Review of Charles Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 (Cornell University Press, 2003)
Journalists almost ritualistically describe North Korea as the world’s last Stalinist hold out. “Stalinist,” like “communist” or “totalitarian,” is used more for its damning than its descriptive power. Indeed, in the same breath, journalists acknowledge that North Korea remains a profound mystery. How can such a precise term be used to describe such an opaque society? So persistent is the Cold War climate in Asia that supposedly neutral academics who study North Korea are as susceptible to this definitional sloppiness as journalists.
Charles Armstrong is one of a new crop of Korea specialists that are shrugging off the Cold War legacy in Korean studies and taking advantage of new archival materials to rethink the history and character of North Korea. In considering the critical years of North Korea’s development prior to the outbreak of the Korean War, Armstrong’s The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, delivers some surprising, heterodox conclusions.
Most conventional histories of North Korea assume a Stalinist jumping off point. Kim Il Sung, who ruled the country from 1946 until his death in 1994, spent a good chunk of World War II serving in the Soviet army, returned to North Korea in 1945 on a Soviet transport ship, and relied on Soviet support to muscle his rivals out of the way to achieve power. He openly admired Stalin and reacted with distaste to the de-Stalinization that swept the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1950s.
As Armstrong details, however, Kim Il Sung’s construction of a new North Korea differed in important respects from the Stalinism that Eastern European satellites experienced. For instance, communism was so alien to Poland’s character that Stalin likened the process of imposing the ideology there to “saddling a cow.” Kim Il Sung’s transformation of socio-economic relations, on the other hand, was a great deal more popular. The North Korean land reform proceeded more quickly and with greater public support than similar communist experiments, and contributed greatly to building legitimacy for the new government. Careful not to push his luck, Kim held off on collectivization until after the Korean War. Similarly, the North Korean government dramatically transformed the role of women in deeply patriarchal society, but here too held off from challenging the primacy of the family in Korean culture.
Perhaps the most dramatic departure from the communist creed was Kim Il Sung’s fusion of nationalism and Confucianism as additional sources of regime legitimacy. Under Kim’s guidance, North Korea eschewed both the egalitarianism and the internationalism of communist doctrine. He cleverly drew upon nationalist appeals to blood and soil to guarantee loyalty to the new government. And although only in his early thirties when he took power, he managed to fashion a state that resembled a family with himself at the head. As founding father, Kim Il Sung commanded the respect demanded in a hierarchical Confucian system from his “children” (the people) and his “wife” (the Korean Workers’ Party). While North Korean communist reversed the previous order by putting workers and farmers at the top and the wealthy at the bottom, a strict hierarchy of classes persisted. In perhaps the most revealing example, Armstrong notes that the North Korean dialect even has two separate words for that most egalitarian of communist words “comrade”: tongmu (the comrade at your level) and tongji (the comrade above you).
One of the great achievements of Armstrong’s book, which draws primarily from materials that the U.S. army seized in North Korea in the first year of the Korean War, is to trace what are usually considered later features of the North Korean system back to much earlier incarnations. As such, the chollima system of pushing workers toward greater and greater achievements, which started in the late 1950s, has its roots in Stakhanovite experiments in 1947. The move to differential wages, often attributed to much later reforms, can be found in Kim Il Sung’s pronouncements of the 1940s. The personality cult that developed around the leader, which flowered in the 1950s and 1960s, had its start too in these early years.
Armstrong takes this argument a step further: “Much of what subsequently emerged in North Korea after liberation, including land redistribution, united front politics, and social reform, has its precedent in the areas of Manchuria under guerrilla control in the 1930s.” In other words, the policies of the early North Korean state were formed before the Soviet army touched Korean soil or the guerrillas had decamped to the Soviet Union. While other writers have attributed the political viewpoint of Kim Il Sung and his coteries to their guerrilla experience, Armstrong seeks to connect their social and economic policies as well to these earlier experiments.
Armstrong’s book is a key contribution to understanding North Korea’s development, but it could have benefited from a more nuanced comparative view. Armstrong sees a sharp divergence between North Korea’s experience and that of Eastern Europe, both in terms of Soviet strategy and internal social developments. In part, this interpretation is possible because he considers Eastern Europe as an undifferentiated region. Greater similarities can be found between North Korea and southeastern Europe. It would be interesting, for instance, to compare in more detail the role of nationalism in bolstering the regimes in Bulgaria and North Korea. Likewise, a privileging of ideology over material circumstances – a reversal of the usual Marxist equation – took place in Romania as well as North Korea. Meanwhile, the caution with which Stalin approached the standoff with the United States on the Korean peninsula can be identified as well in his approach to Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe, too, Stalin initially tried to dissuade the communist parties from seizing power too precipitously.
These are small points, however. Those journalists and academics who read Armstrong’s book will not only be a great deal more cautious in their invocations of Stalinism, they will be considerably better equipped to understand the bedeviling complexity of North Korean society.
Korean Quarterly, Summer 2003