The issue of describing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is one which has concerned all matter of political organizations for quite sometime; a topic which the non-Communist left and wide array of would-be political economists have greatly pursued. Here we hope to investigate the class character of the DPRK with a great deal of empirical objectivity atomized in a comprehensive dialectical analysis. While there is plenty of room for thoughtful criticism and discussion surrounding the many facets that which compose ‘North Korea’, the point of the following is not to make such remarks; discerning the material relationships which compound the class dictatorship of the DPRK deserves a methodology which minimizes the ‘cultural skepticism’ which so often parallels such attempts.
All of history can be summed to a struggle between classes. The history of Korea, in specific the Northern region which was liberated from the Japanese following WWII, is no different. Understanding this history is fundamental to contextualizing the political economy of the DPRK today.
Following WWII Northern Korea began a transformation in line with the Communist aligned Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea. These People’s Committees, comprised largely of poor peasants, began a mass mobilization against the landed classes (read: especially those formerly sympathetic to Japanese occupation) expropriating much of their wealth but also building popular sentiment for the socialist forces in Korea; eventually permitting the nationalization of key industries. The land reform went into law March 1946 and was completed in only one month with over 2 million acres in cultivated land being confiscated and redistributed among the poorer peasants. As observed in previous revolutions, the alliance between the working class and peasantry was absolutely fundamental to crystallizing Communist forces in the north (74.1% of the population was composed of peasantry). These undertakings, combined with imperialist intervention and collaboration in the south, paved the way to the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north in contrast to the Republic of Korea in the Western-proxy south.
The subsequent antagonisms, inevitably leading to open conflict, are a subject for another time.
Important to note, however, is the alliance formed between the working class and peasantry as well as the progressive elements of the national bourgeoisie, in particular those most strongly aligned against the comprador south, tempered by an anti-imperialist struggle. Because the conflict was never concretely resolved, the method behind national liberation (reunification, here) from comprador and imperialist forces never qualitatively changed; the contradiction between the Korean people and their Western oppressors was never resolved and thus still conditions social reality in the DPRK. Paraphrasing Mao, the principal contradiction transforms along with the necessitating conditions. Only by understanding this can we understand the positions and policies pursued by the young DPRK which many would scoff as ‘class collaboration’ or another leveling of revisionism.
Following the ‘Korean War’ the DPRK under Kim Il Sung continued to transform the material relationships within society. As mentioned earlier, the working class alliance with the peasantry in the People’s Committees gave steam behind the process of nationalizing all forms of industry in the north. In 1947 roughly 80.2% of industrial production was under state control with the share of private enterprises marketing retail goods at only 43.5% with private ownership concentrated largely in the petty bourgeois with light industry production. By 1958 that same figure was reduced to 0% as the state aggressively pursued ownership of light industry effectively neutralizing the petty bourgeoisie as an economically active class.
Paralleling this transformation was the growth of a politically assertive class of ‘rich peasant’; drawing similarities with the phenomena experienced decades earlier in the Soviet Union. Kim Il Sung noted the dangerous capacity of such an emerging class in November of 1954:
We also cannot close our eyes to the fact that rich farmers are constantly emerging in the countryside. […] Though they benefited from the agrarian reform, those who are growing into rich farmers are liable to be influenced by south Korean reactionary circles as their farming gradually takes a capitalist character. […] Inasmuch as rich farmers are emerging in the countryside and they are affected by reactionary influences, the class struggle is continuing in the rural areas anyway, even though it has not yet come out into the open, and it may gradually grow sharper.
This contradiction between the affluent farmer and the Proletarian Dictatorship was to be resolved, as it had in the Soviet Union, through the process of collectivization. In 1954 the movement towards collectivization in the countryside officially began and by 1958 had been successfully completed. Now socialist relations of production began to permeate through all realms of society as the process of ‘socialist construction’ continued.
Look now to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the firm establishment of ‘Songun’ politics; a policy the Worker’s Party of Korea describes as “giving precedence to arms and the military”. Despite Western insistence to the novelty of Songun politics, the official history of the DPRK points to the development of Songun decades before the DPRK was even formed. This is important to note because it highlights how an anti-imperialist and essentially national liberation struggle has tempered the politics of socialist Korea from the very beginning. Regardless, the collapse of the Soviet Union did bring qualitative changes to the political structure of the DPRK. Notably, the National Defence Commission has become the “backbone organ in the state administrative organ” and “commands all the work of the politics, military and economy”. This can largely be attributed to the unique position the DPRK assumed following its de facto isolation internationally in the mid 1990’s. The fall of the Soviet Union meant deep economic austerity, moreover, it meant an emboldened US and comprador south. This combined with the political contradictions between the PRC meant the DPRK was forced to pursue a deeply militaristic road of development (hence, the superiority of the National Defence Commission and wide dissemination of Songun politics). Ultimately what we see emerge from this 1990’s transformation is a unique worker’s state conditioned by the intense contradictions between its socialist construction and the ever present threat of imperialist intervention. Unique not only in its precarious historical predicament but also in the related development of its internal contradictions which no doubt assume an intensely dialectical relationship with parallel external contradictions.
While endless books could be written on the subjects we have only briefly visited, the objective of this analysis requires us to now examine the contemporary structure of the DPRK; in specific, the class character, the organs of class power, and the material relationships especially those to the means of production held by the Korean people.
First, we examine the formal class character of the DPRK. Nominally, the nation could be considered a strong worker’s state; 70% of the nation is comprised of waged laborers working in formal industry and services. In addition, no real material classes exist outside of the proletariat (including those involved in the service sector) and the remaining small farmers who have not been incorporated into the vast network of collective farms. Furthermore, what little remnants of the national bourgeoisie exist have been enveloped in the cooperative and state owned enterprises. Despite the seeming emergence of a more privileged subset of cadres in Pyongyang and other urban centers, the DPRK can be found to be concretely proletarian in a dual political existence as well. This material reality is further reflected in the social relationships between and consciousness among the Korean people which could only be described as immensely devoted to the cause of Korean self-determination and socialist construction. We will extend upon this further when some constructive criticism and observations are made.
Second, we must examine the organs of class power in the DPRK; namely the state organs and their relationship with the broader Korean people. Clearly, the state organs of the DPRK excercise supreme authority over the economy and social life. The state, constitutionally, represents the interests of the working people and thus has legally excluded exploiters and oppressors from formal representation:
The social system of the DPRK is a people-centered system under which the working peoples are masters of everything, and everything in society serves the working peoples. The State shall defend and protect the interests of the workers, peasants, and working intellectuals who have been freed from exploitation and oppression and become masters of the State and society.
Therefore the political organs of class power have taken become explicitly proletarian organs of class power; at least in the sense that is provided constitutionally to the Korean people. The guiding political force in the DPRK remains the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) which holds 601/687 seats in the Supreme People’s Assembly and the de facto leading party in the ruling coalition Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland. All Koreans over the age of 17 irrespective of race, religion, sex, creed etc. are able and encouraged to participate in the organs of state power. Elections are routinely held for local and central organs of state power being usually People’s Assemblies which comprise the core of state power in the DPRK; from which come the ‘standing’ organs of class power being institutionally the National Defence Commission and the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
As mentioned earlier, the road of Songun has meant material developments in the social realities which comprise what we consider (read: what the West considers) ‘North Korea’. The large emphasis on military advancement and might has only assisted the imperialist detractors in their description of the DPRK as a ‘military dictatorship’ among other inarticulate slander; not realizing it is reality which forms theory, not theory which forms reality (most certainly in the case of the DPRK). With this policy of “military first” has come a qualitative change or “creative application”, as it were, of Marxism-Leninism in particular the basis of class power which is no doubt physically materialized in the awesome might of the Korean People’s Army. It is considered the highest honor for a Korean to serve his/her Fatherland in the struggle against imperialism by joining the Korean People’s Army. Unlike other standing military forces the KPA is definitively involved in the social as well as material construction of socialism in north Korea. Understanding this helps us understand how the unique internal developments of socialist Korea created an equally unique expression of class power.
Apart from the KPA, the Korean people are linked to their respective institutions of class power through direct legal means and of course the cadres. According to Kim Il Sung the “cadres decide everything”, much in spirit of Stalin’s commentary on political power in the Soviet Union. The Party cadres are an inescapable feature of north Korean political apparatus and are therefore possibly the closest link the Korean people have to their formal organs of power. Cadres as well as Party officials and administrators are known to visit workplaces and provide motivation as well as guidance to the working people; so pinnacle are the cadres that some argue their relative privilege constitutes the growth of a ‘new class’ of rulers in the DPRK (something I will touch upon soon).
With all of this said, it is decidedly difficult to imagine the organs of class power to be serving anything other than (at least nominally) the working peoples of north Korea.
Third, we must analyze the material relationships in socialist Korea, specifically those relationships of production. The most available data shows that state ownership comprises over 91% of the entire north Korean economy; and while limited forms of “liberalization” have been experienced, most of the state owned economy is centrally planned or constitutes a part thereof that planning. It can thus be said, at the very least theoretically, that the means of production are socially owned and operated. To quote again the constitution of the DPRK:
The property of the State belongs to the entire people. There is no limit to the property which the State can own. Only the State possesses all of the natural resources, railways, airports, transportation, communication organs and major factories; enterprises, ports and banks. The State shall guarentee giving priority to the growth of its property which plays a leading role in the development of the national economy.
This understanding of property in regard to social ownership is by no means differentiated from an orthodox understanding of Marxism-Leninism and in particular the transition stage that is Socialism. To quote Enver Hoxha (rather ironically) in his criticism of Yugoslav revisionist ‘self-administration’:
The theory and practice of Yugoslav ‘self administration’ is an outright denial of the teachings of Marxism-Leninism […] The essence of ‘self administration socialism’ in the economy is the idea that allegedly socialism cannot be built by concentrating the means of production in the hands of the socialist State by creating State ownership, but by fragmenting the socialist State property into property of individual groups of workers […].
And unlike the revisionists in the Communist Party of China, the DPRK is not on the capitalist road of imperialist capitulation or even to that of the national bourgeoisie. The state owned industries are operated on behalf of the Korean people and managed usually by a small committee of selected managers, workers, and party functionaries in a method termed the Taean Work System. This application varies greatly from the revisionist trends in private ownership and often management and operation.
Overall the DPRK has resisted many revisionist trends in economic policy, functionally preserving the socialist relations of production (to the best possible in a given politically normative discretion). However, there have been notable concessions made in the formation of Special Economic Zones such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex as well as the incorporation of the ‘independant account system’ and other “reforms” which were likely patterned after the Soviet experience. Regardless, when being understood objectively and in relationship with constant developments the ownership and operation of the means of production seems to indicate a profoundly socialist character found in context of a workers’ state.
And with all of this acknowledged I would like to make further elaborations on the collection of notes made above; in particular that space made for constructive and comradely criticism.
In an entirely practical sense, solidarity with the self-determined Korean people must be pursued in respect to proletarian internationalism. In real application of dialectics, no criticism no matter its character is made in a vacuum. All of our words can fit into either narrative respective to a material struggle between the self-determined Korean people and the forces of imperialism. This fundamental understanding cannot be ignored when making criticism of the DPRK.
Furthermore, there is a fine line between self-important implicitly chauvinist First World “criticism” of established socialism and constructive criticism in line with Marxism-Leninism-Maoism coming from comrades in the imperialist centers (or elsewhere, really). Equally so, there is fine line between correctly observing the limitations of criticism divorced from material experience and limiting constructive criticism and discussion on the basis of ‘social essentialism’ applied to vulgar conceptions of “actually existing socialism”. And I have no doubt that these two contradictions are intimately related.
So much of criticism made is A) non-constructive vulgar and rather anti-socialist or B) equally vulgar stemming from trends of ultra-leftism or C) thoroughly dogmatist. While the first two forms fall almost equally from the Right and “Left” camps the third form is a phenomena found exclusively in those circles of ardent Marxist-Leninists. With respect towards criticism coming from the established Marxist-Leninists it’s equally important to understand Marxism is above all a method in regard to revolutionary science; a set of principles that can be understood and applied universally, not a dogma or a specific ‘blueprint to communism’.
Now that I have set the record straight on my own framework for constructive criticism allow me to make said criticisms.
Upon observation, I feel first and foremost all ‘shortcomings’ and revisionist trends found within scope of socialist Korea can be attributed in context to a “creative break” rather than a “creative application” of Marxism-Leninism. The WPK seemingly stagnates in pattern with political lines of the Soviet Union; failing to ideologically develop and correct (read: and perhaps self-criticize) notably first on the issue of cadres which Kim Il Sung parroted with Soviet dogmatists. Unto which Mao would criticize:
They walk on one leg, we walk on two. They believe that technology decides everything, that cadres decide everything, speaking only of “expert,” never of “red,” only of the cadres, never of the masses […] They speak only of the production relations, not of the superstructure nor politics, nor the role of the people. Communism cannot be reached unless there is a communist movement.
This is only one specific example. Many others exist which follow in the same broken trend. In many ways Juche became the ‘soft break’ with the science of Marxism-Leninism: the artistic expression of political complacency.
True as it is, the contradictions which produced what we now know as Juche and tactically Songun politics were external and primarily of a principal character, the contradictions which now impede socialist construction were internally exacerbated through a rightist mishandling. Placing external ’cause-and-effect’ punchlines where analysis of internal contradiction should be is patently anti-dialectics and a signature of vulgar bourgeois philosophy. There is talk of a Mass Line but where is it being applied and how is it developing? Qualitative evidence seemingly does not exist and certainly not at the institutional level of instruction. Instead we observe symptoms of the city-countryside contradiction now materializing in the form of cadre-privilege such as that not only mentioned by Mao but also in precedent by Stalin. This bureacratism combined with the commandist tendencies found in relation to the KPA pose a threat to the socialist road of the Korean people.
In addition, there is the issue of actually applying Democratic Centralism at least relatively so in respect to given conditions. There is no real available evidence of free criticism, self-criticism and/or discussion; and while this does not necessitate the lack thereof (which must be met with some degree of uncertainty) it does mean these principles are not being honestly propagated. This is no doubt related to the conversation regarding the ‘cult of personality’ around the Kim family. While accusations of some quasi-monarchy or feudalism are outrageously baseless and unscientific, the rather ridiculously uncritical acceptance of “Kimilsungism-Kimjungilism” (as termed by the WPK) illustrates a concerning degree of hero worship. Indeed, we should hold high those brilliant theoreticians, revolutionaries, and leaders who have shown truth in their practice; that is the line between correct praise and what can be considered a personality cult. Correct Marxist-Leninists will criticize the failures of Marx, Lenin, Stalin etc. Correct Maoists will criticize the aforementioned including Mao. It seems only Jucheists are fearful to criticize Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. This fear of criticism highlights the failure to correctly apply Marxism-Leninism but also reflects what may be a quiet insecurity in the universal truth-value of the Juche ideology.
Then comes the orthodox and predictable yet valid criticism of Juche, not as the supposed Jucheists describe it, but as the theorists of Juche itself describe it:
The Juche philosophy is an original philosophy which has been evolved and systematized with its own principles. The historic contribution made by the Juche philosophy to the development of philosophical thoughts lies not in its advancement of Marxist materialistic dialectics, but in its clarification of new philosophical principles centred on man.
I will not spend any time formally criticizing Juche, in fact I will defer to a great piece on the issue by Gary Howell. I will, instead, draw light to the strategic abstractness assumed by Juche and its theorists. Although Juche is posited as a solution to the ‘theoretical limitations’ of Marxism-Leninism on the Korean peninsula there is no effort to actually indicate these supposed limitations. Juche seemingly authenticates its own existence as an “original philosophy” on the preclusion that it is Juche. This is where my formal contention resides. Correct theory presumes a real relationship with correct practice and incorrect theory can only continually reproduce such incorrectness.
These are not the only criticisms to be made, however. One which continually, and rightfully, surfaces in Left circles considers the masculinity presented by the DPRK as wholly reproductive of patriarchal norms. There is definitely some truth to this criticism yet the WPK and the DPRK proper seem to continually make efforts at combating this implicit dogma especially in the KPA.
As mentioned earlier, the objective for this piece was to concretely describe the relationships and conditions which compose socialist Korea. Therefore detailed criticisms must be left as compliments to the primary task.
Allow us to conclude with this realization: more than anything we have to understand the DPRK as a whole in contradiction with all the imperialism of the world and as a set of internal contradictions itself. Continually attempting to “break down” the DPRK into its composing pieces, as do so many political economists, without an eye towards the intrinsic motion between ‘parts’ will always fail to adequately address the task. It is for this reason that we uphold the anti-imperialism of the DPRK and its primarily socialist character. While there is most certainly space for the forces of reaction and right opportunism to infiltrate the organs of class power, the resoluteness of the Korean people will stand steadfast in socialism such as they have in a deadly struggle against the compradors and imperialists. If we must err, we should err on the side of socialism; on the side of the self-determined Korean people; on the side against imperialism and the comprador south; err with the oppressed and exploited against their oppressors and exploiters the world round.
 Suh, Jae-Jean. 2004. The Transformation of Class Structure and Class Conflict in North Korea. International Journal of Korean Reunification Studies. p. 55 http://www.nkeconwatch.com/wp content/uploads/2007/07/transformation%20of%20class%20structure.pdf
 Ibid. p. 56
 Ibid. p. 57
 Kim Il Sung. 1954. On Our Party’s Policy for the Future Development of Agriculture: On the Economic Structure in the Northern Half of the Republic and the Socialist Transformation of the Countryside. Kim Il Sung Works Vol. 8. p. 108
 Suh. 2004. p. 59
 Suh. 2004. p. 60
 10th Supreme People’s Assembly. Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Article 8. http://www1.korea-np.co.jp/pk/061st_issue/98091708.htm
 Korea-DPR. 2013.
 Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Cultural Front: Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia.
 Journal of Asian and African Studies. 2013. Elite Volatility and Change in North Korean Politics: 1970-2010
 Suh. 2004. p. 62
 SPA. Article 21.
 Hoxha, Enver. 1978. Yugoslav “Self-Administration” – a Capitalist Theory and Practice. p. 22.
 Suh. 2004. p. 65.
 Fitzpatrick. 1994.
 Mao Tse-Tung. 1961. Critique of Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism in USSR. p. 135.
 Kim Jong Il. 1996. The Juche Philosophy is an Original Revolutionary Philosophy.
 Park, Kyung Ae. 1992. Women and Revolution in North Korea.