for the future of the nation, in accordance with its historic principles and building upon its genuine historic achievements.
The task of intellectuals and activists in the United States, as Derek Ford observed, is to raise the consciousness of the people against imperialism everywhere. The people know that the government lies, so we ought to be able to formulate a scientifically and historically informed discourse that effectively explains, calling the people to an anti-imperialist movement for the redirection of U.S. foreign policy.
The International Manifesto Group has emitted a new socialist manifesto and is calling upon likeminded colleagues and comrades to sign it. It can be found at “Through Pluripolarity to Socialism: A Manifesto.” My September 3, 2021 commentary provides a detailed review.
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