North Korea has always been a maverick Marxist-Leninist regime, following a distinctly nationalist path. Having survived both the normalization of U.S.-Chinese relations and the collapse of the USSR, don't expect it to collapse any time soon, said Charles Armstrong, professor of history at Columbia University.
“The historical record shows that North Korea has consistently been underestimated by everyone,” said Charles Amstrong.
International Institute, November 14, 2013 — “The historical record shows that North Korea has consistently been underestimated by everyone,” said Charles Armstrong at a Center for Korea Studies lecture on November 14, 2013. Rather than preparing for its imminent collapse, said the speaker, the world would be better advised to prepare for its survival.
In some ways, said the speaker, it is one of the most “realist” states in the world, having successfully survived both China’s recognition of the United States and the collapse of the USSR. Today, he noted, it is having success in playing the United States and China against one another.
Armstrong, who is the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences in the Department of History of Columbia University, spoke about North Korea and the end of communism, drawing on his new book, “Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1992” (Cornell, 2013).
Technically, said the speaker, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is now the oldest communist regime in the world — one year older than the People’s Republic of China. In fact, argued Armstrong, the collapse of communism associated with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was really a regional collapse, with four of the five remaining communist states (the DPRK, China, Laos, and Vietnam) in the world located in Asia. (Cuba is the sole surviving communist regime in the western hemisphere.)
Not only has communism survived, said Armstrong, it is the longest-lasting authoritarian form of regime in the last 100 years, one distinguished by both its longevity and resiliency.
A nationalist outlier among Marxist-Leninist regimes
The speaker argued that North Korea represented a unique, nationalist indigenization of Marxism-Leninism, especially of its Soviet variant. Already by the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he said, the German Democratic Republic — the most orthodox Soviet satellite — perceived the DPRK as being outside the bounds of a “proper” Marxist-Leninist regime. This opinion was, he said, widely shared by the regimes of the Warsaw Pact.
Armstrong noted that many categorizations are currently used to describe the North Korean regime, among them:
an archaic Stalinist holdover, a characterization the speaker held was “the most popular description of North Korea in the western media”;
a fascist state modeled on that of Imperial Japan, based on its ideological structure, image of the world and the way in which it deals with that world (the argument of Brian Myers)
a regime along the totalitarian-corporatist (the argument of Bruce Cummings)-dictatorship spectrum, alternatively labelled despotism or “sultanism”;
a tyranny based on the Greek word “tyrannos,” meaning master or sovereign, which the speaker claimed had a certain resonance with the North Korean regime; and
a “juche” (“master of its own destiny”) regime, as defined by Kim Il Sung (DPRK leader from 1948 to 1994).
One way to understand the regime, said Armstrong, is to look at what the North Koreans themselves say about it, pointing to their assertion that the DPRK represents the creative application of Marxist-Leninist principles to local conditions. To illustrate this idea, Armstrong cited a key passage from what came to be known as the “Juche Speech” of Kim Il Sung in 1955:
Professors Charles Amstrong of Columbia University (left) and John Duncan of UCLA. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)
"The point is that we should not mechanically copy the forms and methods of the Soviet Union, but should learn from its experience in struggle and from the trust in Marxist-Leninism. So, while learning from the experience of the Soviet Union, we must put stress not on the form, but the essence of its experience."
In Armstrong’s view, “juche” philosophy largely explains the highly nationalist character of North Korea’s Marxist-Leninist regime. The regime, he said, has followed its own path, remaining independent of both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China by never leaning too far in the direction of either.
In what he interpreted as a symbolic break from orthodox Marxism-Leninism, particularly the failed Marxist-Leninist states of Eastern Europe, Armstrong noted that the DPRK has now removed the posters of Marx and Lenin that once adorned its Communist Party headquarters in Pyongyang. Yet it remains a communist state.
Breaking out of the Soviet sphere only to return
North Korea broke out of the Soviet mold in the 1970s, said the speaker, when for the first time it encouraged trade and investment with capitalist countries. At the same time, it pursued a policy of solidarity with the emerging states of the post-colonial world (known as “juche” diplomacy), competing with South Korea to establish diplomatic relations worldwide.
A decade later, however, the DPRK executed an about-face and reoriented itself toward the Soviet bloc. This change stemmed from the failure of its economic engagement with the first world, disillusionment with the third world and its strategic divergence with China — which began to normalize relations with the United States in 1972.
Renewed Cold War hostilities under U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the inability of third-world countries to assist the DPRK economically also contributed to the change in policy.
The move, according to Armstrong, “was a case of consummate bad timing.” North Korea turned back toward the Soviet bloc precisely at a time — the 1980s — when deepening economic troubles drove most states in the bloc to adopt economic reforms. With the exception of the USSR, none were not in a position to help the DPRK economically.
In retrospect, said the speaker, Kim Il Sung’s “Everlasting Fraternal Friendship Tour” of May–July 1984, “seems like a journey to an ancient civilization on the verge of collapse.” The tour, which conspicuously didn’t include a stop in China, included the states of the Soviet bloc. Kim Il Sung met with, among others: Chernenko (USSR), Husák (Czechoslovakia), Kadar (Hungary), Marković (Yugoslavia), Honeker (GDR), Zhivkov (Bulgaria), Jarulselzki (Poland) and Ceauşescu (Romania).
Six years later, pointed out Armstrong, none of these leaders were in power. Ten years later, three of these countries were no longer in existence: the USSR, the GDR and Yugoslavia (not to mention Czechoslovakia).
More alone than ever
The DPRK suddenly found itself virtually alone and virtually friendless at the margins of a once-great empire, said the speaker. The collapse of the Soviet Union, which had continued to provide substantial economic and military aid to the DPRK, had a profound impact on the catastrophe that befell North Korea in the 1990s.
Since then, said Armstrong, the regime has turned inward ideologically, returned to ethnic nationalism, adopted a “military first” policy and increased its attempts to control information. North Korean continues to receive support from China (which seeks to maintain the DPRK’s nuclear deterrent), but is increasingly trying to develop partners in Europe.
At present, remarked the speaker, Kim Jong Un is attempting to reduce the power of the military and introduce economic reforms, but those reforms are aimed solely at winning over the top tier of the ruling elite.
As a historian, Armstrong said he was disinclined to predict the future of the DKRP. Nevertheless, he said, North Korea was likely to collapse only after the world has stopped expecting this outcome. “They do things there their own way,” he asserted, “Don’t expect the North Koreans to do what you expect them to do. That’s what ‘juche’ is all about.”
Rather than prepare for the regime’s imminent collapse, Armstrong said the words of University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss, from “On Tyranny” (originally published in 1948), provided better guidance for how to deal with North Korea:
"Under certain conditions, the abolition of tyranny may be out of the question. The best one could hope for is that the tyranny will improve, that the tyrannical rule be exercised as humanely or as irrationally as possible."