North Korea: the struggle against imperialism and the lessons of socialist construction today

Ellis Garvey traces the history of North Korea, from being a colony to the anti-imperialist state that it is today

Ellis Garvey, is a member of the YCL’s Manchester branch

In the West the, history of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s revolutionary organisations have been deliberately distorted so that we cannot learn or sympathise with the experiences of this country which has undergone many important tasks leading to the construction of state socialism. This distortion alike in many of the other post-war people’s democracies, was mythologised by America and its puppets of NATO to back barbaric foreign policy, robbery of a country of its own revolutionary history (e.g. cultural-political eradication of the DDR in Germany). A single article cannot do their struggle justice nor can it fully detail the long history of resistance took place so further information will be linked below. 

There are many differences in the establishment of people’s democracy and socialism in the DPRK following World War Two which separates how it originated from others. The struggle took a longer period of time and because the status of Korea moving from a semi-colony in 1876 to a full colonial holding of Japan in 1910 meant gaining independence was paramount to any possible revolutionary cause. Early attempts to uprise failed due to the lack of an effective vanguard (many of which were inspired by Sun Yat Sen’s use of secret societies to lead the 1911 bourgeois revolution in China) that could rally to castoff the yoke of Japanese occupation. In rallying and uniting the nation, they would have to understand the different contradictions of the anti-imperialist classes (primarily the proletariat, peasantry, petit-bourgeoisie and progressive intellectuals) of the day so that they could, in the future, lead to total independence therefore allowing for the construction of socialism. Revolutionary President Kim Il-Sung stated that through the study of the Bolshevik and other Marxist-Leninist experiences they gained a methodology to help in guiding them to action.  

DPRK emblem

Communist and progressive organisations grew in popularity, chief among them was the Communist Party of Korea and the important the Down With Imperialism Association led by Kim Il Sung from an early age. Both these organisations would be key in revolutionary activity. Unlike other contemporary revolutions, the length of struggle led to a full-scale revolutionary people’s war. To wage this people’s war for independence and to develop socialism, Kim Il Sung would move from purely civilian activity to preparing a revolutionary war in the stage of developing national democracy. This led to the formation of the Korean People’s Army which set up bases to defend local revolutionary grassroots civilian institutions on the borderlands with the USSR which, along with the Chinese revolutionaries under Mao Zedong, aided the struggle greatly. Dual power was built throughout the country creating a basis for the future democratic state. Sabotage was conducted by guerrillas against the Japanese occupiers as well as uprisings that damaged the Japanese control over Korea.

In the mid ’40s The broader collapse of the Japanese Empire and the victorious forces of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army called for the final operation with support from the USSR. They jointly they managed to liberate the northern part of Korea. For a brief moment, all of Korea became united under a single Peoples Republic based upon local peoples committees. However, this would not last as the country was divided by the American imperialists; its legacy would not die. The northern half of Korea would maintain and develop the local people’s democratic committees and workers councils to provide a real democratic basis for Korea. The peoples committees where to be administered by ten different bureaus which between 1946-1948 was united as a regional Peoples Committee.

Following the brutal nuclear bombs detonated on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, costing an estimated 200,000 civilians to lose their lives (and displace many more), the US forced a quick surrender and occupation of the remaining Japanese Empire that had not been liberated by progressive forces. This action made the US the main imperialist presence in Asia. Therefore with the division of Korea, the US would set up a far-right puppet in the South which led many brutal massacres against communists as well as assassinations of any anti-imperialist organisations and figures (including the politicians in the south who aided the now lost unified Peoples Republic). 

The immediate demand of all progressive classes in Korea was to remove the idea that Korea should be two administrative areas divided between two foreign powers. As a result, the Communist Party of Korea accepted to merge with the other major Marxist-Leninist Party, the New People’s Party of Korea (an anti-imperialist party founded by Koreans living in China), into a single Workers’ Party (WPK) enshrining the methods of Marxism-Leninism. They would also officially adopt the mass-line, as Mao Zedong had done in China for the CCP, meaning that the WPK had to provide a method to keep in contact and empowering the broad masses to involve them on decision making to help guide its actions. Two Workers Parties where established in each territory as the vanguard to lead a united front, the Democratic Front for the Reunification of Korea (DFRK), which would opposed American Imperialism and begin supported socialist construction.

The legislature, which is unified by the DFRK, elects people to government positions including the leader of the collective governance system found in the State Affairs Commission and the Premier’s cabinet. This legislature is called the Supreme People’s Assembly and was set up to help provide a representative basis for the entirety of Korea. The DFRK united the mass organisations and various cross sections of society and helped conduct elections in 1948 (paralleling the 1948 elections in the southern puppet) in both parts of the country for the Supreme People’s Assembly in which 78% of eligible votes in the South of the country voted in favour of electing their representatives to the peoples democracy and not the neo-colonial puppet. The DFRK still exists today and contains the Social Democratic Party (representatives of the ‘small’ merchant class), Chondoist Chongu Party (progressive nationalist party with roots of early anti-imperialist resistance) and mass organisations including a massive Socialist Women’s Union (founded to resist colonialism), General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea, Agricultural Union, Youth League and Unions for various other interest groups including artistic and cultural.  

In 1948, the Workers Party of South Korea rallied the masses against the declaration of the new American neo-colonial administration of the Republic of Korea. This republic was built by ex-Japanese collaborators alike to the puppet government of the Federal Republic of Germany being led by ex-Nazis who masked themselves as renewed ‘democrats’. Workers led by the WPK declared their support by means of a mass strike and on the island of Jeju a full revolutionary uprising against the occupiers. The Americans and puppet forces would then lead a massacre costing the life of over as high as 50,000 civilians who had opposed the new administration.  

Photograph from the Korean War

The Supreme People’s Assembly would declare a constitution to formally establish a codified legal basis for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, the revolutionary hero Kim Il Sung was elected to become Premier, and later head of the collective state governing body. Promoting independence the DPRK did not join the Warsaw Pact nor fully join the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (being only an observer). The Workers Party of Korea became a single entity and preparations began to provide a liberation to the people of the South to which the US had begun to entrust the local fascist government with maintaining control. The southern puppet refused to accept either the previous elections or any new elections to let Koreans outright decide meaning the only course of action would be to defend the rightful territory of the Korean people. The South with US-aid would begin preparations to invade the DPRK. The Korean People’s Army which led the revolutionary war against the Japanese had prepared for the full liberation and independence of Korea from its neocolonial masters. 

This resulted in the Korean War in which the vast majority of the territory of the South fell quickly to revolutionary forces after the South provoked the DPRK’s troops. The US would quickly lead a brutal intervention, which included the deliberate targeting of civilians to crush the spirits and the successful uprising in the South, backed with a UN-backed coalition. The Peoples Republic of China and the KPA would rally together and help prevent the total collapse of the DPRK however the situation left over 90% of the DPRK’s infrastructure destroyed. With US and Western European aid, the South began to massacre workers numbering around about 100,000. For instance, the Bodo League massacre alone killed an estimated 60,000-110,000 people at the beginning of the war. The imperialist aggression cost around 1.5 million innocent lives in the North.

To recover from this, the DPRK had to focus on rebuilding and continuously working with the masses to ensure that the socialist consciousness was both intact and being properly built. The philosophy of Juche (in Korean roughly ‘master of oneself’), was proclaimed based on further development and expansion of the Marxist understanding of consciousness. It professes that what makes man unique is that it is a social being, therefore they are the creative masters of any revolutionary change. This thesis would move Korea from the national revolution to the socialist revolution. The WPK states that Juche is essential to build a long-lasting socialist consciousness as the Marxist-Leninist methods alone did not provide full detail in attaining the reality of the situation of developing socialist consciousness. It is important to dispel the myth that Marxism is downplayed and to show this is not the case. It is worth considering that in the education system, studying Marxist works such as those of Marx, Engels and Lenin are mandatory and known collectively as ‘the classics’. Juche emphasises that ‘flunkeyism’, which is the practice of mechanically applying principles that do not take into account the ongoing conditions (political and economic), is incorrect and instead that revolutionary forces must derive from the capabilities of the masses in question and not that of great power influence. The idea of Juche meant that the DPRK did not join the CMEA or WPO, holding its own independence firmly as a socialist state. 

The first Five Year Plan was adopted in 1955, which built upon the growing agricultural cooperatisation effort and public ownership of the means of production. This planning would provide the scientific basis to the economy, especially with regards to the state property that belongs to all the people rather than the individual coops. Adopted in its own way without orders from Moscow (who emphasised primary resources), led to unprecedented industrial growth bringing the DPRK to the standards of a modern industrial state decades before the south. For a long period of time, this made the DPRK wealthier than its southern neighbour, with its people enjoying a much higher standards of living, creating what economist Joan Robinson described as the ‘Korean Miracle’. Cooperatisation spread to all levels of industry including handicrafts which for the first time provided a massive growth in the living standards of an otherwise fairly unsupported industry. The petit-bourgeois traders where thus brought to socialist revolution by means of cooperatising and then rationalising into the plan created semi-socialist relations within their trade massively increasing the level of socialist consciousness. 

Only 5 Years following the devastation of war, socialism was established with minimal need for a long-lasting NEP or any period of marketisation. Industrialisation using public ownership pushed for factories to have democratic committees; the workplace in the DPRK is an example of workplace democracy in action. Each factory has these committees in which the workers can both raise their consciousness and have their say on production to ensure efficiency and that true public ownership is achieved. This removes the negatives of possible technocratic commandism as the economy is reliant on the workers as the basis and not bureaucrats.

This basis proves that a socialist unity has been achieved in proletarian industry, cooperatist agriculture and cooperatist handicrafts/merchantry. This shows how the people’s democracy model provided a road for the Korean people to establish an effective and healthy worker-peasant-intellectual alliance that has stayed tightly knit through its consistent socialist policies. Reflecting the move to a socialist society in 1972 the “Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” was passed by the Supreme People’s Assembly and unilaterally legitimised the new socialist order that had emerged and guaranteed to protect it. In terms of healthcare, the DPRK and Cuba are the only countries with totally publicly owned universal healthcare that enforces regular check-ups. A mass immunisation and healthcare investment led to the Koreans in the north to have their life expectancy go from 37 years in 1950 to over 70 by 1989.

Fidel Castro and Kim il Sung, 1986

During the Khrushchev, era the DPRK held consistent opposition to what it considered ‘modern revisionism’ by early attempts to downplay socialist consciousness, revolutionary internationalism and class struggle from the attempts to marketise economic relations. Kim Ill Sung stated that revisionists had adopted view that “the transition period [was] the period up to the victory of the socialist revolution” and that Khrushchev’s “viewpoint stems from the ideological view of abandoning the class struggle against the survivors of the overthrown exploiter class internally, and internationally, refraining from the world revolution, by choosing to live at peace with imperialism.” For the political system, this meant that it could only be successfully achieved if the dictatorship of the proletariat is consistently reinforced and not relaxed to let in room to the exploiters. 

The DPRK maintained a strong sense and support of revolutionary internationalism and supported efforts to establish peoples democratises and socialist republics throughout the world even though it never formally joined the WPO or CMEA. The WPK provided assistance to the Black Panthers (including training its members to taking them as asylum seekers) as well as other revolutionaries of the 60s in their struggles. To national liberation organisations, they sent out support to groups throughout the world from South East Asia (namely Vietnam) to Africa and the Americas (especially Cuba which it holds a strong relationship with to this day). 

Kim Jong Il upon reflecting the defeat of the socialism in the early ’90s gave the following statement: 

“Parties in some countries which were building socialism in the past, clung to economic construction alone. They took a dogmatic approach to preceding socialist theory and failed to pay due attention to educating the popular masses. Therefore, they made economic construction itself stagnate and, in the long run, pulled the socialist system down and went the length of reviving capitalism. Opportunists and renegade socialists abandoned ideological work in socialist society, and encouraged people to be egotistic and selfish. They spread bourgeois ideology which regards money as omnipotent among people, by adopting the capitalist method of using financial incentives. They echoed reactionary bourgeois propaganda which preached the ‘effectiveness’ and ‘advantage’ of the capitalist market economy. They proclaimed a ‘mixed economy’ and destroyed the economic system based on socialist ownership. It is beyond dispute that the opportunists and renegade ‘socialists’ manoeuvres were an anti-socialist and counter-revolutionary scheme to distort socialism, paralyze its superiority and open up the way to the fall of socialism and the return of capitalism, to please the imperialists…this proves how great a role ideology plays and how important ideological work is, to accomplish socialism.” 

The collapse of the USSR resulted in a bolstered Military First (Songun) policy to deter the South and American allies. The effects of the DPRK’s economic miracle became reduced and there were food shortages as they could no longer import food. The capitalist states of Europe had placed an embargo on food which had supported their industrial planning goals and provided a high standard of living. The life expectancy had fell to 63 in 1995, showing the brutal actions of the European and American imperialists and their total disregard for human life. It has since however recovered to above 70 in 2015 and continues to rise as with the overall quality of life. Kim Jong Il (son of Kim Il Sung and born revolutionary fighter in his own right) worked hard to protect the DPRK and its socialist system which took Korea through its ‘arduous march’ to the 21st century and to provide an improved second generation of socialist leaders.

As a result of this strengthened embargo, a Korean socialist consciousness has had to be further established. Self-sufficiency is reinforced both physically and ideologically to make up for the vast amounts of losses and potential once had during the USSR. The DPRK has continued to show that they still dedicate themselves to socialist internationalism; even continuing to support revolutionaries such as the New People’s Army in the Philippines as well as having supported the Bolivarian government of Venezuela against American attacks. In 1992 following the collapse of the USSR, and the revisionist stab in the back, the Pyongyang Declaration was signed to unify socialists and communists against heightened imperialist attack and their marionettes. Therefore as of today, the DPRK has refused to make any concessions to the imperialists or to domestic bourgeois forces and maintains its socialist planned economy, political system and its way of life. With the heightened embargo, the third generation of socialist leadership has prioritised the development and continued self-reliance of the DPRK on its own goods and is quickly developing technologies to keep itself with the principles of scientific socialism. 

Ellis Garvey

Further Readings:

With the Century – Kim Il Sung 

Understanding Korea – Foreign Languages Publishing House 

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