Monday, April 15, 2013

North Korea's ideology

North Korea is in the news again for all the wrong reasons. By now the country’s reputation as totalitarian, anachronistic, backward, isolated and wacky has spread even here in China, although the Chinese government goes on giving North Korea far more support than anyone else in the world.

I will not engage in geopolitical speculation regarding the ongoing crisis, since others have already done so more and better than I can. Rather, I would like to use this space to review an interesting book I have read recently on North Korea, which seems to offer some insight into the country's internal discourse. The book is “The Cleanest Race: how North Koreans see themselves, and why it matters”, by B.R. Meyers.

Meyers is an American academic who has lived for years in South Korea and speaks Korean fluently. He has spent years pouring over the archives of North Korean propaganda available in Seoul, which are apparently quite extensive, since until recently the North went on sending its own propaganda to the South in the hope of ingniting a nationalistic rebellion against the “Yankee invaders”. Basing himself thus mainly on propaganda for internal consumption in Korean, rather than the propaganda in English which is released for foreign consumption, Meyers comes up with his own thesis on the ideology which underpins the North Korean regime.

Meyers claims that the common description of North Korea as a Stalinist regime is wrong, as is the less common claim that it is in fact based on Confucianism. According to him, the real ideology of the North Korean regime is a form of race-based nationalism which has most in common with the fascist regimes of the Second World War, and was initially inspired by the racist ideology which the Japanese regime foisted on Korea during the thirties.

The main source of internal legitimacy of the North Korean regime derives from the line that the South of the peninsula is occupied by the US, and that Pyongyang is on a glorious nationalist mission to free the whole of Korea from the foreign occupiers. Open racism and xenophobia, and the image of Koreans as a pure, innocent, child-like race which needs a strong leader to protect it from the cruel outside world, are the ideological basis of the North Korean world view. Memories of US atrocities during the Korean War, which the regime constantly nurtures, help to prop up its support.

Meyers claims that in this sense, North Korea has always been ideologically different from China and the Soviet bloc, even in the past. One finds almost no references to proletarian internationalism in North Korean internal propaganda, and only perfunctory ones to Marxism-Leninism. In fact, North Korea’s new constitution from 2009 doesn’t make any reference to communism. What’s more, Meyers claims that even North Korea’s official state ideology of Juche (“self-reliance”) is a sham, created mainly to draw attention away from the real ideology of racial nationalism.

According to Meyers, North Korea’s people basically still embrace the regime’s world view, which is why it manages to remain in power. Since the terrible famine of the mid-nineties, North Korea has become a very different place, and the people are no longer completely cut off from information about the outside world the way they used to be. It is now common knowledge in the North that South Korea is actually much more prosperous, and even the regime's internal propaganda no longer denies this. However, as long as the populace goes on believing that the South is a “Yankee colony”, and that its people want to drive out the Americans, the regime will retain its legitimacy.

From this point of view, the North Korean government is different from the East German one, which based its legitimacy on being able to offer a good standard of living for its people, and could not survive when its people realized that West Germans actually lived much better. Meyers even makes the eye-catching claim that the people in modern Pyongyang give a much happier impression than the people in East Berlin did in the eighties (a place which he visited), and that this is because the regime’s ideology has not lost its legitimacy in their eyes.

Although Meyer’s thesis is interesting and based on a deep knowledge of the subject, I can’t help wondering how much one can really draw a line between the ideology of the Soviet block and the kind of racist nationalism he is describing. After all, most of the “Socialist” countries made use of nationalist feeling and even racism. In Maoist China, in particular, much propaganda centered on leading China to a great national renaissance after it had been divided and mistreated by evil foreigners. Xenophobia certainly existed, although it probably wasn’t fundamental to the regime’s legitimacy the way it clearly is in North Korea.

Perhaps some of North Korea’s extremeness is rooted in is history. Korea is a country which is historically far more ethnically homogenous than China. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century it adhered to a strict isolationist policy which earned it the nickname of “the Hermit Kingdom”. Koreans could be put to death for just speaking to a foreigner. From this point of view, I suppose it was easy to turn resentment against foreigners and self-reliance into the pillars of North Korea’s ideology, especially when the Southern half of the peninsula is indeed covered with US military bases.

The extreme version of Neo-Confucianism practiced in Korea up until the nineteenth century, which was more rigid and hierarchical than Confucianism in China ever was, might also have made it easier for Kim Il Sung to foist such an extreme authoritarianism on his country.

The book ends with a prediction that the most dangerous thing for the regime would be if the North Korean masses became aware that the South Koreans are actually quite happy in their own Republic and would never want to live under Pyongyang. There is simply no way that the worldview which the government has fostered could be reconciled with this fact. However, Meyers also makes the dire prediction that the regime will counter any sign of internal dissent by attempting to increase tension with its external enemies, the US and South Korea, and the result might even be a serious conflict. Perhaps this prediction is now coming to pass.

(a statue of Kim Il Sung clutching a firearm in Pyongyang)


FOARP said...

Yeah, actually even Stalin made heavy use of Great Russian nationalism in his propaganda from the German invasion onwards (Cf. the WW2 victory speech giving special thanks to the Russian people in particular amongst the peoples of the USSR) and it never totally disappeared. As much as anything else, it was the eventual loss of support from Russian nationalists (e.g., Solzhenitsyn) that led to the collapse of the CPSU, with nationalists like Yeltsin gaining. The idea that Stalinism is opposed to nationalism is not born out by history.

More to the point, though, this probably just shows how one dictatorship is much like anothter. In reality fascists and communists are just two sides of the same coin.

Ji Xiang said...

I hesitate to call Stalinist dictators "communists", since they have so completely distorted Marxism's basic principles.

Marx himself was completely opposed to nationalism, which he saw as a way of pitting the working classes and the oppressed of different countries against one another, for the benefit of the ruling classes alone.

Scottie said...


FYI: If I recall correctly, Charles Armstrong, Professor at Columbia, has written about how N. Korea’s ruling mechanism is influenced by the soviet system and the Japanese colonial police system. Though he also mentions the N. Korean surveillance system was perhaps not very effective in the beginning, maybe it’s still the case today.

As for Choson, granted they did have the nickname “hermit kingdom,” there was still association between them and the outside. I am also not sure if speaking to foreigners meant the death penalty at that time. I am not an expert on Korean Confucianism, but certainly while Chinese Confucianism emphasizes respecting the authority, it also teaches remonstrating against authority as a good virtue. In addition, Confucianism did change throughout history and had many different schools within the teaching itself. So historically, Confucianism has been quite diverse and flexible, both in its teaching and in practice. But the key point is that Confucianism does not and did not teach one to blindly follow the authority (I am not saying you said this).

Btw, you might also want to pay some attention to Andre Schmid, who teaches at University of Toronto. I recently heard a talk from him and he has also some interesting things to say about N. Korea.

As for nationalism and xenophobia in the Maoist period, it can be quite complicated. On the hand, it’s down with Western imperialism. On the other hand, it’s all people around the world unite against oppression. This thinking in some ways is still affecting China today.

Ji Xiang said...

"As for nationalism and xenophobia in the Maoist period, it can be quite complicated. On the hand, it’s down with Western imperialism. On the other hand, it’s all people around the world unite against oppression. This thinking in some ways is still affecting China today."

Right. I think "down with Western imperialism" was a reasonable slogan in the fifties and sixties, and in itself it didn't necessarily represent a form of xenophobia.

In front of the Forbidden City it says in capital letters "Long live the unity of the world's peoples", a typical Communist slogan. However I wonder up to what extent such ideals and slogans ever really took root in Chinese society.

The problem is that it sometimes feels, especially nowadays, like
the Chinese attitude is that China was invaded and looted by generic "foreigners", rather than the "Western imperialists". All "foreigners" are placed in the same category, at least in the heads of some Chinese people.

About Confucianism, in my understanding during the Choseon dynasty an especially rigid form of Neo-Confucianism prevailed in Korea. I suppose in principle Confucianism does not teach people to blindly follow authority, but in practice it does seem to create societies where people are especially loyal to the state and authority, and an especially rigid version of Confucianism would do so even more.

I will look up Andre Schmid and Charles Armstrong, thanks for the suggestion.

Scottie said...

Regarding contemporary Chinese attitudes toward Westerners, I think for many Chinese it’s a kind of love and hate relationship. On the one hand, many Chinese just love Western culture, stuff...etc. On the other hand, many of these same people are deeply suspicious of the West due to historical, ideological, and political reasons...etc. Of course, there are also Chinese who just love the West, period. There is also a group of Chinese out there who do see all Westerners as bad. Yet the irony is that for some of these people, they would still love to come and live in the West if they have the opportunity to do so. For some Chinese, it’s a mixture of self-hating, fawning over the West, and a strong sense of Chinese nationalism. And finally, there are Chinese out there who just have no opinion about the West at all. Modern and Contemporary China are filled with struggles and contradictions. That’s one of the reasons why it’s still a chaotic place.

As for contemporary Chinese attitudes towards other foreigners such as Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Africans…etc., it’s more or less a case-by-case thing. However, just like the attitudes toward Westerners, different Chinese will have different opinions. Again, this thing can be quite complex. As for people make generalization about other people and things, well, they do that to themselves as well. It's probably one of these traits that most people have, no matter where they are from.

As for Choson, they did claim they were more “Confucian” and more “Chinese” than the Chinese. Though to what extent is this true and in what ways, that I am not sure.

About Confucianism, certainly it teaches people loyalty. However, as I said, it also teaches one to protest against authority especially if the authority commits wrong doing. In Confucianism, to be able to remonstrate against authority is considered true loyalty and filial piety. In practice, many people obviously didn’t live up to these standards. However, many others also did and were exulted as paragons of Confucian virtue (e.g. Hai Rui in the Ming dynasty). Certainly, any thought system has the potential of becoming rigid over time and deviate from its teaching and practice, but that’s another major topic in itself.

Scottie said...

should've been "exalted" instead of "exulted."

Ji Xiang said...

I had never heard of Hai Rui before, but now I looked it up. You learn something new every day.

Anyway, let's not forget that Hai Rui was at first condemned to death by emperor Jiajing for his honesty, and only saved himself because the emperor died before his execution was carried out.

In any case I am no expert on Confucianism, but I believe that with Confucianism, just like with any other ideology or religion, you can pretty much demonstrate that it teaches anything you like if you look at it the right way, and select only the bits of its founding texts or holy books which confirm what you want to demonstrate, while ignoring other bits.

I am sure that Confucianism promotes some ideals which seem good from a modern point of view, and some which seem unacceptable. All in all, wouldn't you agree that societies with a Confucian background stand out in the world as places where respecting age and authority are valued more than elsewhere, even if it's not blind loyalty?

Ji Xiang said...

"As for contemporary Chinese attitudes towards other foreigners such as Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Africans…etc., it’s more or less a case-by-case thing."

Ok, I think that's rather a bold assertion to make. I think a hell of a lot of Chinese dislike Japan as a whole. As for Africans, an awful lot of Chinese think that they are basically inferior to other peoples in education or even intelligence because their countries are so poor. Is it not true that while most Chinese families will accept their son or daughter marrying a white person, most families would have strong misgivings about having a black son/daughter in law?

Then again I don't want to generalize either, these attitudes are by no means universal in China, and I know many Chinese who don't think like this. Even ones who do are often quite ready to judge a single Japanese or African they meet as a person, rather than just base themselves on stereotypes.

Still, while ethnic stereotypes exist everywhere, I think that in China it is much more acceptable to express such stereotypes openly and publically then it would be in the West, and this helps them to keep going. Plus, the great majority of Chinese people almost never interact with foreigners, something which helps keep crass generalizations alive.

Of course you are quite right about the complexity of Chinese views of the West.

Scottie said...

The idea that people should have conscience in their actions and resist blind following is one of Confucianism’s central teachings, not just bits and pieces from selective readings of the various Confucian texts. Hai Rui is a good example of this in that he even prepared to die for his own inner conviction, and he was not the only one in history to do so. There were others like him and these people were and are lauded for their behaviors and actions. Of course, there were also many others who didn’t live up to the Confucian standard. Also, following the lead of others is certainly easier. Prior to the 19th century, the great majority still believed in the need to have an emperor or a king. And despite their best efforts, Confucians never managed to come up with an effective institutional arrangement to check the ruler’s power. Therefore it became more difficult to stand up to the authority. This is also why many Chinese Confucians throughout history complained about the gradual widening gap between the ruler and the ruled, especially during the later dynasties when imperial courts became more powerful than before. But the fact that many Confucians still resisted blind following is due to their belief in the Confucian teaching. That's why many of them still managed to keep their independent spirit. If you have the time, take a look at the text Mencius, it illustrates some of what I just wrote.

As for whether societies with Confucian background value loyalty and respect to the elders more than other societies, it’s hard to say (one thing to note that China has lost quite a bit of Confucian tradition already and this is true for some time now). I don’t know much about Islamic societies, for example, so I can’t compare. And comparing traditional China with say, medieval Europe is also difficult. Of course, I am not talking about comparisons with contemporary West, that much is clear.

As for my statement about Chinese seeing foreigners on a “case by case” thing. I mean exactly what you said. That is, “case by case” as in “country by country” “ethnic by ethnic.” In general, Chinese people see Japanese differently than how they see Arabs and so forth. Of course overall, the Chinese dislike the Japanese, and many do show animosity toward the Japanese, no question about it. And yes, in general, Chinese parents also prefer their daughters to marry white guys than black guys. Again, we are talking about generalizations here, not individual cases. So we are in agreement on this issue.

Scottie said...

Just to provide one example on what I said before regarding remonstrating against authority as a central Confucian virtue:

From the Classics of Filial Piety, A key Confucian text:

Zheng Zi said, “if it’s about being kind and loving, being respectful, bringing peace to the minds of parents, and spreading one’s name—those instructions have already been heard. May I ask: if the son obeys the orders of the father, can that be called xiao (filial piety)?”

The Teacher said, “What kind of talk is that? What kind of talk is that?

“Formerly when a Son of Heaven has seven subordinates who will dispute him, even though he has no virtue he will not lose All Under Heaven. When a Duke has five subordinates who will dispute him, even though he has no virtue he will not lose his state. When a Minister has three subordinates who will dispute him, even though he has no virtue he will not lose his clan. With a friend who will dispute him, an Officer will not lose his good name. With a son who will dispute him, a father will not fall into unrighteousness. So when there is unrighteousness, then the son must not refrain from disputing his father and the subordinate must not refrain from disputing his lord. So when there is unrighteousness one must dispute it. How can obeying the father’s orders be considered xiao?”

Ji Xiang said...

I thought that when you talked about a "case by case thing", you meant that Chinese people judge foreigners on a personal basis. Now I see you meant on a national basis. We are then in agreement.

On Confucianism, you are clearly right in principle. The original Confucian classics do not encourage blind loyalty. In the West, Confucianism has too often been misrepresented in this way.

On the other hand, the quotation you make use of is present in its entirety in the wikipedia article on Confucianism. Let me quote another bit from the wikipedia article:

"In later ages, however, emphasis was often placed more on the obligations of the ruled to the ruler, and less on the ruler's obligations to the ruled. Like filial piety, loyalty was often subverted by the autocratic regimes in China. Nonetheless, throughout the ages, many Confucians continued to fight against unrighteous superiors and rulers. Many of these Confucians suffered and sometimes died because of their conviction and action.[26]"

The fact is that in the absence of an effective institutional arrangement to check the ruler's power, like you say, it seems to me inevitable that it will be very hard and dangerous in practice to stick to the Confucian ideal of following your conscience and not blindly obeying authority.

Scottie said...

Yes, it was certainly not easy. That less than 50% of imperial rulers behaved like proper Confucian sovereigns (e.g. taking good care of his people, listening to the advice of his ministers…etc) didn’t help the situation either. The same is true with an ineffective checks and balances system (it was there, but not very effective, especially in the later dynasties). Yet even under this kind of situation, many Confucians still resisted blindly following the authority. They definitely showed backbone and a sense of righteousness.