You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.
Skip to content

De Novo Mutations of Communism in North Korea During the Cultural Revolution

This was originally a paper I wrote in 2008 for a class on the history of Korea. I’m republishing it now because it seems novel and I haven’t heard anyone describe North Korean communism this way.

In historiographical terms the political ideology of a nation is analogous to the genetic material of an organism. Richard Dawkins was one of the first to make the connection between ideas and viral behaviors. He called viral ideas memes. Tracing the history of communism we can see influences of both Russian and Chinese communism injected into North Korea. however certain aspects of DPRK communism are de novo1 mutations. The mutation of communism in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea [DPRK] is a blend of Leninists Socialism and Chinese Maoism developed over a framework of the Northern Korean peninsula. This framework produced interesting and unique anomalies to the meme of Communism because of environmental effects and objective based decisions of Kim Il Song.
This paper will explore the use of Communism by DPRK and the mutations detected from activities of the PRC Cultural Revolution. The unofficial end date of the Cultural Revolution extends to the mid 1970’s however it was officially ended in 1968. This paper will focus particularly on the events between 1965-1968 and the changes brought about in the Sino-DPRK relationship as a direct result of the mutations described herein. The paper will begin with a brief background on North Korean society, the Chinese Cultural Revolution between 1965 and 1969 and finally conclude with a comparative look at Chinese and North Korean versions of Communism from 1965-1968. A brief look at some interesting examples which occur after 1969 will follow to help summarize the elements of this paper.
The North Korean party state was “made in the image of a guerrilla war with a tightly knit core bound by personal connections to the leader and a social inclusiveness that depended particularly on the support of the poorest segment of peasant society. North Korean historiography traces the DPRK’s linage to “the founder of Korea, the (probably mythical) Tangun through Old Choson to Koguryo. It is in this vein that the proposed DPRK unification plans call for the formation of “a confederated Korean state to be called Koryo Yongbang Konghawguk (Federation of the Koryo Republic).[Oh, Hassig p 3] Oh and Hassig also note the undoubtedly strong elements of Confucianism in the Kim ruling style [p 4]. Even the adopted title of Kim Il Song (oboi suryong2) as something that holds a distinctive Confucian tone.
It important to recall that during the time period for which this paper is intended to study the economic race between the two Koreas was being won by the North. It is also important to recall that the atrocities of the Japanese colonial rule were still very fresh in the minds of Koreans. Park [p 504] touches on this briefly as a deep underlying humiliation that drove the leadership of the DPRK. The de facto rule by Kim was in no small part due to his fight against the Japanese.
He also notes that Juche was evolved around this sentimentality and the South constantly criticized for their reliance and accommodation to foreign powers. [505] These years represent a significant power shift in the EA sphere. Anything prior to 1965 is just background information and anything after [the end of the CR] needs “decoding”. DPRK had instituted its own cultural revolution in the 1940’s. They used an “all-round thought movement for nation-building (kon’guk sasang ch’oqdongwon undong).” What this meant, in practice, was that all literature had to promote party policy. In 1966 the General Committee declared that although, “the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavor to stage a comeback”. The “Four Olds” were to be destroyed on sight and by everyone in the country. This included Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas.
There are mirrors of this sentiment throughout DPRK history however there exists a significant and interesting difference. While China was trying to eliminate the elements of monarchy the North Koreans were eliminating traces of their previous colonial ruler. So in this sense both versions of Communism were attempting to achieve the same goal. However the goals could be further abstracted so that they are both attempting to remove elements of the previous rule. This difference is so simple yet powerful. In the case of the DPRK removing Japanese elements did not preclude the adoption of previous Korean models such as Confucianism.
In 1967, Party members accuse rivals of “counter-revolutionary activity” through out this year. It was a period of deep self criticism. The First Five-Year Plan was to run from 1963 through 1967, but Americans in the Agency for International Development (AID) mission did not like it, and refused to certify it for foreign lending. From 1967 to 1971 not one of 306 administration-sponsored bills was rejected in the National Assembly. Foreign firms like the Gulf Oil Corporation kicked in large amounts just before elections ($1 million from Gulf in 1967 and $3 million in 1971, plus another $4 million from Caltex Petroleum, according to Senate hearings in the mid-1970s3
Daewoo did not exist until 1967, and the other big chaebol did not go into heavy industry until this formative period. but in the decade 1967-78, Korean debt grew fifteen fold, 1967 Kim Woo Chung borrowed $18,000 from his family and friends to found a small trading company, which he called Daewoo4.
In 1968, the anti Japanese aspects of their culture (ch’in il p’a means Japan lovers) is one of the forces behind the current shape of Juche and one of the cores of the DPRK style of communism5. They promoted “the already-adored Mao Zedong to god-like status” and Lin Biao was made the Party’s Vice-Chairman. Lin Biao was Mao’s “comrade-in-arms” and “designated successor”.
The criticisms of the South’s greed were not without a seed of truth. The DRP and KCIA had “literally tens of millions of dollars to throw around”. In 1968 the KCIA kidnapped several Koreans living in West Germany

Songbun, (Korean term which replicates ‘older brother’ Confucian term and used by Choson era Confucians to validate their mimicry of the Chinese system. Also used later by Japanists during their accommodation of colonizers.) (study of classical Chinese by the yangbun) (interpretation of communist thought in DPK: see aquariums source) this is an interesting parallel because of the throwback to Choson era times when only nobles were allowed to read and write. This social norm was enforced by using Chinese as the primary language which required years of arduous training to understand. In Aquariums, we see a different mechanism for enforcement. Although anecdotal the scene in the concentration camp during the New Years celebration shows the modern form of intellectual compartmentalization. The prisoners are read words (likely paraphrased) from Kim. It isn’t that the prisoners don’t understand Korean or that they do not know how to read Hangul. It was believed that the prisoners did not have the potential to understand the purity of the words. The idea of nobility is obviously inverted from the days of Choson such that those of “red” blood are celebrated instead of those with “blue” blood.
By 1969 the international positions of the two major communist powers had shifted radically. Both China and Russia had built significant military forces along the Sino Russian border. This had a great effect on relations with the DPRK. Sino-DPRK relations had deteriorated throughout the CCR and were now at their lowest point ever. China’s infamous Red Guard went so far as to label Kim Il-song as a “fat revisionist”. [KF: PP]. Pyongyang was unable to choose between the two powers and was left with no choice but to estrange itself from both powers equally. [park 505] It is well known that both sides criticized each other, but not how the dispute changed their relationship in any fundamental way.
Perhaps the most telling of Confucian adaptations by the DPRK but slightly out of the scope of this paper is the succession of Kim Il Song. Kim Il Song had two sons and according to most sources the second was the most popular and charismatic. However Kim Il Song chose to appoint the eldest son to rule over North Korea. Oh and Hassig note that Kim Jong Il has nearly replicated the rule of his father and connote this with the “Confucian duty to obey his father’s wishes”.
Dynastic rituals of leadership prevents radical shifts for adaptation. China’s split with Maoism occurred in 89 when Deng Xiao Peng injected capitalism to repair the economy. this is another mutation of communism by china to repair a broken aspect of the pure ideology of Maoism. The current succession ranks in DPK lacks the ability to alter the national foreign policy to invigorate the economy as China did. This autarkic model will only be reversed when someone outside the immediate linage ascends (or is voted in by a democratic election). This mutation, as argued by this paper, is the most significant in relation to the major Communist powers of the past. And today it is the most striking underlying difference that keeps two of the very few remaining Communists states left estranged.
In conclusion, the k’ung k’ung k’ung of Kim Chi Ha’s poem is a sound that can be heard on both sides of the Yalu river. Although open criticism of the Theory of the Three Represents is taboo, there have been reports of private unease from within the Communist Party of China. Criticism of Juche is also taboo within North Korea. The Chinese communists were able to easily exchange culture because of their commonality in Asian ancestry. The Taiwanese, according to most scholarly sources, adapted well to Japanese rule however culturally resistant islanders saturated themselves in “chineseness”. So it is possible that like the Taiwanese they developed their sense of national identity out of necessity, and interestingly because of the same colonial force, to compensate for the over bearing culture forced upon them. Unlike the Taiwan situation the Koreans never switched to a new language. Aside from what are generally considered regional differences they remain unified in both written and verbal communication. The Taiwanese have not only created their own dialect but reverted to traditional script. It would be impossible for north Koreans to also revert without using Chinese characters themselves.

Sources of Korean Tradition, Ch 34-35
“Koreas Place in the Sun”, Ch 6
Aquarariums of PyongYang
North Korea Through the Looking Glass, Ch 1-2
Park, Han S. “North Korean Perceptions of Self and Others: Implications for Policy Choices” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 4, Winter 2000-2001
Koh, B. C. “The Impact of the Chinese Model on North Korea.” Asian Survey, Vol. 18, No. 6 June 1978
Simon, Sheldon W. “Some Aspects of China’s Asian Policy in the Cultural Revolution and Its Aftermath” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 44, No. 1 Spring 1971
Zagoria, Donald S. “Korea’s Future: Moscow’s Perspective” Asian Survey, Vol. 17, No. 11 November 1977
Lee, Hong Yung “Korea’s Future: Peiking’s Perspective” Asian Survey, Vol. 17 No. 11 November 1977

1 those that are not present in either of the parents
2 supreme and benevolent leader, teacher, father
3 [kpits_ch_7]
4 [kpits_ch_6]
5 [nk_revolution_ch6]

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.