Last month I argued that North Korea is not really a communist state, at least not as we normally understand Marxist-Leninist states in the 20th century. For example, North Korea is governed by a monarchic family clan; its 'socialism' has been broadly replaced by corruption (at the top) and informal marketization (at the bottom); it flirts with race-fascism. Yet it does still retain obvious elements of old Stalinist states – for example, in its iconography, obsession with ideology, and anti-Western foreign policy relationships.
In my experience in this area, both scholarly and journalistic, this creates a lot of confusion and intellectual competition, with consequent political repercussions over how exactly to respond to North Korean provocations. There is a wide division out there about just how to interpret North Korea, what it 'really' is, what it 'really' wants, and so on. Similarly, a common retort to de-legitimize one's intellectual opponents in the study of North Korea is to claim another does not really 'understand' the 'true' North Korea.
The easy answer is to throw up one's hands and call North Korea sui generis. That may be right in the way North Korea synthesizes seemingly disparate elements into what should be an ideological rube-goldberg jalopy. But North Korea manages to hang on regardless of how many times we analysts say it is an incoherent mess. So it seems worthwhile to sketch out some of the various interpretations floating around out there. Based on my experience at conferences, in scholarship and journalism, from my trip to North Korea itself , and so on, I would say there are five primary interpretive angles:
1. North Korea as 'classic' Cold War Stalinist alternative to South Korea:
Who believes this? Non-Korean journalists, Korean conservatives and military, non-elite Americans
What is their ideology? Traditional conservative
What is their big fear? A Northern invasion of South Korea
I argued against this interpretation last month, and I would reckon most North Korea analysts would say this is no longer the best way to read Pyongyang. But I find it is still quite popular. Its appeal is obvious. It is easy to understand, parallels nicely with South Korea as the liberal democratic alternate, and fits into an obvious frame – the Cold War.
And because North Korea started out this way, all sorts of vestiges remain: the socialist moniker (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea), the iconography (lots of red, the flag, the national seal, the party symbol ), the autarkic ideology . And Kim Il Sung, the regime founder, almost certainly believed in socialism or communism (although whether his son and grandson do is matter of intense debate).
2. North Korea as a dangerous rogue state gumming up the works of globalization and U.S. hegemony:
Who believes this? U.S. hawks and think-tankers
What is their ideology? Neoconservative
What is their big fear? Nuclear proliferation
The idea here is that North Korea has actually successfully adapted to the end of the Cold War and remade itself as a gremlin in global governance . It refuses to follow even the most basic rules; its decision-making is a fog to outsiders; it does not belong to any international organizations. It is the most unpredictable state in the system. Back when he was Undersecretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz captured this anxiety well: “I'm more profoundly skeptical of North Korea than of any other country—both how they think, which I don't understand, and the series of bizarre things they have done.”
3. North Korea as a semi-fascist barracks state
What is their ideology? None
What is their big fear? Nationalist competition with and subversion of South Korea
Brian Myers has led this school, which argues that North Korea is a misunderstood racist state based on Japanese and German fascist forms from the early twentieth century. It rallies its citizens through aggressive race-based nationalism (the defense of minjok), defends the racial 'cleanliness' of Korea in a big intrusive world , insists that ethnic Koreans of other nationalities are still Koreans, and routinely uses racist language in its diplomacy. On top of this, it is one of the most highly militarized states in the world. Racism plus hypermilitarism looks a lot more like fascism than communism.
Notably, when I was in North Korea, my minders used a lot of this sort of language. As one of them put it, 'no mixing' (ie. inter-racial mixing).
4. North Korea as neo-Confucian kingdom defending Korean independence against foreign predators:
What is their ideology? Leftist
What is their big fear? American misunderstanding and overreaction
If the above interpretations are all congenial to conservatives and hawks, here is perhaps the one I encounter most from the left. The idea here is that North Korea is more Korean than socialist or fascist, and that if we look at Korean history, we can see where it came from. For example, the North Korean monarchy is not a transplant of Stalinism but a reversion to Korea's earlier Confucian political form, a point evidenced by the inclusion of a Confucian writing brush in the party symbol, and in the DPRK's insistence that it is a modern version of Koguryeo, a much earlier Korean kingdom.
Or, it was U.S. behavior during the Korean War – specifically the extraordinary bombing of the North — which radicalized Kim Il Sung and the Korean Workers Party. If the U.S. had not been so brutal, the logic goes, the North Korea would have been more like North Vietnam or East Germany, instead of the Orwellian tyranny we know today. The policy extension of this view is that North Korea must be brought in from the cold by outreach such as the Sunshine policy .
5. North Korea as a mafia racket masquerading as a country: