Saturday, October 1, 2011

And the North Koreans?

Rodong Sinmun building, Pyongyang. Source

In my last post, I discussed how South Korea has “gone global.” Its business community has emancipated itself from the nation state and is now outsourcing employment to lower-wage countries and “insourcing” lower-wage labor. The eventual result? A downward leveling of incomes. And a profound ethnic and cultural transformation. South Korea is abolishing itself.

This self-abolition is of concern not just to South Koreans. There is the little matter of their neighbors, the North Koreans. What do they think?

A naïve observer might expect a positive reaction. Doesn’t the North support international socialism? And doesn’t that mean support for multiculturalism? At most, one might expect some sadness that the political Right is piloting this transformation of South Korea.

The North Koreans actually feel differently. In April 2006, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party, Rodong Sinmun, ran this editorial:

Recently, in South Korea, a strange game pursuing the weakening of the fundamental character of our race and making society 'multiethnic and multiracial' is unfolding.

Those responsible for this commotion are spreading confounding rumors like South Korea is a “multiracial area” mixed with the blood of Americans and several other races, how we must “overcome closed ethnic nationalism,” and we must embrace “the inclusiveness and openness of a multiethnic nation” like the United States.

The words themselves take a knife to the feeling of our people, but even more serious is that this anti-national theory of “multiethnic, multiracial society” has already gone beyond the stage of discussion. Already, they’ve decided that from 2009, content related to “multiracial, multiethnic culture” would be included in elementary, middle and high school textbooks that have until now stressed that Koreans are the “descendents of Dangun,” “of one blood line” and “one race,” and to change the terms “families of international marriage” and “families of foreign laborers” to “multicultural families.”

This is an outrage that makes it impossible to repress the rage of the people/race. To start from the conclusion, the argument for “multiethnic, multiracial society” cried for by pro-American flunkeyists in South Korea is an unpardonable argument to obliterate the race by denying the homogeneity of the Korean race and to make an immigrant society out of South Korea, to make it a hodgepodge, to Americanize it.
(Koehler, 2006)

For some, the above editorial is proof that the North Koreans are nuts. They’ve gone Nazi, and there’s no longer any point in dealing with them. This is the message of a recent book that brands the North Koreans as being “ideologically closer to America’s adversaries in World War II than to communist China and Eastern Europe” (Myers, 2010, pp. 15-16).

The truth is a bit more complex. First, they’re not the ones who’ve changed. We have. We’re observing North Korea from a frame of reference that has shifted over time. Today, across our entire political spectrum, we view all forms of ethnic nationalism as outdated, if not evil. Sixty years ago, the same view was confined to the far left. It was even marginal within the leftist ideology that gave birth to North Korea.

What makes North Korea tick? Some background

Socialism, Marxism-Leninism, communism …. These are different words for the ruling ideology of the Soviet Union, particularly during Josef Stalin’s long term of office from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s. During the 1930s, and more so during the war years, Stalin partially rehabilitated nationalism, seeing national identity as normal, legitimate, and even progressive—especially if used to mobilize opposition to fascism and international capitalism. He also promoted autarky and the belief that socialism should be made to work in one country at a time.

Meanwhile, many Koreans were looking to Soviet communism as a way to take back their country. They were really nationalists who resented the way their nation was being made to serve Japanese imperial rule and a tiny landowning class. They also understood that many nations elsewhere faced similar situations. By lending their voices to the chorus of international solidarity, they believed they were encouraging others to become masters in their own house. They were also ensuring their personal survival, since many had to flee to the Soviet Union and China.

In 1945, with the defeat of Japan and the end of the Second World War, these émigrés were brought back to form an administration in northern Korea under the auspices of the Soviet Union. From the outset, their ideology was clearly a mix of communism and nationalism:

Thus Marxism-Leninism cannot affect the deep structures of thought and behavior in any society except over a very long period: it will be grafted onto existing, longstanding roots and, while seeking to transform the roots, will itself be transformed as peoples and cultures render it intelligible to their lives. Part of the roots will be whittled away, but the branches will be pruned as well.

This has proved truer in Korea than in many settings for building socialism, precisely because of the very alienness of the setting to this fundamentally Western set of ideas. Korea had a minuscule proletariat, the beginnings of capitalism, and far too much internationalism (capitalist-style) by 1945. It therefore took from Marxism-Leninism what it wanted and rejected much of the rest: a state with potent organization, capable of providing the political basis for independence at a future point; an economic program of rapid industrialization and a philosophy of subjecting nature to human will; Lenin's notion of national liberation; Stalin's autarky of socialism-in-one country (to become in Korea socialism in one-half-a-country, and now, as Kenneth Jowitt remarked, socialism-in-one-family). Autarky fit Korea's Hermit Kingdom past, and answered the need for closure from the world economy after decades of opening under Japanese auspices. What was unusable was dispatched as soon as possible: above all the socialist internationalism including a transnational division of labor that the Soviets wanted and that Korea successfully resisted, beginning in the late 1950s.

(Cumings, 1982-1983)

In the 1950s, North Korea was more nationalistic than the rest of the communist bloc, but this difference should not be exaggerated. When communist Bulgaria pressured much of its Turkish minority to leave, the reason was that the Turks, as Turks, were incompatible with the Bulgarian nation state. When Mao offered to send Chinese migrants to Siberia, Khrushchev curtly refused: such migration would have endangered the region’s ethnic balance. There was no other reason.

The West was no less committed to the nation state. When the two power blocs went to war over the Korean peninsula, the West never condemned the North Koreans for ethnic nationalism—or the outdated idea that blood relationships are a key organizing principle of society. That idea was not yet outdated. In fact, our side accused the North Koreans of trying to subvert blood relationships—by undermining the authority of the family and by banning ancestor worship.

Since then, the North Koreans have hardly changed. But we’ve changed a lot. Today, in rejecting the nation state, we differ profoundly not just from the North Koreans but also from what we were back in the 1950s. We are strangers to everyone from that time, including ourselves.

Is this surprising? Change moves slowly in communist societies because the State keeps a tight rein on mainstream culture. There is only one authorized ideology, and it’s not easily tampered with—despite all of its revolutionary rhetoric. Any adjustments must be approved by the different organs of the ruling party, which are in the hands of individuals who have slowly risen through the party’s ranks.

The West, despite its superficial conservatism, offers much more leeway for sweeping change. The mainstream culture is an open system. It is much more vulnerable to being altered, and there is no lack of interest groups who understand the value of such alteration. By changing cultural norms, they can change how the average person thinks and behaves.


Cumings, B. (1982-1983). Corporatism in North Korea, Journal of Korean Studies, 4, 269-294.

Koehler, R. (2006). I guess this means the DPRK won’t be inviting Hines Ward for a visit (English translation of Rodong Sinmun editorial).

Korea Central News Agency (2006). Rodong Sinmun Censures Theory of "Multiracial Society"

Myers, B.R. (2010). The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves—and Why It Matters, Brooklyn: Melville House.


Anonymous said...

North Korea seems to be national socialist.

South Korea was similarly strongly nationalist. It had an authoritarian, nationalist regime like North Korea, just with state capitalism rather than socialism.

This began to change in 1993 when they had their first civilian president who was a democratic activist and explicitly promoted an internationalization policy called "segyehwa" in Korean which literally means "globalization".

Anonymous said...

"the outdated idea that blood relationships are a key organizing principle of society"

Just how is this outdated?

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

When I lived in Japan about a decade ago, we went to South Korea for the weekend (as many Japanese do) for sightseeing and shopping. We also had a mutual Korean friend in Seoul. Our first night out on the town a group of drunk Koreans started abusing us in broken Korean and English. Apparently they thought I was an American soldier with a Korean woman. They were not pleased. If you google this type of thing, you will see it still happens, there are many blog posts about drunk racist Koreans harassing and even attacking foreigners. I had lived in Japan for a year at that time and never had this happen. Japanese are usually happy drunks. Then again Japanese tend to have a stereotype that Koreans are "aggressive/emotional".

A decade later it seems despite this that Korea is globalizing and opening up at a faster rate than Japan. :-O This is quite interesting, but I'm interested to see what the situation is like on the street. Elite musing about theoretical mumbo-jumbo is not necessarily reflective of what is happening on the ground. In my experience South Koreans are more nationalistic than people from Japan, Taiwan, and perhaps many in Mainland China. the average person has a long way to go.

Anonymous said...

"The average person has a long way to go."

To become what, Uncle Tom? To become like Whites? Who surrender their nations and kill themselves?

I'll have you know I'm Asian, and I find the the multicultural/multiracial disease of the West to be completely detestable.

Asia or the rest of the world does not need that. There's nothing wrong with being racist if it keeps one's country homogenous.

Tod said...

I think the alterations in birthrate are the key factor. Look at the Arab Spring, in countries with a high proportion of young the government can't control the radical nationalism of the population.

It seems to be a law that economic success leads to a falling birthrate. Once that happens all kinds of interest groups come out the woodwork to preach economic globalism, multiculturalism and process theology. Their motives range from mercenary-economic to considerably more nefarious ethnic strategizing but, they can only influence societies in the circumstances of a 'youth deficit' so those deconstructing national feeling are 'piling on' taking advantage of the situation but they didn't bring it about. It was the superior qualities of the nation group that brought about economic success and the consequent demographic implosion.

The populations in advanced countries are quite helpless to halt the dismantling of their nations, they don't have the high proportion of young that are required for the kind of radical mass movement which would be required to stop the ideological termites.

Given that the future is a function of the birthrate, aren't the new 'cultural norms' (in which the indigenous population have negative rights), just rationalizing an inevitable consequence of the developments in advanced countries ?

Anonymous said...

they can only influence societies in the circumstances of a 'youth deficit' so those deconstructing national feeling are 'piling on' taking advantage of the situation but they didn't bring it about.

The counter-culture involved the Baby Boomers, a large, young population. It didn't arise with a "youth deficit".

Tod said...

The baby boomers generation was something less than a youth bulge and mass immigration only got going once they had aged.

While it is correct that youth bulges can lead to radical political movements of the right or left the presence of excess young men (all clamoring for jobs and status) would make it impossible for a government to import foreigners.

Moreover there would be no economic motive for the importation of labor if the country was teeming with jobless young people. A youth deficit creates the economic motive for importing foreigners and means the population is unable to politically mobilize against it.

Anonymous said...

This doesn't affect the point being made here, but Cumings isn't really a reliable source for what ordinary people in the DPRK. He pretty much parrots whatever the government in Pyongyang is selling, and in the early '80's he was in full "useful idiot" mode. Just a cautionary word...


Peter Frost said...


The opinion survey data suggest a sharp decline in nationalist sentiment in South Korea.


The below-replacement birth rate is often invoked as a reason for immigration, but it's really a red herring. Immigration from low-wage countries to high-wage countries will proceed as long as their is a wage differential.


There are useful idiots on our side too. A lot of academics are in the pocket of different interest groups. Don't tell me it's not true. Sometimes the only way to find out the truth is to listen to two "idiots" with opposing views.

Tod said...

Supply and demand, the proportion of of young only has to fall slightly for there to be competition among employers to recruit them thus driving up wages. (Just like relatively little immigration is capable of driving up house prices).

I think that the birthrate falling causes the economic motive and weakens the ability of the population to combat the business class (because old populations lack the masses of young men necessary for a sucessful radical nationalist movements).

The business class' mercenary motive to import labor has always been present to a certain extent Wages have always been high in western countries. What stopped them was nationalism among the populations, until recently all populations included lots of young people.

Ben10 said...

Why don't koreans import chinese male workers?

Peter Frost said...


How would you explain the case of Japan? They've had below-replacement fertility for a longer time than South Korea has had, yet the Japanese have not opened their borders do the extent that the South Koreans have.


There are a lot of Chinese immigrants in South Korea, but the Chinese governement is not encouraging this migration. The Chinese workforce is actually starting to shrink and there are signs that demand for labor in China is starting to outstrip supply.

All of this seemed impossible a few years ago. The Chinese countryside was supposed to be a vast untapped source of labor. The well may run dry sooner than had been thought.

Anonymous said...

''We'' have abandoned the idea of the nation-state?

The US from the beginning was mixed, from the first son of Native and English descent, to our African slaves, to the Mexicans that remained in what had been their country, to all the immigrants the world over that built our country.

We haven't abandoned the idea of the nation-state, we were founded with flagrant disregard for it.

Tod said...

The population is aging but the Japanese depression has given them more political traction. The economic motive for immigration is greatest during growth.

The Japanese are uniquely resistant to foreign influences - never a colony and the only non European country to industrialize. They also defeated the massive Mongol invasions. OK, they had typhoons to thank but the economic climate may be a new version of the 'Divine Wind'. I

I have to admit that in the Japanese case cultural independence of America is a crucial factor.

Anonymous, Native Americans are the only ones who of whom can be said 'America was their country'. Their way of life was not a bad way of life while it lasted but they didn't organize to prevent immigration from changing things.

How is that working out for them ?

Anonymous said...

"There are useful idiots on our side too. A lot of academics are in the pocket of different interest groups."

I wouldn't dream of denying this, it's certainly true. But just as our useful idiots are not a good guide to what ordinary Americans are thinking, Burce Cumings is not a reliable guide to what North Koreans are thinking. That's all I was saying

Anonymous said...

"The US from the beginning was mixed, from the first son of Native and English descent, to our African slaves, to the Mexicans that remained in what had been their country, to all the immigrants the world over that built our country.

We haven't abandoned the idea of the nation-state, we were founded with flagrant disregard for it."

Anonymous, please read some history for god´s sake, first of all less than 10 % of all US population share native american genes, The mexican territories almost had NO MEXICANS in it, that´s why they were fell prey to massive immigration from European settlers. Contrary to what you have been taught America was founded as European nation in Americas not a mixed nation like Mexico or Colombia. Such a situation had its advantages and disadvantages.