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Obituary: The Death of North Korean Ideology

By Mark Tokola

On October 10, 2020, North Korea celebrated the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP).  The Pyongyang event featured a military parade and a speech by Kim Jong-un.  The parade had been years in the making and featured everything from matching white horses (reportedly imported from Russia) to a gigantic new mobile ICBM, the star of the show.  It also provided the stage for Kim Jong-un’s big anniversary speech.

Commentary has focused on Kim Jong-un’s tears as he apologized for having sometimes “failed.”  They also noted the speech’s shortage of bellicosity.  But the most remarkable aspect of the entire commemoration event was that it was almost non-ideological. This was the 75th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s founding of the Party.  If there was ever a time to extol the victories and future triumphs of Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism, this would have been it.  But, especially in comparison with earlier speeches by North Korean leaders, there was a sharp departure from traditional ideology.  There was, in fact, hardly any ideology.

For readers unfamiliar with North Korean rhetoric, Kim Jong-un’s October 10 references to the peoples’ party and the victory of socialism may have looked like communist boilerplate.  But, numbers tell the tale.  Kim Jong-un in his speech made 15 references to the pandemic, used the word ‘revolution’ only nine times, referred to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il twice, and never used the word ‘Juche’ (North Korea’s ideological theory of self-reliance).  Contrast that to his 2017 New Year’s address (almost the same length), in which he referred to the ‘revolution’ 23 times, mentioned Kim Il-sung 7 times, and invoked Juche 11 times.  His father, Kim Jong-il, made few if any speeches, but he did issue a message marking the 50th anniversary of the KWP in 1995.  In that address, Kim Jong-il used the word revolution 147 times, Kim Il-sung 55 times, and Juche 46 times.  It was a longer text, but even at that, it burned brightly throughout with a North Korean ideology that was lacking in Kim Jong-un’s speech.

The difference is not only quantitative.  Kim Jong-il’s 1995 message, issued in the midst of North Korea’s great famine, never mentioned it.  There are only a couple of vague references to the Party successfully overcoming ‘adversities.’  In contrast, Kim Jung-un in 2020 claims that the pandemic has not cost a single North Korean life, but he does not downplay its seriousness.  He refers to the “heroic efforts and sacrifices” being made by ‘service personnel’ to cope with the grave threat posed by COVID-19.  He also refers to the natural disasters visited upon North Korea in 2020.  “All of these hardships are undoubtedly a heavy burden and pain for every family and every citizen in our country.”  His speech was about real life, intended to show his link to the North Korean peoples’ lives, rather than exhorting them, as in earlier times, to adhere more closely to the state ideology.

It’s even possible to discern within Kim Jong-un’s 2020 speech a contradiction to earlier North Korean dogma.  Listen to Kim Jong-il in 1995: “In the driving force of revolution the leader is the brain and the center of unity and the party is a political organization that materializes the leader’s idea and guidance.”  “The working-class party must have ideological purity, being dyed in the leader’s idea and moving as one under his unified leadership.”  Kim Jong-il’s 1995 address is full of tedious, revolutionary claptrap but it absolutely clear that obedience to the North Korean leader’s monolithic, infallible will is all that matters.  What is the role of the people?  “Our Party is a motherly party, which takes care of the destiny of the popular masses under its charge.”

Kim Jong-un is no democrat, but he talks about the North Korean people differently.  “Our people firmly support the country with their sincere sweat and efforts.”  “It is none other than they themselves who surely deserve a bow of gratitude.”  “Our people have placed trust on me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily.”  The implication is that the North Korean people have agency and have chosen Kim Jong-un and the KWP to promote their interest—in the absence of competition, of course.

For Kim Jong-il, the great objective was ‘independence.’ “Independence is man’s intrinsic desire.”  Fortunately for North Koreans, “Our socialism defends and ensures independence for the popular masses and satisfies their demand for independence to the full.”  One might wonder what independence has to do with unblinking devotion to a single ruler, but that would be a counter-revolutionary thought.  At some point, Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism collapses under its own sodden weight.  For example, what on earth does this, from Kim Jong-il’s anniversary address, even mean? “Maintaining the revolutionary principle means defending the revolutionary interest of the revolution.”

Kim Jong-un is offering something more tangible in 2020: “What is left now is to ensure that our people enjoy a sufficient and civilized life to the full free from difficulties any longer.”

What does this change indicate?  First, it shows that Kim Jong-un is not in thrall to the old North Korean ideology.  North Korea is changing.  Second, it sets a new standard.  The question now is not whether the North Korea public continues to display adequate revolutionary zeal, but whether the North Korean regime can, through its authoritarian means, improve the lives of North Koreans.  That actually is a new thought.

Kim Jong-un is no less brutal than his predecessors and the “civilized life free from difficulties” doesn’t apply to those he has put in political prison camps, but it is no longer true to say that the Kim regime is ideologically driven.  His motivations and behaviors are now the same as any dictator trying to stay in power.

North Korean ideology: 1945-2020.  RIP.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Common.

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