At the end of 2011 the Irish and international media had a feeding frenzy about the death of Kim Jong-il, head of state of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).

His death once again presented an opportunity for them to indulge in wholesale anti-communism, equating all the problems, tensions and difficulties on the Korean peninsula with the nature of the political-social system in North Korea and, by extension, with all those who advocate a socialist alternative to moribund monopoly capitalism around the globe.

RTE [Ireland’s state radio and broadcasting company] wheeled out the director of Concern [a Third World aid NGO in Ireland] to give his tuppence-worth and his “extensive” knowledge of North Korea and the famine.

He spoke about seeing three young children badly affected by hunger, and he was sure they would have died a few months after he had seen them. No one asked whether this was a fact or just him surmising that to be the case.

The Irish Times had a number of features by experts of various kinds, parading their opinions as facts, most being superficial, vacuous and shallow, while the anti-communist left rowed in behind the official narrative of how we should all view events in that country.

Yes, the regime in the DPRK poses many questions for those of us who belong to the communist tradition within the working-class movement. How can one rationalise such behaviour as the mass weeping at the passing of the “Dear Leader,” and the serried ranks of army generals so prominent in events? But then again there is no such thing as a blueprint or road map or any one way to transform society or to build socialism. All processes are shaped by objective and subjective factors.

We need to remember that Korea was partitioned by the United States. It was opposed to an independent sovereign Korea: for it to allow a unified Korea it would have to allow the “spread of communism.” Communists had mass support, north and south, following their part in the struggle against Japanese occupation, and would have won any election in the south if elections had been allowed. This the United States had to prevent, relying on a series of military regimes to control the south for many decades.

Korea, north and south, is shaped by the “Cold War” tensions between the west and the Soviet Union and those between the Soviet Union and a China dominated, as it was then, by Maoist ideology, coupled with the tensions that still bubble to the surface between the two Korean states themselves.

The partition of Korea was itself the product of the Cold War, which in Korea turned into a very hot war of savage proportions. Hundreds of thousands died on both sides. Most cities and towns in the north were flattened by the saturation bombing of the United States and its allies.

Japan occupied Korea from 1905 until its defeat in 1945. This was a very bloody and repressive period in the history of modern Korea. More than 5½ million people were conscripted as forced labour, of whom it is estimated that nearly 800,000 died as a result of the savage working conditions in forced-labour factories and camps. Tens of thousands of women were taken from Korea to Japan as “comfort women” or forced prostitution—in today’s terms it would be called state trafficking in women. It is estimated that between 1½ and 2 million people died during the Korean War.

The first five decades of the twentieth century, decades of occupation and war, have left deep scars on the Korean people, north and south. The people of the south campaigned for decades against continued occupation by the United States and its support for the military juntas that controlled the south as well as deeply resenting the role and the violence of the long Japanese imperialist occupation.

South Korea’s 650,000 troops—much better equipped—face the north’s 1.1-million-strong military across a heavily fortified and mined border. About 29,500 American troops are also stationed in South Korea along the border with the north. Up to 1991 the United States had nuclear missiles deployed in the south, pointing northwards. The present US military strategy is to provide a “nuclear umbrella” over the South, which it does with its naval fleet in the region, aimed at both the DPRK and China.

Joint manoeuvres between the American and South Korean military, simulating an invasion of the north, are constantly carried out. The US naval fleet based there comprises ships and submarines capable of launching nuclear weapons. We need to remember that the United States remains the only country to use nuclear weapons against civilians. These facts have undoubtedly left a deep mark on the government and people of the north.

The United States has built a massive concrete wall right across Korea, with tank gates along its length to allow tanks to move swiftly through. Massive banks of amplifiers and loudspeakers straddle the hills along the border, bombarding the north daily with slogans and propaganda.

The Sino-Soviet split caused further problems for the government in the north as the two major socialist blocs vied for influence and to a degree control over their smaller neighbours. At this time Maoism was being presented as an alternative to the traditional ideology of the communist movement, and the cult of Mao was in formation. Maoism became a tool of the Cold War.

To counter the pressures coming from the two big neighbours to the north, the government in Pyongyang elevated the role of Kim Il-sung to that of a cult-like figure, with his own unique ideology, called the “juche idea” or self-reliance. This neatly allowed it to sidestep and navigate around the tensions between its two great neighbours and to some extent allowed it to play them off against each other, extracting advantage from both while appearing not to take sides.

The DPRK has developed and rebuilt itself after the devastation inflicted on it by the war. Its cities have been rebuilt and developed. It has a small but nevertheless significant light manufacturing industrial base. The population stands at about 24½ million, a growth of 151 per cent since 1950. Though slightly larger in area than the south, it has much less arable land, because of its extensive mountainous regions, thereby putting huge pressure on land usage to feed a growing population.

This, coupled with the reduction in supplies of fertilisers from both China and Russia, necessary for its very intensive exploitation of limited land resources, left the country in a very difficult position, eventually leading to a food shortage in the late 1990s, which resulted in the death of thousands of people. It is almost impossible to get objective figures for the numbers who died.

As in all peasant societies, religion has played and no doubt still plays a role in people’s lives, shaping how they see and understand things. To western eyes, much of what we see and understand about the east is influenced by how little we know and understand of eastern religions and cultures.

The nonsense promulgated by the north in relation to events surrounding the birth of Kim Jong-il, of double rainbows magically appearing at the moment of his birth, and army generals speaking after his funeral of snow falling like rain weeping for the loss of the “Dear Leader,” is all mysticism, devoid of any rational or scientific content, and has nothing to do with a materialist understanding of the world around us, and nothing to do with socialism. It has more to do with the legacy of Confucianism, Buddhism and mysticism and how such ideas have shaped the people of Korea and many other peoples—not just in the east.

Western governments, leftists and liberals trip over themselves to court the Dalai Lama, who proclaims himself the leader of the Tibetan people as chosen by God. The emperor of Japan also claimed that he and his family were given the right to rule by God. These are features of feudalism carried over into new stages of social development. Japan is an advanced capitalist society; Tibet is a feudal society; and Korea is struggling to build a socialist society from a very low base, from feudalism, bringing with it the scars and backwardness of feudalism.

A manifestation of this is the cult of the leader, dynastic rule, and the trappings of bowing and scraping by the masses to the “Dear Leader” and staged mass hysteria. Nor is it part of communist ideology; but nothing develops in straight lines or without contradictions.

The communist movement in Korea was always stronger in what is now the south from the time of its foundation in Seoul in 1925. It has been banned since 1949 because of its popular mass support in the American-controlled south.
There are many questions thrown up by developments within the DPRK that we must continue to try to understand and attempt to explain.

The family dynasty of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un should be understood as representing continuity and a united front in response to the continued two-pronged approach of the United States in applying economic sanctions and military pressures. The politics of containment is aimed at both Korea and China.

The partition of Korea by the United States has left a deep mark on the Korean people, north and south—in the south creating a society that suffered decades of repression and in the north an atmosphere of a society under siege.

The continued interference by the United States and Japan will not bring peace, unity or stability to the people of Korea. It is up to the Korean people, north and south, to solve their differences and to unite if they desire to. This can be done only with the removal of all foreign forces and nuclear weapons from the south.

The Korean people, north and south, need the support and solidarity of progressive opinion to end the partition and control by the United States and to allow them to decide for themselves the future direction of their country.

Socialist Voice, January 2012