Is North Korea really a ‘hollowed out’ state?

Thanks to its official state ideology ‘Juche’ North Korea is in rude health.

North Korea Getty Images
The state organs of control continue to function with robust health in North Korea, writes Jurschewsky [Getty Images]

In 1994, just five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) signed  the Agreed Framework, which was aiming to suspend the latter’s nuclear programme,

Although the agreement eventually failed, US policy became predicated on the belief that the Democratic People’s Republic, like the communist states of Eastern and Central Europe just before 1989, is “hollowed-out” and on the verge of collapse. However, North Korea has manifestly not collapsed.

A “hollowed-out” state is no longer capable of sustaining itself. In common-sense terms, a “hollowed-out” state cannot or does not provide its citizens with basic necessities. Alternatively, for a state to be considered “hollow”, the belief system on which it has based itself on has to be meaningfully called into question. Of course, even a state that exhibits these characteristics can still continue to be effectively operational, as long as it has functional instruments of repression.

The state organs of control continue to function with robust health in North Korea, but that is not the reason for the state’s persistence.

Surviving astonishing difficulties

Back in 1994, it was not irrational to believe that North Korea was on the verge of collapse. North Korea was in the grips of a famine that eventually claimed the lives of more than five percent of its population. The floods that had ushered in the famine had also destroyed much of the country’s production infrastructure. Yet at no subsequent point were there reliable reports of protests or riots against the government. The stoicism and stalwartness of the North Korean people in the face of astonishing difficulties throughout this period deserve explanation.

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When I first went to North Korea in 1999 to try to arrange for Canada‘s recognition, I was hoping to gain a better understanding of the country. I had one particular question on my mind: how had North Korea survived a crisis that involved a famine that had killed a million people and destroyed its production infrastructure, as well as a military confrontation with the world’s leading power and the death of a revered leader, who had presided over the country since its inception? I cannot think of another state that had survived such challenges. So how can we understand North Korea and the reasons behind its persistence?

North Korea is increasingly unlikely to collapse. It is increasingly capable of defending itself and, given its abiding fear of US aggression, it is unlikely to cede its missiles or warheads as bargaining chips.


Understanding North Korea

A state can be analysed along three dimensions: governance, economy and belief system.

North Korea is politically organised on standard Leninist Democratic-Centralist principles. When it comes to its economy, North Korea, despite some leakage of authority to the country’s constituent counties and cities during the famine and in the course of its reforms, remains centrally planned. Regarding its belief system, the usual answer is that, ideologically, North Korea subscribes to Marxist Dialectical-Materialism.

Nevertheless, can we be sure that this is correct? What evidence is there to sustain this contention? For example, my first conversation with one of China’s leading North Korea scholars elicited the curious observation that they “don’t understand the DPRK very well any more,” because “[North Koreans] broke their links with Marxism long ago”.

At the moment, one of the most popular discussion topics regarding North Korea is its nuclear ambitions. Everyone is focused on the capacity of the country’s nuclear project. But, actually, questions about the size of North Korea’s prospective nuclear stockpile and means of delivery should be only secondary to the question of the country’s intentions and North Korea’s intentions, nuclear and otherwise, can only be derived, with some degree of assurance, by an examination of its “Juche”.

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The Juche, which is usually translated as “self-reliance”, is the official state ideology of North Korea. The Juche is regularly dismissed as a simple exhortation to self-sufficiency, but in fact, it is so much more than that.

Observations on trips around the country, conversations with North Koreans of widely differing social, political and economic status and discussions with scholars and functionaries of what was then called the Juche Studies Institute helped me produce the following insights.

Members of the Korean People's Armed Forces react after doing a test-fire of new cruise rocket [Reuters]
Members of the Korean People’s Armed Forces react after doing a test-fire of new cruise rocket [Reuters]

Conceptualisation of the Juche

The Juche was conceptualised by Kim Il-sung when he was in exile in the USSR during the Japanese colonial period. At the time, it was a nationalist variant of Marxism-Leninism, along the lines of Albania’s Hoxhaisim or Romania’s Ceausescuism, and had a strong Stalinist component with its emphasis on the cult of personality.

But in the 1960s, Kim Jong-il, with some help from his philosophy professor, Hwang Jang-op, reshaped the Juche into something entirely different. The recast version of the Juche rests on three pillars.

Confucianism: for its emphasis on hierarchy and family. There are from 50 to 54 levels in North Korean society. One’s place is determined by heredity, but talent can still provide for a rise in status.

Christianity: for its tradition of submission, divine intervention, and the Marian devotion that must have been useful in the rehabilitation of Kim Jong-il’s mother, Kim Jong-suk as a revolutionary mother to the North Korean state.

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Chondoism: for its nationalism, shamanism and roots in Korean traditions. Chondoism is a syncretic religion based on Ural-Altaic shamanism. There are, it is claimed, some four million adherents of Chondoism in North Korea and, when I met with their leaders in Pyongyang, one remarked whether I had noticed the strong affiliation between Chondoism and the Juche.

The cultural acquis of Korea’s unfortunate history is also subsumed into the Juche. The frequent invasions during the Joseon Dynasty, the economic and cultural aggression of the Japanese during Korea’s colonial period and the extraordinary brutalities of the Korean War laid the basis for xenophobia, a strong tendency to autarky, ultra-nationalism and militarism that define North Korea’s sociopolitical reality in the Juche.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un poses with participants during the 8th Congress of the Korean Children's Union [Reuters]
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un poses with participants during the 8th Congress of the Korean Children’s Union [Reuters]

Preserving the Juche

In North Korea, which is essentially isolated from the rest of the world, the coordinated operation of all means of mass communication ensures the perpetuation of the Juche and, with that, support for the government. Indeed, isolation is the requirement for the ideological control of the population. 

The way the education system functions in North Korea also ensures the inculcation of the Juche’s precepts in the population. Juche Studies is a major curriculum item in the school system. The children of senior military officers are removed from their families and educated in institutions such as the Mangyondae Revolutionary School between the ages of two – seven. The children of senior Workers Party of Korea officials are similarly schooled in special Party creches. It is this generation of Juche-imbued soldiers and party officials that has come to power since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father.

Far from being hollowed out, North Korea is ideologically united and more radically committed to the Juche than ever before. North Korea is, in fact, in rude health. The state ideology is sustained and reinforced by the country’s isolation and the continued effective operation of its mass media and state institutions. The economy is growing and sufficient surplus is being generated to support an expensive programme of developing a nuclear arsenal and the means of its delivery.

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North Korea is increasingly unlikely to collapse. It is increasingly capable of defending itself and, given its abiding fear of US aggression, it is unlikely to cede its missiles or warheads as bargaining chips.

North Korea constitutes a threat. At the very least, its missiles and nuclear weapons fuel proliferation in the region.

The range of rational policy options has narrowed to negotiations. But what is going to be negotiated and how will these negotiations come about? The risks of confrontation and misjudgements by all parties to this longest running crisis increase day by day.

Sven Jurschewsky is a retired Canadian Foreign Service officer who has specialised in political-military affairs, international security and intelligence, and nuclear arms control. He was head of political section at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing during which he was responsible for the establishment of Canada’s diplomatic relations with the DPRK.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.