17 December 2004

North Korea's "Analectical Materialism"

The environment of the Soviet occupation of northern Korea, unlike that in Eastern Europe, was an East Asian agrarian society recently emerged from [Japanese] colonial rule. Certain policies, such as land reform, were immensely popular regardless of whether Russians or Koreans drafted the laws. Moreover, the Korean input into these policies, whether that of the regime in Pyongyang or in the process of ground-level implementation, was greater than a reading of Soviet sources alone would suggest.

In the area of ideology, for example, one of the most distinctively Korean elements of communism in North Korea was its emphasis on ideas over material conditions. Koreans shared this Marxist heresy with their counterparts in China and Vietnam, but this humanistic and voluntaristic emphasis was even more pronounced in Korea than in the other two East Asian communist revolutions, which may reflect the fact that Korea had long been more orthodox in its Confucianism than Vietnam or China. Korean communists tended to turn Marx on his head, as it were, valorizing human will over socioeconomic structures in a manner more reminiscent of traditional Confucianism than classic Marxism-Leninism. In short, the social and cultural context of the communist revolution in North Korea resulted in a society that looked less like Poland, a country occupied by the Red Army, than Vietnam, a country that was not. North Korea simply cannot be seen as a typical post-World War II Soviet satellite along the lines of East Germany or Poland, where leaders with longstanding ties to the USSR and long periods of residence in the Soviet Union were implanted by the Soviet occupation forces, where the Soviet Army remained the authority of last resort for decades afterward, and where the withdrawal of Soviet support quickly led to these regimes' demise. The North Korean revolution may not have been entirely autonomous, but its indigenous elements allowed it to endure.

Among the most important elements of this indigenization was Korean nationalism, which at the beginning was partially hidden under a veneer of fulsome praise for the USSR and for Stalin. But nationalism and pro-Soviet orientation were not mutually exclusive in East Asia at the time. For Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean radical nationalists, state socialism was a compelling route to national liberation and modernity, especially when the USSR had been the only major country to give material assistance to their struggles against colonialism.
SOURCE: The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, by Charles K. Armstrong (Cornell U. Press, 2003), pp. 4-5

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