Last year, photos of the military parade to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea traveled the world. Alleged nuclear missiles filed past the podium; Kim Jong-un, a plump young dictator in a black Mao suit, gave his first public speech in two years; thousands of spectators waved colorful bouquets of plastic flowers in perfect synchronization.
And a few Western tourists were in the crowd.
I know this because I too was in Pyongyang last spring. I’m no world traveler and certainly not a Koreanist.
I once referred to North Korea as a “hipsters’ paradise“: everyone has single-gear bikes and vintage clothes. There are plenty of solar panels and almost no cars. A woman who works in environmental policy exclaimed: “This is the future!”
And perversely, North Korea is one of the last corners of the Earth with a non-capitalist mode of production. While that alternative involves horrible oppression, it’s of natural interest to a socialist.
The Way Over
It isn’t hard for Western tourists to get to North Korea, although less than five thousand visit each year. All I had to do was book a trip with a Chinese travel agency, wire them about two hundred dollars for each day I’d be in the country, and sign a multi-page statement attesting that I’m not a journalist. The agency took care of everything else.
The plane’s overhead monitors showed a Moranbong Band concert. The Moranbong Band consists of more than a dozen young women dressed in skimpy white military uniforms — a hybrid of the Pussycat Dolls and a military band.
The music is quick, precise, and limitlessly optimistic. The singers’ gestures are perfectly coordinated, even robotic. The audience is full of old men in olive green uniforms whose clapping is no less precise.
The hipster in me thrilled: “Finally, a band that no one besides me knows!”
At the Pyongyang airport, I stood nervously in front of a border guard. When I yanked my visa out of my pocket, a plastic pen flew through the air and landed on the official’s head.
A vision of a prison camp flashed before my eyes. But he laughed and sent me on my way.
I hid all my computer files related to politics or journalism. But how well do they know Mac OSX? Kim Jung-un is an Mac user, after all. But the customs agents are uninterested.
We’re taken straight to a hotel where we’re treated like kings. While hundreds of Pyongyang residents cram themselves onto creaky electric buses, our air-conditioned coach was only half full.
The hotel — the only one for foreign tourists in the whole country — shoots forty-seven stories into the sky. I’m excited about the view until I realize that power is unreliable. The first day, only two of the eight elevators are in service, and the wait to ride up is forty-five minutes.
At least the food in “Western Restaurant Number 2,” as the marketing experts of the regime christened it, is plentiful, if not exactly great.
What is This Place?
It’s hard to understand North Korea. Our tour group begins a long and impassioned search for a theory that can explain the country.
The streets of the capital look like establishing shots from Mad Men: men in dark suits; women in skirts, heels, and pearl necklaces.
We wonder: Are these people in the street perhaps just actors? And why won’t the state guides tell us anything about the prison camps? (To be fair, a DC tour guide probably wouldn’t announce right off the bat how many Americans are thrown in prison and killed by police.)
The locals, in the brief snippets of conversation we can sneak behind the backs of our guides, aren’t much help with our questions. They don’t have any points of comparison.
A young man with a red tie and a matching red bicycle tells us the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is “the banner of the world” before admitting that he’s never left its borders. A young woman asked me what Kim Il-sung University is best known for internationally. I stuttered that it’s well known for lots of things.
We still need an explanation. What is this place, one of the last corners of the earth not subject to the standard workings of capitalist accumulation? So we proceed systematically: what are all the terms people apply to the DPRK?
“Stone Age communism” — this is the mainstream press’s favorite description. But it doesn’t make sense. In the Stone Age, there were no material differences between people. Under what some call “primitive communism,” everyone was poor, but everyone was equal. In North Korea, neither of these things is true.
In the countryside, farmers work with donkeys and wooden plows. But they still wear rubber boots and communicate on mobile phones. In the capital, many also have smartphones. Comparing smartphones with a young woman, I ask if hers is from China. “No,” she says, confused, as if I had asked if it was from Mars. “It’s from Korea.”
The “marshal,” as Kim Jung-un is known, lives a cozy life. But he is not the only one to enjoy material benefits. At the airport, we saw North Korean officials returning from trips abroad waiting to pick up their golf clubs from the baggage carousel.
Party functionaries can still drive cars and visit restaurants, activities that would be inconceivable for most citizens.
In the words of Friedrich Engels, a Stone Age leader enjoyed “unforced and unquestioned respect.” In North Korea, every adult wears a small red pin with pictures of founder Kim Il-sung, the “eternal president,” and his son, the “general,” Kim Jong-il. But respect for the Kims — or what our tour guide calls their “deification” — seems to require a bit of coercion.
So this isn’t “Stone Age communism.” What kind of system is it, then? Socialism?
The regime certainly represents itself as socialist, but since the 1990s, all the images of Marx and Lenin have disappeared.
The state’s founder Kim Il-sung supplanted Marxism-Leninism with his own ideology. “Juche” means something like “self-reliance” and stipulates that the mountainous northern half of the Korean peninsula must be an autarky.
His son, Kim Jong-Il, expanded this theory with “Sungun”: the army now has top priority.
Not one of the ten principles by which all citizens must live fails to mention obedience to the Kims. This is almost as far away from socialism in Marx’s sense as it is from the Stone Age.
As a result, and due to the cult around the Kim family, some people describe North Korea as a “hereditary monarchy.”
Certain comparisons to absolutism come to mind. The Kims have ruled on their peninsula nearly as long as the Saud dynasty on theirs. And there are ubiquitous images of rulers with supposed magical abilities: Kim Jong-Il reportedly claimed he could control the weather.
But at the same time, the DPRK is strictly atheistic. Tourists to North Korea are not allowed to bring the Bible or other religious writings. There are attempts to stave off Christian missionaries who are constantly trying to make headway in the country. Everyone understands that the “eternal president” (who died in 1994) is not looking down from heaven.
But the country nevertheless evokes a religious cult. The imposingly joyful tour guides would fit seamlessly into promotional videos for a particularly aggressive church. In Pyongyang everyone wears a steely smile along with the conviction that their miserable living conditions are among the best in the world.
So is it something else?
This summer, the Slovenian provocation band Laibach, who satirizes Nazi aesthetics, toured in North Korea. Half the world speculated about this strange event. Perhaps the North Koreans simply do not get the joke? After all, only a few hundred people in the country have access to Wikipedia.
One North Korean man who was at the show told the BBC, “There are all kinds of music. Now we know there is this kind of music too.” Was he satirizing the satirists? Who is telling and who is the butt of this joke?
Then it hit me: it’s likely that Kim Jung-un attended a Swiss boarding school. What if the young dictator was a Dadaist? Could North Korea be a surrealist Gesamtkunstwerk?
No. We probably need another theory.
Let’s start, in the spirit of historical materialism, with the relations of production.
North Korea has, by and large, a planned economy: most people work for the state, and the government distributes most products.
In fact, it was this planning that enabled the “Korean economic miracle” after the war. The term originally referred to the North’s industrialization; rural South Korea did not overtake the industrial North economically until 1975.
Nevertheless, economic planning in the country never came close to functioning as Marx or Engels envisioned it because workers have never democratically determined production and distribution. A group of state functionaries, with the Kim dynasty at the head, have control.
For example, when Kim Jung-un decided that the capital needed a world-class water park, the military high command took over responsibility and the head of state personally checked in on progress seven different times. (I can confirm it was an incredibly fun water park.)
This reached absurd proportions when Kim Jung-il ordered hundreds of thousands of people to his mass dance events which would last for weeks on end.
Lest you think this absurdity is new, founder Kim Il-sung established the “On-Site Guidance” routine that Kim Jong-un Looking at Things documents.
Economic planning in North Korea has endured longer than it did in Russia or China. However, the government is now opening market niches.
Farmers in state or collective farms can sow some fields themselves and sell the proceeds in markets. Thanks to Chinese imports, many apartments have solar panels, and children wear Mickey Mouse clothing.
Tourism is supposed to bring foreign currency into the country. The youngest Kim opened a large ski resort in 2014 and dreams of two million foreign tourists each year, rather than the five thousand who visit now.
The problem is, every so often, a tourist gets shot or sentenced to hard labor. Not exactly the vacation advertisement campaign the government would want.
Still, the changes have been pronounced. In North Korea, as in China in the nineties, there are special economic zones where foreign companies can invest. Wages go to the state, which passes on a small portion to the workers.
Tourists can visit the facilities in these zones as long as they do not take pictures of the products manufactured there. Several multinational companies have been reluctant to admit that they have textiles sewn in North Korea.
The state also exports fifty thousand or more workers to China, Russia, and even Qatar. The majority of their wages also go directly to the government.
But foreign investors don’t seem particularly keen on financing a capitalist restoration in the North. The money certainly isn’t flowing in — North Korea depends on certain markets that other producers avoid.
According to unconfirmed rumors, the chemical industry, which found no buyers for its legal products, now specializes in amphetamines. North Korea supposedly supplies China’s whole drug market: a country-sized version of Walter White from Breaking Bad. And when high-quality counterfeit US dollars show up in the region, they probably come from the DPRK.
An economy like this survives only thanks to China, which intervened in the Korean War after US troops began pushing north. China far prefers an unpredictable satellite state than NATO at its doorstep. The leadership in Beijing would find the Kim regime’s collapse, which would result in millions of refugees and a rival at the border, unacceptable.
Still, the Kims boast about their independence from China and Kim Jung-un has yet to make a courtesy visit to his financiers.
Our tour group’s question is still unanswered. What is North Korea? It is a planned economy without democracy; a privileged caste makes all the decisions; at the head of this caste sits an infallible leader.
So you might say North Korea is Stalinist. But that only raises another question: what is Stalinism?
For a democratic planned economy to work, it needs a certain level of productivity. It also needs workers who can actively participate in the management of society in the form of councils. But in North Korea, which had been bombed to the ground in the war, severe poverty was the norm. A privileged bureaucracy emerged from this situation.
Marx had already indirectly predicted this in 1845; a revolution without the development of productive forces could not prevail, he wrote, because “with destitution, the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.”
And Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described an analogous situation in the young Soviet Union: “The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all.” Someone has to police the breadlines and decide “who is to get something and who has to wait.”
The highlight of my time in the DPRK was a trip to the “Palace of the Sun,” the eternal resting place of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
When Lenin died and the Soviet leadership decided to put his body on display, his comrade and widow Nadezhda Krupskaya protested against the plan in Pravda: “Do not raise memorials to him, palaces named after him, splendorous festivals in commemoration of him.”
They ignored her, and the mausoleum in Red Square is a physical manifestation of the revolution’s collapse from proletarian democracy to bureaucratic mysticism.
The maintenance of the corpse apparently costs the Russian state nearly two hundred thousand dollars a year. But the Moscow mausoleum is a shanty compared to the Pyongyang palace.
In the Pyongyang mausoleum, moving walkways take us past endless pictures of “Kims Looking At Things.” The contrast between the charismatic grandfather and the creepy father of the current ruler is striking.
We finally arrive in two identical marble-walled rooms. Without his oversized sunglasses, Kim Jong-il doesn’t look that funny. In groups of four we bow to three sides of the sarcophagus — but not toward the head, which would apparently be disrespectful.
Next, we go to a small museum where we see Kim Jong-il’s private train car, his Mercedes, his golf cart, even his yacht. We see awards and literary degrees that might even rival those of L. Ron Hubbard.
A world map displays his world travels with lasers — he never got further than Korea, Russia, and China.
The DPRK, with its dynastic cult of personality, stretches Trotsky’s definition of a “degenerate workers’ state”: Stalin’s hellish regime is here somehow made more horrific.
After five days in this strange country, I’m convinced than this is, in fact, a post-capitalist economy: not “Stone Age communism,” certainly not “socialism,” not a monarchy, but rather a particularly cultish form of Stalinism — the logical conclusion of trying to build a planned economy without a hint of workers’ democracy.
The Korean people’s resistance ripped the country away from imperialist control. But the poverty and isolation that followed produced a bureaucratic nightmare.
But, as poor as the people of North Korea are today, one cannot say their situation will necessarily improve with the establishment of a US-friendly regime. A violent “democratic transition” as envisioned at the end of The Interview is unlikely to improve the lives of ordinary Koreans. History has told us that much about Western intervention.
But there is still hope, however distant, of an alternative. Tourists to North Korea are allowed to bring books as long as they are not religious. So the writings of Trotsky, in which he calls for the overthrow of the bureaucracy, would be legal gifts for our Korean hosts.
I am eager to travel to the DPRK again, this time with Trotsky in my luggage.