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Is North Korea communist?

North Korea and, to some extents, Cuba, are often described as the last “truly communist” states on earth, with people often lumping China, Vietnam and Laos as the five last “officially” communist countries.

But is North Korea communist? Does it consider itself communist, and if it isn’t, then what is it?

As with anything in North Korea, it can be pretty complicated.

What is communism?

Lenin, famous proponent of communism.

Let’s start with communist ideology and ask the greater question: has there ever really been a communist country? From a strict viewpoint: no, there has never been a communist country. Many countries have been governed by a communist party (the Soviet Union springs to mind) but communism was the endgame, with socialism providing the steps that paved the way. All present and former ‘communist’ countries would therefore be more accurately described as socialist countries building towards communism.

With that in mind, if you asked a North Korean if their country is communist and they would likely describe it thusly: as a socialist country working towards communism. Sure, you might have heard some people saying “Oh but they say they’re communist!” which is usually groundless, or at best is in reference to the country having an ideology of achieving communism without the country itself having achieved the state of being that is communism.

But what is it exactly? When asking “Is North Korea communist”, what characteristics demonstrate being in the state that one can call ‘Communism’? Well leaving aside that we’ve covered it before, I’ll give another rundown. And who better to help me in doing that than the big beardy man himself, Karl Marx:

What Marx Says

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875)

So what Marx says is that to have truly achieved a higher stage of communism (that is to say, communism. The ‘lower stage’ is socialism.) there are some necessary pre-requisites, most notably that labour has ceased to be a necessity for achieving life, but rather something people do by choice. I assure you Marx wrote a lot more on why this was to become the case, but let’s just say that this definitely isn’t the case anywhere now.

He also states the development of productive forces, insisting of course on the Marxist understanding of material conditions governing life. If there is no advanced production, communism is surely impossible. Co-operative wealth must flow abundantly, ushering in an age of post-scarcity, where the broad masses do not need to fear going hungry or being cast from their homes. And then… That last line. From each according to his ability to each according to his needs. It really sums it all up as far as communism is concerned.

Is North Korea communist?

The Workers' Party monument at the foot of the Juche Tower, Pyongyang. Juche is key to answering the question "Is North Korea communist"

So bearing all that in mind, we return to the question. Is North Korea communist? I really don’t think so. Nevermind the other stuff where Engels explains how communism is stateless, North Korea most definitely requires people to work to earn their living, co-operative wealth flows but not in the same abundance, productive forces are not at a high enough level and I doubt work has become life’s want. This is not a critique of North Korea itself particularly, nowhere has managed to achieve this! With current productive levels, I think we could, but no historical state has done this, with North Korea being no exception. And they don’t claim to be an exception! Others claim it on their behalf, which is rather rude.

So when asking “Is North Korea communist”, we have another question. Do they actually want communism? Are they ideologically communists? North Korea was formerly a Marxist-Leninist state along anti-revisionist lines (which means it shared some parts of Maoism) and, for the longest time, portraits of Marx and Lenin could be seen in Kim Il Sung Square (YPT has staff members old enough to have seen them in person). This has changed in recent years, which many have claimed is demonstrable that north Korea isn’t communist anymore. But surely that’s a rather strange view. It hasn’t anything to do with ideological grounding or anything that Marx said, it’s just aesthetics! But what can explain this change? Well…

The rise of Juche

The Juche Tower, Pyongyang. Juche is key to answering the question "Is North Korea communist"

North Korea has also, since the 1970s, promoted Kimilsungism – more commonly known as Juche.

To explain Juche in full would require its own article, which we have. But simply put, Juche means ‘self-reliance’ and espouses that man is the master of their own destiny. The main fundamental philosophy here, which Kim Jong-Il espoused as being unique to socialist theory up until that point is that while Marxist historical materialism asserts material conditions as being the governing force for societal change, Juche insists that even without the correct material conditions, a country can develop and maintain socialism through powerful ideological conviction and human drive. This is sometimes asserted as the reason why north Korea didn’t collapse when the rest of the socialist bloc did.

It also asserts a concept of ‘socialism of our style’, which are the particularities of Juche to Korean conditions. Obviously you can’t just copy-paste those ideas onto any other country, but that’s why they make the distinction. Juche preaches ideological independence for socialist countries. Countries that want to be communist shouldn’t follow dogma. They should embrace their unique conditions and pursue it in their own style! So it’s hardly surprising that images of Marx and Lenin would begin to disappear. Through the Juche framework, while they do owe a debt to some degree with ideological influence, the direct predecessors have much less bearing on north Korean ideology. The philosophy really came into its own following rifts between the DPRK and its northern neighbours of the PRC and the USSR, during which time North Korea began to adopt a more isolationist, self-reliant stance.

Is North Korea Communist Conclusion

So is North Korea communist? No; there has never been a communist country in existence. It is, officially at least, a socialist state guided by the Juche Idea that is working towards the endgame of a classless communist state. People will inevitably have their own opinions about the country’s governing system, but this is officially how things stand. 

Explore North Korea’s ideology for yourself one of our tours to North Korea!

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