The inevitability of Kim revisionism

Andrei Lankov writes in the Asia Times:

Once every decade or two, television screens show powerful and memorable images such as the toppling statue of a tyrant. The destruction of a dictator’s statue makes for a potent political symbol, and few revolutionaries can resist the temptation.

It is said that sooner or later this fate will befall statues of Kim Il-sung, in 1945 a minor guerrilla commander who, with much Soviet backing, took power in North Korea and remained its absolute ruler until his death in 1994. However, this author is somewhat skeptical about the prospects: I would not be surprised to learn that some time in the 2030s it is trendy to keep a portrait of the long-deceased dictator in a North Korean house.

Let’s be blunt: the rule of the Kim family was a disaster which has few parallels in world history – even if judged by the brutal standards of the 20th century. The ratio of the political prison camp inmates to the total population in North Korea is roughly similar to that of Stalin’s Russia. The famine of 1996-1999 killed a larger part of population than the Great Leap Forward famine in Mao Zedong’s China. The Korean War (1950-1953), launched by the Kim Il-sung as an unsuccessful attempt to unify the country, was the bloodiest conflict in Korean history.

And, unlike many other strongmen of the last century (not least Joseph Stalin, Kim Il-sung’s mentor), the Kims cannot even justify this manslaughter with social or economic success. On the contrary, during the 60 or so years of their rule, the Kims have ruined what in 1945 was economically the most developed region of continental Asia.

In short, the Kim family regime has been a disaster. So, it seems only logical to assume that after its eventual demise (and few would doubt that this demise will happen sooner or later), the Koreans in both South and North will be unified in despising the North’s former rulers. The names of the two Kims, and in heir apparent Kim Jong-eun possibly a third, may well be damned by history. However, something makes the present author a bit skeptical about the unavoidability of such an outcome.

Maybe it is my Soviet/Russian background? When nowadays one drops into the average Russian bookshop, he or she sees in the history section a large number of treatises which extol in great length the superior wisdom of Generalissimo Stalin and the wisdom of his devoted generals and statesmen. Sometimes these books mention the terror of 1936-38 or the famine of the late 1930s, but usually as tragic mistakes or, rather, results of some intrigues by anti-Stalin conspirators.

More frequently, though, references to the Great Purge are laughed at, with an explicit assumption that reports of mass executions were grossly exaggerated and that those few who were killed by Stalin’s police actually got what they deserved (being spies and saboteurs). It is a bit more difficult to ignore the famine of the early 1930s, but it also can be blamed on bad weather and bad officials.

One should not dismiss these books as fringe writings (after all, Italy has its share of Mussolini admirers, too). They clearly belong to the mainstream. Stalin’s popularity hit a record low in the early 1990s, but he is now again popular in Russia, and his admirers are by no means small fringe groups.

The attitude is even more powerful when it comes to the discussion of the Soviet past in general. Every Russian politician knows well that he or she is not going to win votes by being excessively harsh in appraising the achievements of the glorious Soviet past. The same trends exist in many (but not all) ex-communist countries: in Germany, at the some point in the late 1990s as many as one third of East Germans told pollsters that the unification was a mistake, and that they would prefer to move back to the DDR (German Democratic Republic).

Educated Western readers tend to see the case of de-nazification in Germany and the complete rejection of Hitler’s past by the Germans as something normal. But it is actually an exception with few if any parallels worldwide. Japan, for example, is far less willing to admit the scale of its former misdeeds, and in Turkey the mainstream opinion is not ready even to accept the fact of Armenian genocide – probably, the first “modern” genocide. Each case has its explanations, but one should realize: the total rejection of the recent past, German style, is by no means typical.

We cannot know the future, but currently it seems that the eventual unification of Korea under the Seoul regime is the only possible long-term outcome of the Korean crisis. But once the Kim family regime is gone, the 25 million human beings who lived under their rule will have to make something of their sad and terrifying experiences. Frankly speaking, the entire era was a massive waste of time, resources and lives, but can the average North Korean person accept and admit this? Some people, no doubt, will come to such painful conclusions, but many more will probably not.

There will be no shortage of people who are bound to lose out from unification and/or regime change in North Korea. The Kim family has produced a small army of professional indoctrinators and overseers. Many a well-educated North Korean has made a decent (that is by North Korean standards) living by lecturing his/her compatriots about the finer points of the Juche (self-reliance) doctrine or the heroic deeds of the Kim family. Many others have been employed to enforce the manifold regulations and rules. Under the new system, these people will instantly find out that their arcane skills will be of little use. They are bound to feel unhappy about the new world and they are also bound to search for ways to justify and embellish their past.

The social and material difficulties of these people can be trivialized by describing them as “willing collaborators of a brutal regime” (as if informed career choice would have been possible in their youth). However, in the post-unification Korea there are social groups whose problems cannot be dismissed so easily.

Once the country is unified, the majority of North Korean professionals will find out that in the new world, their skills are of little if any value. What can be done by a North Korean medical doctor who knows nothing of 95% of all the procedures and treatments which are routine in modern medicine? What can be done with an engineer who has spent all his life repairing rusting industrial equipment of 1960s’ Soviet vintage?

What about a school teacher who has spent decades teaching Korean literature but still has no clue about the majority of authors who really constitute its mainstream (Korean literature as understood in North Korea is essentially a collection of eulogies to the Leaders, whilst everything produced in the South since 1945, as well as a significant part of the colonial era literature is ignored)?

None of these people can be portrayed as a regime collaborator, but they are likely to share the sorry fate of former ideological indoctrinators and minor police clerks. Some of them will manage to re-educate themselves, while others will find new and rewarding career paths, but the lucky will be few in number. The majority is bound to have at least ambivalent feelings about the post-unification situation.

However we should not be too elite-orientated. Unfortunately, the common North Korean will also have many good reasons to feel dissatisfied about the state of the country after unification. Assuming that North Korea will not change much until its collapse (and this is very likely), after unification more or less every North Korean above the age of 30 will find his/herself restricted to low-paid, unskilled or semi-skilled jobs.

This does not mean that unification will bring ruin to a majority of North Koreans. On the contrary, their incomes, their nutrition and their consumer lives are likely to improve dramatically and almost instantly. Nonetheless, they will probably soon take the new relative prosperity for granted, and will compare their income and social standing not with Kim Il-sung’s past, but with the situation of South Koreans.

Alas, this comparison is almost certain to be discouraging. Most North Koreans are likely to remain second-class citizens because the lack of relevant skills will prevent them from acquiring skilled work in the post-unification economy (reeducation is difficult in their age, with a heavy burden of social responsibilities on their shoulders). Formerly skilled blue-collar workers as well as many office clerks will have to spend the rest of their work lives sweeping streets and washing dishes. They will probably earn more than a minor official under the Kims’ rule, but their relative inferiority will cause much problem.

In most cases their inferior social position will be a result of their low skills but one should not count on them admitting and accepting this. It will probably be thought of as discrimination by the “arrogant and greedy” Southerners – and, to be sure, this allegation will have much truth to it. The experience of North Korean refugees in the South today seems to confirm that such discrimination is indeed very likely to be present. Like it or not, in the post-unification at least some North Koreans (perhaps many of them) will see themselves as collective losers who were first seduced by visions of South Korean prosperity and then let down by the (real and alleged) arrogance of Southerners.

A sad irony of the situation is the collapse of the regime in the North (and such a collapse seems to be the only way unification can happen) will most likely be brought about by the expectations which are partially correct and partially fanciful – the expectation that upon unification, the average North Korean will soon enjoy the same amounts of leisure, prosperity and quality of life as the average South Korean. Alas, this won’t happen.

The increase in the standard of living is likely to be very impressive by any standard, but it is bound to fall short of early, overly optimistic expectations and this will necessarily produce great frustration among the Northerners.

This sad situation is an unavoidable result of decades of the Kim’s family rule. Ideally, North Koreans might have admitted that they are paying a huge price for themselves (or rather their ancestors) being seduced by the seemingly attractive ideas once promoted by the founders of the regime and their Soviet sponsors.

These ideas emphasized social equality and a shared national destiny. They promised (wrongly, as it turned out) the general well-being and dramatic economic growth. Then, when around 1970, the emptiness of these promises started to become evident, the North Korean population could not challenge the system and found themselves in a state where a tiny semi-hereditary elite would maintain their powers whilst enjoying assorted perks and privileges.

However, such an honest and frank appraisal is unlikely to take hold – after all, it is seriously damaging for the psychological well-being of all those concerned. We humans are usually not too eager to see ourselves as victims of the dreams, delusions and fears of their grandfathers, we are not happy to say that we have spent our lives pursuing nonsensical goals while remaining more or less obedient tools for a tiny ruling caste. So, the North Koreans will be far more likely to start looking for some justification, a myth-based narrative (or rather a few different myth-based narratives) which will explain the disastrous Kim period in a less painful way.

In this regard they are likely to find some sympathy amongst the South Korean political and intellectual elite. Nowadays a measure of sympathy towards the North Korean regime is quite common in South Korean left-leaning academic and intellectual circles. It is possible that this tendency will outlive regime collapse. Even disclosure of the manifold horrors which were perpetrated by the regime may not fully undermine or do away with these views.

On top of that, some South Korean intellectual/politicians might be willing to embrace a vision of the past which would help to boost the morale of their newfound North Korean brethren – and like all politicians and professional ideologues, they will be quite willing to overlook that this vision is by no means supported by the hard facts of history.

So, there are powerful forces which will have vested interests in the distorting the ugly facts of North Korea’s past. At the same time, it seems that there will be a shortage of people who will be willing to change such a vision.

In the Soviet Union and, especially, in the countries of Eastern Europe the critique of the communist past was written by the former opposition movement, the ex-dissenters of the communist era. This critique was quite successful – up to the point of becoming the dominant discourse – in the countries where such opposition was powerful under the communist regimes (like Poland and Czechoslovakia). In Russia, where in the communist era both open dissent and opposition was far weaker than in East Europe, such a critical narrative is powerful, but by no means dominant, as we have said already.

However, the situation in North Korea is even worse. The North has no dissenters or internal opposition whatsoever – pretty much like the Stalinist Soviet Union, which once served as a prototype for the regime to follow and imitate. There of course must be some hidden dissent, but those who dare to express dissent openly are silenced by the most efficient means, by sending them to prison camps from whence they never emerge. Usually their families are sent to prison camps or exiled as well, so their descendents, deprived of any opportunities to receive decent education, are unlikely to express their views of the regime in memorable and poetic terms.

This is a major difference with the Soviet Union. In the USSR, major attacks on the regime’s brutality were carried by the people who had some experience in its camps and prisons and then re-emerged to the normal world (usually as a result of the 1950s de-Stalinization). Authors such as Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov, and Aleksandr I Ginzburg were former intellectuals who spent some time in camps and survived to tell their stories.

However, a zero-tolerance approach to dissent, the family responsibility principle and hereditary discrimination of dissenters’ descendants ensures that no Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, or other authors of well written prison memoirs are likely to emerge.

There might be some lucky educated and gifted camp survivors, or some great books produced by brilliant auto-deducts, but the current balance of discursive power seems to be skewed in favor of those who will try to say nice things about the regime. They might be unable to dominate post-unification discourse, but we can be sure that their voices will be audible and loud in the Northern part of the Korean peninsula.

It’s difficult to predict which myth will emerge in post-unification Korea that serves the above-described cultural and psychological demands of those North Koreans who will see themselves as “victims” of the transition. As the post-1991 experiences of the former Soviet Union demonstrate, there is likely to be a number of different and sometimes mutually exclusive narratives.

Nonetheless, due to the above-mentioned circumstances, it appears possible and, indeed, quite likely that North Koreans, being burnt by the painful experiences of transition, will look at Kim Il-sung and his era with much greater warmth than any impartial observer would expect. For example, the present author would suggest that one of popular narratives will sound something this:

In 1945, the North undertook a brave social experiment, which had great potential but went awry due to manifold reasons. To some extent, the problems were created by the inefficiencies of the system. But the major blame should be laid at the feet of outsiders, as usual in Korea’s tragic history. The Russians and the Chinese being driven by their own imperial designs, used their so-called ‘aid’ as leverage to foist unfavorable decisions on the land of our forefathers.

However, it was the Americans who made the most trouble by maintaining a strict blockade on the North. In spite of all of this, North Korea managed to remain even with the South until the early 1970s (more radical proponents of the myth will probably say 1980) and achieved much in such fields as education, health care and culture. Its home-grown culture was pure, national and free of foreign corruption.

Its people enjoyed a moderate but stable lifestyle. This state was presided over by Comrade Kim Il-sung. He might have had some shortcomings – for example, he trusted dishonest and manipulative advisors and sometimes let slanderers put innocent people into jail. Nonetheless he was a real national hero, a former independence fighter, and hence was morally superior to pro-Japanese collaborators who used to run the Southern republic in his times. Unfortunately, his untimely death coincided with collapse of the Communist Bloc which doomed the country to decades of misery and disruption (once again exacerbated by foreign pressure, American blackmail and economic blockade). Kim Il-sung’s choice of successor, and his excessive trust in his family also contributed to the eventual demise of his republic. Nonetheless, on balance it was a noble and worthy undertaking, so we have no reason whatsoever to feel ashamed of it. Therefore we should see ourselves as equal, or perhaps morally superior to the Southerners.’

The present author is ready to admit that the above reconstruction is partially based on nostalgia for the Soviet era, so common in his native Russia. But it is also drawn from frequent interactions with North Korean refugees in Seoul. These refugees tend to show much respect for the late founder of the Kim dynasty (but not for his son), as well as demonstrate a great deal of latent nationalism and anti-Americanism.

So, will Kim Il-sung’s statues be demolished? Probably, in the heat of revolutionary enthusiasm, we are likely to see many statues toppled and many portraits burnt. But we should not be too surprised if in a couple of years, such portraits and maybe even statues start popping up again in what was known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The inevitability of Kim revisionism
Asia Times
Andrei Lankov


One Response to “The inevitability of Kim revisionism”

  1. Michael says:

    Brilliant analysis! Indeed, this kind of “distorted” narrative can clearly (and ioncreasingly!) be observed with larger sections of the former DDR – population (and mind you, DDR was a comparatively open society!)