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The North Korean Conundrum | The Nation

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The North Korean Conundrum

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Charles K. Armstrong demolishes the analogy between North Korea and the erstwhile Communist regimes of Eastern Europe with incontestable evidence drawn from 1.6 million pages of declassified North Korean documents captured during the Korean War.

About the Author

Selig S. Harrison
Selig S. Harrison is the author, with Diego Cordovez, of Out of Afghanistan and author of In Afghanistan's Shadow. He...

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Instead of "working through a small, elite vanguard party in the typical Leninist fashion" exemplified in Eastern Europe, Armstrong shows, Kim Il Sung built a "powerful support base...among the poor and marginal elements of [Korean] society," especially the poor peasant majority, workers and women, as he had done in mobilizing popular resistance in Manchuria. During Japanese colonial rule, the number of landless farm laborers had multiplied. Rapacious landlords oppressed their tenant farmers, who were forced to pay crushing rents that often exceeded 60 percent of their total crop and lived on a bare subsistence diet. In March 1946, just a month after emerging as the leader of the Provisional People's Committee, which later evolved into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Il Sung pushed through sweeping land reforms that gave the Workers Party its strong rural foundations.

Although the new state initially called itself Communist, Communism in Korea was soon "absorbed and transformed" by the hierarchical structure and Confucian social values that had characterized Korea over the centuries. "Communism took root in North Korea," Armstrong concludes, precisely because Korean society was so conservative. On the one hand, "the possibility of breaking down old hierarchies was deeply attractive to many at the bottom of the social ladder," while at the same time, Korea's Confucian heritage enabled Kim Il Sung to create "new hierarchical structures even more rigid than the old, and just as resistant to change." Or, as a South Korean scholar cited by Cumings puts it, North Korea became "a new Confucian society or family-state that is well integrated as an extension of filial piety, expressed through strong loyalty to its leader."

"An odd aspect of the DPRK's belief in the family as the core unit of society," Cumings observes, is that prisoners are generally sent to labor camps together with their families, and mutual family support enables many to survive the ordeal. Cumings does not minimize the ugly horror of North Korea's gulag. Indeed, he accepts the higher estimates of the number of prisoners, citing a South Korean intelligence figure of 150,000, half criminals and half political cases. The gulag symbolizes the dark side of a repressive system that stifles unrest resulting primarily from continuing economic failures, especially in agriculture. Although only 14 percent of North Korea's mountainous terrain is arable, the government has made matters worse with collective farming; the floods of 1995 and 1996 led to near-famine conditions in many provinces. As the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has observed, "The best metaphor for North Korea is the medieval church. Much of the population consists of genuine believers, and no one pays enormous attention to the minority of heretics who are tortured and killed, the way witches or Christians of a dissident sect were killed during the Middle Ages."

Like most advocates of accommodation with Pyongyang, Cumings suggests that external pressure on the Kim regime will only reinforce internal repression and delay the liberalizing trends now being stimulated by growing contacts with the outside world.

Both Armstrong and Cumings present evidence relevant to the current policy debate about how to deal with North Korea. But Armstrong's book is specialized academic fare, too rigorous and detailed for the general reader. Cumings, by contrast, resting on his long-established scholarly laurels, writes in a lively, readable, argumentative, often delightfully irreverent style. His book should be read by anyone seriously interested in an authoritative antidote to the bias and superficiality in most of what is written about North Korea.

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