Change in North Korea?

The most recent issue of The Economist, dated February 9th, 2013, was flatteringly crowned with a front page depicting the famous Mansudae Grand Monument statue of Kim Il Sung, whose upheld hand, rather than pointing the way forward to a future of independence, workers’ power, and socialism under the banner of the Juche idea, clung to a handful of dollar bills and Korean won. In bold next to the photo was the exclamatory text: CHANGE IN NORTH KOREA.

The reader, directed to pages 11 and 24 to discover the “promising” change indicated in the title, was then confronted with a set of two articles which, firstly, reiterated the basic slanders aimed at the DPRK and the Korean people, decrying the Koreans in the North as “the most oppressed people in the world” and the DPRK as a cruel dynastic autocracy; secondly, presented the dilemmas and problems of a fledgling class of petty capitalists whose historic mission is to topple the current regime and bring about the precious freedom, democracy, and prosperity of capitalism; and thirdly, suggested ways and means by which “the world” can help free the Korean people from tyrannical despotism and achieve liberation.

The articles were, to say the least, disgusting.  Further adjectives could include “slanderous”, “bitterly ignorant”, “repulsive”, “ridiculous”,  and a whole host of other words which could maybe accomplish the denunciation and rejection which these articles deserve.  One thing is absolutely for sure, however: the articles ran in the same vein as typical capitalist scribbles of the pen do.  The articles ignored crucial realities that concern the masses of ordinary working people under the conditions of capitalism and imperialism in favor of some idealist conception of free enterprise, which supposedly benefits everyone willing to work hard and throw in their lot in the frenzied competition for extravagant wealth.  Such as, for example, those petty bourgeois speculators who have appeared among the Korean population and are praised and adored by exploiters the world over for their efforts at achieving personal gain at a time when the majority of Koreans are collectively struggling to scrape out a decent livelihood in spite of the imposed hardships of imperialism and the bitter natural and geo-political disasters of the 1990’s.

The fact of the matter, the reality at stake here, is far from the picture painted by the writers of The Economist, who see nothing in the DPRK other than what would be the grey, dull oppression of their unquenchable thirst for profit at the expense of other people.  Rather, life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is, even with the considerable problems which must be contextualized instead of merely denied or highlighted, a life far better than any sort of existence that capitalism could offer the Korean people.

The Korean Revolution was an historic salvation for the people of the Korean peninsula who have been able to contribute to its fruition and accomplishments.  Unfortunately, this excludes those 50 million Koreans who live in a glaringly un-democratic state that is still occupied and kept under house arrest by tens of thousands of imperialist, namely American, soldiers.  South Korea has a higher GDP and PPP, a higher standard of living since the 1980’s, and has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  Thus, it may appear to the novice onlooker that capitalism truly has triumphed on the Korean peninsula, humiliated the North’s attempts at sovereignty and socialism, and proved the supposed inefficiency and unworkability of a publicly owned, planned economy.

The fact remains, however, that while the South has been bolstered and flooded with imperialist funding, aid, technology, training, and all of the other benefits that come with being a puppet country of the West, the North is the real success story.  Bloodied and ravaged in the Korean War, sanctioned, embargoed, and blackmailed by the most powerful countries in the world, and left essentially to its own devices and experience to industrialize and modernize, the North has not only developed on a tremendous and impressive scale, but has provided a decent, respectable life for its people in the process.  The DPRK’s course of development has borne out the truth contained in the basic law of socialist development as formulated by J.V. Stalin:  “The essential features and requirements of the basic law of socialism might be formulated roughly in this way: the securing of the maximum satisfaction of the constantly rising material and cultural requirements of the whole of society through the continuous expansion and perfection of socialist production on the basis of higher techniques” (J.V. Stalin.  Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, pg. 39-40).

In the South, the exploitation of working people by domestic and foreign capitalists and massive influxes of foreign aid prevail as the sources of the vast amounts of wealth of South Korea that such voices as those in The Economist laud as the “success of capitalism.”  Independent scholar Stephen Gowans pointed out:

“Industry in the north grew at 25 percent per annum in the 10 years following the Korean War and at 14 percent from 1965 to 1978. US officials were greatly concerned about south Korea’s economy, which lagged far behind, raising doubts about the merits of Washington’s right-wing, pro-capitalist, neo-colonial project in Korea. By 1980, the north Korean capital, Pyongyang, was one of the best run, most efficient cities in Asia. Seoul, on the other hand, was a vast warren “of sweatshops to make Dante or Engels faint,” complete with a teeming population of homeless.

“Eager to present the south’s economic system as superior to the north’s, Washington allowed the ROK to pursue a vigorous program of industrial planning behind a wall of tariffs and subsidies, while, at the same time, offering south Korean industry access to the world market. To help matters along, huge dollops of aid were poured into the country. Japan delivered $800 million in grants and loans as compensation for 35 years of colonial domination, at a time when south Korea’s exports were only $200 million. And in return for dispatching 50,000 soldiers to fight on the US-side in Vietnam, Washington handed over $1 billion in mercenary payments from 1965 to 1970, equal to eight percent of the south’s GDP. South Korean engineering firms were given contracts with the US military, and Vietnam soaked up almost all of the south’s steel exports (produced by an integrated steel mill built with the $800 million aid injection from Japan.)”  (Stephen Gowans, Understanding North Korea).

Meanwhile, the North has built up a considerably advanced economy on far different terms.  Rather than having the opportunity to absorb billions of dollars in aid for decade after decade, the DPRK has constructed industry and collectivized and modernized agriculture along the guidelines of socialist labor, which follows the slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work.”  With the principles and practice of workers’ power and a socialist mode of production, undeniable achievements have been brought about.  Even since the famine, loss of Soviet aid, and other disasters of the 1990’s, the North’s economy has managed to stay afloat, registering as high of a GDP growth rate as 3.8% in 2008, while the rest of the world suffered from capitalist crisis and economic recession.

While the North is berated and slandered as a cruel dictatorship, it is one of the only countries in the world which guarantees its citizens free and decent health care, housing, food rations, and education.  Its economic growth, rather than lining the pockets of a minority of financiers or entrepreneurs, is channelled into improving the living standards and livelihood of the Korean people and the defense of the country.  In recent years, the country’s leadership has been compelled to adopt the Songun or “military first” policy, which, problematic in that it severely squeezes the civilian economy, has developed such deterrents and defense capabilities as a nuclear program to defend the country’s just efforts at socialism and independence from imperialist invasion.

Realizing the successes of the North’s socialism, however, does not suppose the denial of its problems.  There are indeed serious problems.  While such brilliant articles as Stephen Gowans’s Understanding North Korea or Return to the Source’s Korea Resilient! Socialism in Democratic Korea recount, explain, and clarify the successes and highlights of the DPRK, accounts such as those in The Economist bring to mind problems that, rather than being left to be underscored and highlighted by capitalists in an effort to discredit and slander the North, should be studied and discussed by progressives and revolutionaries who recognize the importance of the DPRK’s struggle to maintain itself.

The Economist spoke of petty bourgeois traders and merchants who are increasingly emerging and profiting in the tough times facing the DPRK.  A second economy of corruption, private trading and even production, and smuggling has arisen because of the scarcity of such things as consumer goods which, as the DPRK’s economy and society increasingly develops, Koreans increasingly desire and demand.

The fundamental problem facing the DPRK on the domestic front is resolving the issue of the second economy which, left unchecked, could potentially assume relative proportions of that of the second economy in the USSR, a development which crucially contributed to the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Coercion will not wholly do the trick, and controversy still abounds as to whether or not a “socialist market model” can combat and reign in the second economy through such measures as the strategic adoption of certain market mechanisms and reforms which are intended to answer the problems that give birth to a second economy, while assuring that the solutions are such which ultimately contribute to the maintenance and further development of socialism.

The DPRK faces the glaring problem of dealing with the dilemma of the second economy, which is day by day engendering more potential petty bourgeois elements which oppose and undermine the regime’s socialist orientation and workers’ power.  Change may be indeed necessary and, more or less, urgent.

Any change, however, that would result in the reconstitution of Korean society in the interests of the fledgling capitalists and petty bourgeoisie should be resolutely resisted and rejected.  What is necessary at the present time is a rejuvenation and conscious effort on the part of the working people of the DPRK and their leadership in the struggle to maintain but  technically improve the socialist model so as to continually meet the needs and demands of the Korean people.  Times are tough, to say the least, and tough measures may be necessary.

If the DPRK were to collapse because of an inability or refusal to deal with the problem of the second economy and its implications, the tragic consequences would be nearly unbearable and horrific, and perhaps tantamount to the results of the collapse of the USSR.  Widespread poverty, death, disrepair, degeneration, and corruption will overwhelm the Korean people if their precious socialist state were to disappear.

The defense of the Korean homeland against imperialist aggression, the maintenance and improvement of socialism and workers’ power, and the resolution and tackling of existing problems, namely the second economy, are the historic tasks confronting the Korean people.

Must there be some sort of change in North Korea? Yes, certainly: change that reassures the persistence of the socialist mode of production and working people’s political power.  In spite of The Economist and all of those around the world who eagerly await the downfall of the Korean people’s republic and the opportunity to loot and rape the Korean nation once again, revolutionaries and progressives must stand shoulder to shoulder, realize the gravity of the situation, and push forward for solutions that hasten the victory of the international proletarian revolution, beginning with the support and encouragement of one of the world’s only actually existing socialist countries that has survived the counter-revolutionary onslaught of the last two decades.


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