Korea Resilient! Socialism in Democratic Korea

On December 22 of last year, “Fight Back! News, which often reflects the views of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), published an outstanding overview of the DPRK and US imperialism in the Korean Peninsula entitled “Korea Stands Strong: Kim Jong-Il in Context.” The piece did a tremendous job outlining the advances made by Korean socialism and the problems arising from continued Western occupation of the southern half of the Korean nation.

In response to Fight Back!’s thorough analysis, along with two other pieces by the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the Workers World Party (WWP), David Whitehouse of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) released a hit-piece on Kim Jong-Il and dusted off the typical Cliffite-Trotskyite arguments against actually existing socialism. Published January 12, ‘Socialism in One Dynasty’ rehashes the same anti-communist lines of the ISO that have come to characterize  Trotskyism.

Kim Jong-Il’s death prompted a discussion among the left about Democratic Korea again, and with such a high volume of anti-DPRK propaganda generated by the West, it’s important for Marxist-Leninists to accurately represent the successes and challenges facing the Korean revolution. The simple fact that the DPRK survived the wave of counter-revolution that swept through most socialist countries demonstrates the strength and resilience of the Korean masses, and Democratic Korea’s perseverance in the face of overwhelming Western aggression demands close study by Marxist-Leninists in the 21st century.

DPRK troops fighting for reunification

Korea Divided

As the Fight Back! News article points out, “Korea is a single nation that was forcibly divided by the United States immediately after World War II.” (1) The DPRK and the Republic of Korea exist as two separate countries, but the Korean people meet all of the characteristic features of a nation; “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” (2) Understanding that Korea is not two separate nations is essential to placing the actions of the DPRK in their appropriate context.

Fearing the widespread popularity of the Korean revolution in both the north and the south, the US continued to militarily occupy the Republic of Korea after World War II. Koreans were left out of the decision to divide their country and despite promises of fair nationwide elections aimed at reunification, the US intervened in the South Korean elections on behalf of the Western-educated, right-wing nationalist, Syngman Rhee.

Many bourgeois scholars and critics of the DPRK argue that the Korean People’s Army (KPA), centered in the north, initiated the Korean War by crossing the 38th parallel, the act that is often cited as the start to the Korean War. While the KPA did send troops into South Korea on June 25, 1950, calling this an act of aggression by one sovereign state towards another implicitly legitimizes the imperialist division of Korea at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. Richard Stokes, the British Minister of Works, put it this way in a 1950 report on the origins of the Korean war:

“In the American Civil War the Americans would never have tolerated for a single moment the setting up of an imaginary line between the forces of North and South, and there can be no doubt as to what would have been their re-action if the British had intervened in force on behalf of the South. This parallel is a close one because in America the conflict was not merely between two groups of Americans, but was between two conflicting economic systems as is the case in Korea.” (3)

Much like the American Civil War, any so-called aggression by the North was actually an attempt to re-unite a nation partitioned by a foreign imperialist power. Any critics of the actions of Democratic Korea in initiating the conflict would have to also condemn US President Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army for sending supplies to reinforce Fort Sumter at the onset of the American civil war, which was the de facto spark that started the conflict.

Of course, Marxist-Leninists support the re-unification efforts of the North in both the American civil war as well as the Korean war because they were historically progressive and revolutionary. Korea was occupied by a foreign imperialist government at the time of the KPA’s incursion into the south, just as Japanese colonizers had occupied the nation for the previous 35 years. As such, the KPA’s ‘invasion’ of southern Korea was a campaign in the larger, protracted struggle for national liberation that began as an anti-colonial struggle against imperial Japan.

Foreign occupation of Korea continues today, and Marxist-Leninists must evaluate the actions of the DPRK within the framework of an ongoing national liberation struggle. The 28,000 US troops permanently stationed in the Republic of Korea attest to the continued imperialist domination of the southern half of the Korean nation.

Kim Jong-Il reviewing production plans

The Disgraceful Slander of Korean Socialism

Although the ISO’s article was full of attacks on Marxist-Leninists and their position on the DPRK, it presented no actual rebuttal of the piece on Fight Back! News, itself a very telling omission. The closest that Whitehouse could get to refuting that article was the following passage:

FRSO, for example, dwells on a system of social services that includes universal health coverage and education, as well as free housing. This record is remarkable for a country of North Korea’s limited resources. It is not remarkable, however, for a country where the state controls everything. The state has to provide health care, education and housing, because there are no institutions outside the state–unless you count Kim’s Workers Party, which is bound up with the state and permeates all aspects of North Korean life. (4)

Notice that Whitehouse does not challenge the factual assertions in the Fight Back! News article pertaining to Korean socialism. Whitehouse is backed into the uncomfortable position of admitting that the record of the DPRK’s social services is ‘remarkable’, a stunning admission for an organization whose statement of principles claims that actually existing socialist countries, like Democratic Korea, “have nothing to do with socialism.” (5) Instead, the ISO attempts to downplay these ‘remarkable’ accomplishments by noting that the state is the only organized entity in Korean society capable of providing these services.

Of course this begs a number of questions: What other organized entity would the ISO rather have provide these essential social services in Democratic Korea? Return to the Source, along with the Freedom Road Socialist Organization and other Marxist-Leninists around the world, support the decision of socialist governments to use heavily regulated market socialism to develop productive forces and provide goods and services to the people. However, the ISO explicitly rejects the strategy undertaken by China and Cuba in the last year as further evidence of the country’s ‘state capitalism’. (6) What then, in concrete terms, would the ISO like to see out of the Democratic Korean state if they already agree that their services are ‘remarkable’, complain that no private entities exist to provide these services otherwise, but simultaneously reject the application of heavily regulated markets to socialist countries?

There is an answer to these questions, but the truth doesn’t favor the ISO. Trotskyite factions – materialists should never refer to these tiny organizations as parties in the Marxist-Leninist sense – have never led the masses in revolution precisely because they understand socialism and revolution in utopian terms. The ISO doesn’t believe that Democratic Korea is a socialist country because the WPK doesn’t measure up to their abstract, and often dogmatic, catechism of Marx that uses his call for communists to ‘win the battle for democracy’. (4) They repeat ad nauseum that socialism is a society in which workers control the means of production, but their idealism clouds them from recognizing that a revolutionary society like the DPRK, while imperfect, has already achieved that end.

When examining Democratic Korea, we must critically appraise their successes but only in the context of the insufferable imperialist aggression they face from the United States and the Republic of Korea. The DPRK continues to face difficulties in socialist construction, but most of these problems stem from unfavorable external conditions and imperialist aggression. Since the cession of hostilities in 1953, the US “maintained fairly comprehensive economic sanctions against North Korea.” (7) Access to essential goods and food staples is greatly restricted by the US and Japan, who cut off the shipment of rice to the DPRK in 2003. (7)

While Whitehouse’s article pays lip-service to the sanctions imposed on Democratic Korea, along with the continued legacy of destruction brought on by the Korean war, it dismisses these adverse conditions as a way “to excuse the behavior of the regime domestically, waving aside the charge that it is an oppressive dictatorship.” (4) Indeed, the fact that any mention of the Korean war is limited to four paragraphs in the middle of a 46-paragraph article demonstrates that the ISO is more interested in slandering the DPRK and pushing their bogus state capitalism line than applying a rigorous, dialectical materialist analysis of Korean socialism.

As the Fight Back! News article aptly pointed out, you cannot understand the DPRK without a Marxist-Leninist understanding of the national question, which yields the undeniable conclusion that Korea is a single nation occupied by an imperialist force after the cession of hostilities in 1953. The often-misconstrued ‘secrecy’ of the Korean government makes perfect sense in light of the overhanging threat of destruction they face across the demilitarized border zone.

Socialist realist art depicting Democratic Korea

Korean Socialism in Action

Marxist-Leninists must study the short-comings of Democratic Korea, but they must also enthusiastically praise the outstanding gains accomplished by the Korean revolution. As Bruce Cumings, Professor of Korean History at the University of Chicago, points out in his 2003 book, North Korea: Another Country, “Modern Korea emerged from one of the most class-divided and stratified societies on the face of the earth, almost castelike in its hereditary hierarchy.” (3) Cumings notes that slavery encompassed anywhere from 60-90 percent of society until its abolition in 1894, in which most slaves were converted into feudal peasants ruled by Korean, and eventually Japanese, overlords. (3)

The expulsion of Japanese colonialism in World War II and the establishment of socialism in the north brought these enormous class disparities and abuses by the exploiting classes to an end. Cumings cites US security reports on the situation in revolutionary Korea to prove that “For those defined as poor and middle peasants, not only did their lives improve but they became the favored class.” (3) The WPK’s commitment to bottom-up socialist revolution was reflected in their class composition at the time of its founding, in which “laborers constituted 20 percent of the membership, poor peasants 50 percent, and samuwon [white-collar workers] 14 percent.” (3)

The Korean revolution gave opportunities to workers and landless poor peasants that were unimaginable under the past oppressive conditions. Cumings again writes, “At any time before 1945, it was virtually inconceivable for uneducated poor peasants to become country-level officials or officers in the army. But in North Korea such careers became normal.” (3) He also notes that inter-class marriages became normal, common, and widespread with the establishment of Democratic Korea, and educational access opened up for all sectors of society.

 On the vital question of land reform, the WPK undertook a gradual but steady process of converting private land ownership into cooperative organizations. Beginning with the process of post-war reconstruction in 1953, only 1.2% of peasant households were organized as cooperatives, which encompassed a mere .6% of total acreage. (13) By August of 1958, 100% of peasant households were converted into cooperatives, encompassing 100% of total acreage. (13) Ellen Brun, an economist whose 1976 Socialist Korea study remains the most comprehensive to date, writes that “In spite of lack of modern means of production, the cooperatives – with efficient assistance by the state – very early showed their superiority to individual farming, eventually convincing formerly reluctant farmers into participating in the movement.” (13)

Often a point of criticism from left-communists, Trotskyites, and anticommunists, collectivization in the DPRK did not result in any famine or mass starvation. In fact, “at no time during cooperativization did the agricultural output decrease; on the contrary, the process was accompanied by a steady increase in production.” (13) Citing statistics of food production, Brun shows a sharp increase from about 2.9 million tons in 1956 to 3.8 million tons in 1960. (13) Stemming from Democratic Korea’s push for self-sufficiency, the WPK put the nation on a path to increase its food production steadily and feed the entire country.

Local people’s committees, in which any Korean worker could participate, elected leadership to guide agricultural production and collaborated with national authorities to coordinate nation-wide efficiency. (13) These people’s committees were the primary means by which “the Party remains in contact with the masses on the various collective farms, thus enabling it to gauge public opinion on issues affecting the policies of the country people’s committee.” (13) In 1966, the WPK introduced the “group management system,” which “organized groups of ten to twenty-five farmers into production units, each of which was then put permanently in charge of a certain area of land, a certain task, or a certain instrument of production.” (13) This represents another instrument of people’s democracy implemented in Korean socialist production.

No serious antagonism between the countryside and industrial centers developed in the process of socialist construction in Democratic Korea. Brun notes that “tens of thousands of demobiilized men and many junior and senior graduates as well as middle school pupils went to the countryside in the busy seasons and rendered assistance amounting to millions of days of work,” all voluntarily and without coercion by the state. (13)

Most importantly, Korean socialist construction reorganized industrial production by and in the interests of the formerly dispossessed Korean proletariat. Drawing on the mass line – the Marxist-Leninist organizing method that “is both the cause and effect of the politicization and involvement of the masses in the process of economic development and socialist construction” – the WPK implemented the Daean work system in December 1961. (13) In contrast to the past system, in which managers were appointed to oversee a workplace unilaterally by a single party member, “The Part factory committee assumes the highest authority at the level of the enterprise” in the Daean work system. (13) Brun further describes this system, and I will quote her at length:

“Ways of solving questions affecting production and workers’ activities, as well as methods of carrying out decisions, are arrived at through collective discussions within the factory committee, whose members are elected by the factory’s Party members. To be effective this committee has to be relatively small, its precise numbers depending on the size of the enterprise. At the Daean Electrical Plant, with a labor force of 5,000, the Party factory committee is made up of 35 members who meet once or twice a month, while the 9 members of the executive board keep in continuous contact. Sixty percent of its members are production workers, with the remainder representing a cross-section of all factory activities, including functionaries, managers, deputy-managers, engineers, technicians, women’s league representatives, youth league members, trade union members, and office employees. Its composition thus gives it access to all socioeconomic aspects of the enterprise and the lives of its worker.

This committee has become what is called the ‘steering wheel’ of the industrial unit, conducting ideological education and mobilizing the workers to implement collective decisions and to fulfill the production target. Through its connection to the Party it has a clear picture of overall policies and aims as well as the exact function of individual enterprise in the national context. In other words, this setup ensures that politics are given priority.” (13)

Far from the simplistic and farcical characterizations of Whitehouse and the ISO of the DPRK as “a country where one man holds dictatorial power and the vast majority of people live in poverty,” this model of socialist organization represents the highest commitment to workers democracy. (4) Workers have input and supremacy in production and interact dialectically with the state to plan and carry out collectivist production on behalf of the whole Korean people.

The workplace in Democratic Korea isn’t simply a venue for production, but as emphasized with the Daean organizing method, a center for education and enrichment. After 1950, “worker schools” organized at specific workplaces began to emerge, in which laborers would attend middle and high school education programs while working in industry in order to prepare them to continue their education in college. (13)

Korean socialism achieved an impressive standard of living for the Korean people prior to the collapse of its largest trading partner, the USSR, in 1991. As independent scholar Stephen Gowans points out in his 2006 article, “Understanding North Korea,” Democratic Korea enjoyed a comparable standard of living to their neighbors in the south well into the 1980s. (14) Living spartan lifestyles, the Korean people were nearly self-sufficient in terms of light industry and consumer goods by 1967, with goods like textiles, underwear, socks, shoes, and alcoholic beverages becoming increasingly available for every citizen. (13)

Heavy industry, however, remained “the backbone of the economy,” in the words of Brun. She notes that “although assistance from socialist bloc countries may have been substantial at the beginning of the rebhabilitation period, a few years later – after the record year of 1954 – this foreign aid began to decrease and North Korea gradually had to become self-supporting.” (13) Because of trade politics brought on by the Sino-Soviet split, the DPRK gradually lost some of the aid it received from the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, they managed to develop their heavy industry substantially, progressing 51.7% in industrial output from 1953-1955. (13)

Korean socialism suffered tremendous setbacks in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and most of the socialist bloc. Resilient as ever, the nation persevered through these difficult years despite facing famine, heinous weather conditions, and blocked access to international trade by Western imperialist powers. (14) Democratic Korea stabilized and its commitment to genuine workers democracy continues to remain as steadfast as ever.

Kim Jong-Il, who looked much scarier than he actually was

Kim Jong-Il and the Prime Importance of a Nuclear Korea

Most telling of all is the ISO’s choice to not attack the argument that Democratic Korea acquiring nuclear weapons was an essential and positive development for the long-term security of Korean socialist construction. Given that nuclear capabilities were such an important aspect of the Fight Back! News article, Whitehouse’s choice to not engage this line of argument was a deliberate and conscious choice brought on by the inconvenient holes in the ISO’s counter-revolutionary political line. From the Fight Back! News article:

“The importance of Democratic Korea acquiring nuclear weapons cannot be overstated. In 2005, the U.S. presented an ultimatum to both Libya and the DPRK, demanding that both surrender their nuclear weapons programs and cooperate with Western imperialism in the ‘war on terror.’ Libyan head of state Muammar Gaddafi played ball. Kim Jong-Il gave the U.S. a figurative middle finger. As we near the end of 2011, having witnessed NATO’s brutal invasion of Libya and the toppling of Gaddafi’s government, it’s painfully clear who made the right choice.” (1)

Even bourgeois journalists like Tad Daley of the Christian Science Monitor concur with this assessment by Fight Back! News. In a piece from October 13, 2011 entitled “Nuclear lesson from Libya: Don’t be like Qaddafi. Be like Kim,” Daley writes:

If Libya had possessed the capability, oh, to obliterate a major American military base in Italy, or to vaporize an entire American “carrier battle group” off the southern coast of France, it almost certainly would have dissuaded Washington (not to mention Rome and Paris) from military action. If the Libyan regime wanted to ensure its own survival, then, just like North Korea, it should have developed a nuclear deterrent – small, survivable, and just lethal enough to inflict unacceptable damage on any aggressor. (8)

The fact that both of these leaders, Qaddafi of the Libyan Jamahiriya and Democratic Korea’s Kim, died in the same year in such radically different ways provides an interest point of contrast. Qaddafi was ousted after a set of imperialist-backed rebels launched a racist campaign to topple a revolutionary government in North Africa, which succeeded precisely because of NATO’s assistance. He died beaten, broken, sodomized, tortured, and executed in a muddy sewage pipe without trial.

Kim, on the other hand, died peaceably from a heart attack on a train en route to a factory inspection and a public meeting with Korean workers. While his death rocked the Korean people with grief, from Pyongyang to Beijing and beyond, the Korean revolution continues and shows no signs of wavering. China’s proximity to Korea is a factor in Democratic Korea’s continued security, but nothing keeps the American military from an all-out war to topple the WPK more than the threat of a nuclear bomb destroying one of their many military bases across the Republic of Korea. The fact that the imperialists cannot turn a false-flag operation like the so-called ‘Cheonan incident’ last year into a Gulf-of-Tonkin-style cause for a second Korean war is the nuclear deterrence that Kim Jong-Il’s leadership made possible. (9)

The ISO cannot engage this argument. It’s objectively true and provides possibly the best evidence for the revolutionary contributions of Kim Jong-Il to Korean socialism. To harshly criticize the WPK for aggressively, and secretly, pursuing a nuclear weapons program is to invite even harsher criticism of their ludicrous line on the Libyan conflict, which made the call for ousting Qaddafi front-and-center as opposed to condemning NATO’s invasion.

Fed by their Cliffite-Trotskyite ideology, the ISO has a long history of supporting the toppling of revolutionary governments, which came to a head in 1991 when their sect called the fall of the Soviet Union an event that “should have every genuine socialist rejoicing.” (10) Most recently, the ISO spent the initial stages of the Libyan conflict ignoring the blatantly pro-Western direction of the counter-revolution that started in Benghazi and downplaying the systematic and racist terrorism practiced by the ‘rebels’. (11) After NATO invaded, this Cliffite-Trotskyite sect continued to push a ‘Qaddafi Must Go’ line as its central focus, which in practice proves again and again to function as a de facto left-cover for imperialism.

Embarrassingly, the group never retreated from this line and incorrectly summed up the Libyan counter-revolution as progressive movement co-oped by NATO. Even after Qaddafi’s death and the inescapable evidence that these rebels were Western-backed counter-revolutionaries from the beginning, ISO leader Alan Maass still performed logical gymnastics to try and twist their bogus line into something resembling anti-imperialism, claiming that, despite being the victim of an imperialist invasion to topple his government, Qaddafi was actually a puppet of the West. (12)

Anyone reading Whitehouse’s piece about Kim Jong-Il should sum this up as an admission of defeat by the ISO for both their Libya line as well as their line towards Democratic Korea. Marxist-Leninists can advance a criticism of Qaddafi’s government for giving up its nuclear weapons program in the face of immense pressure from the West, but that means that the choice by Kim Jong-Il to continue pursuing nuclear weapons was unquestionably the correct path. Daley puts it this way:

But instead, Qaddafi was seduced by the siren song of the West. Give up your weapons of mass destruction, they said, and we will welcome you into the international community. Libya did, in late 2003.

And in retrospect, said the North Korean official, it was now clear that this had been, by the West, no less than “an invasion tactic to disarm the country.” Because as soon as the now-defanged Qaddafi took actions that displeased Libya’s Western overlords, the mighty military hammer of the developed world came thundering down upon him. (8)

The ISO’s failure to advance any kind of rebuttal – or any mention whatsoever of the nuclear question – once again demonstrates the ISO’s non-materialist understanding of socialism, both in theory and practice.

Mass outpouring of grief after the news of Kim Jong-Il's death

Mass Grief in the DPRK

Central to the ISO’s attack on the Marxist-Leninist position on Democratic Korea is their critique of the often-touted ‘cult of personality’ surrounding Kim Jong-Il. Whitehouse puts it this way:

It’s true that Korean rituals–and Koreans in everyday life, for that matter–are emotionally expressive, more so than Chinese or Japanese ones. But it’s another thing to say that it was merely “traditional” to gather people by the hundreds of thousands in the freezing cold to mourn the death of state leaders in the shadow of monuments and photos that depict them ten or 100 times life size.

That does seem “orchestrated.” And what about the soldiers marching in formation with their weapons in massive columns–didn’t they have to practice? (4)

Of course, the exclusion of any serious rebuttal to the Fight Back! News article tells Marxist-Leninists a lot about the contrived nature of the ISO’s political line. Addressing allegations that the mass display of grief was ‘staged’ by the Korean People’s Army (KPA), Fight Back!’s article begins with an anecdote in a Korean restaurant in Beijing, far away from the eyes of the KPA. Here I will quote the article at length to illustrate the contrast:

The morning of Dec. 19 started like a normal Monday for the Korean staff at the Hae Dang Hwa restaurant in Beijing. The greeting staff welcomed hungry customers at the front door, the chefs began prepping their fine selection of kimchi and other Korean dishes and the waitresses and waiters began taking down orders for their guests. All of that changed when a China Daily reporter mentioned in a conversation with a waitress that Kim Jong-Il, the head of state for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), had died that morning of a heart attack. In minutes, the entire Korean staff – from the waiters to the chefs in the kitchen – broke down in tears and, after apologizing to the customers, closed the restaurant early for the day so they could grieve the national tragedy together.

Several thousand miles away in Pyongyang, mass sorrow like that experienced in this Beijing restaurant took the swept the capital as men, women and children – from the most esteemed party official to the steel worker – took to the streets to mourn Kim’s death. (1)

This is tremendously inconvenient for the image the ISO wishes to paint. On one hand, it doesn’t make sense that any army could compel an entire nation with near unanimity to weep and publicly display grief in a public way. However, the restaurant anecdote taking place in Beijing pokes enormous holes in Whitehouse’s claim, since these restaurant employees – overcome with grief to the point of closing the kitchen early – would face no repercussions for not displaying grief.

Whitehouse attacks the FRSO using a pathetic reconfiguration of the arguments made in the Fight Back! News article that one can only classify as the most dishonest strawman. Rather than actually engaging Fight Back!’s argument, he re-writes their argument to make the aforementioned anecdote look like evidence “to certify the democratic credentials of a regime that looks to everybody else like an autocracy.” (4)

While the Fight Back! News article, as well as this author, agree that Korean socialism is supremely democratic, the last paragraph expresses the central argument of this piece:

“Why do Koreans mourn the death of Kim Jong-Il? It’s because of his courageous defiance of U.S. domination, his commitment to the reunification and the real accomplishments of socialism. In the face of those who wage war for exploitation and oppression, Kim’s decisions represented the aspirations of Korean workers, peasants, women and children – the united Korean nation – for freedom. Although Kim Jong Il has passed away, the Korean people will continue to march forward raising the banner of national reunification, self-determination and revolution.” (1)

Far from simply ‘certifying the democratic credentials’ of the DPRK, the mass outpouring of grief by the Korean people demonstrate the widespread understanding of the gains of Korean socialism and the tireless struggle for national reunification.

Democratic Korea's rehabilitative penal system

North Korean Gulags?

Central to the ISO’s anti-communism is a heavy reliance on bourgeois sources that have proven themselves unable to withstand the most basic materialist scrutiny. For instance, Whitehouse attacks the Fight Back! News article by saying that the title, “”Korea stands strong,” they are referring to the strength of the state. It is the same state that keeps 200,000 political prisoners, according to Amnesty International. It is the same state that shot dead three North Korean citizens who were trying to cross the border into China in late December.” (4)

A more principled examination of the Korean prison system in the north – referred to as a ‘gulag’ by the bourgeoisie and the ISO alike – ironically comes from bourgeois historian Bruce Cumings. In his 2004 book, North Korea: Another Country, he notes that most claims about the Korean penal system are grossly exaggerated. For instance, he notes that “Common criminals who commit minor felonies and small fry [sic] with an incorrect grasp on their place in the family state who commit low-level political offenses go off to labor camps or mines for hard work and varying lengths of incarceration,” the goal of which is to “reeducate them.” (3) This reflects a materialist understanding of the roots of crime, arising in large part from a person’s material conditions and incorrect ideas, which can change through altering a person’s conditions. It’s important to note that the vast majority of criminals in the Korean penal system fall into this category and thus the aim is to rehabilitate and reeducate, as opposed to the punitive aims of the American penal system.

Cumings notes the contrast between Democratic Korea’s criminal justice system and that of the United States, especially in terms of a prisoner’s contact with and support from their family. He writes:

The Aquariums of Pyongyang is an interesting and believable story, precisely because it does not, on the whole, make for the ghastly tale of totalitarian repression that its original publishers in France meant it to be; instead, it suggests that a decade’s incarceration with one’s immediate family was survivable and not necessarily an obstacle to entering the elite status of residence in Pyongyang and entrance to college. Meanwhile we have a long-standing, never-ending gulag full of black men in our prisons, incarcerating upward of 25 percent of all black youths.” (3)

The fact that time in the Korean penal system does not result in social castigation like it does in capitalist countries reflects a stark point of contrast with capitalist penal systems. Using one’s family as a support network, the state encourages political reeducation and opens opportunities for rehabilitated prisoners to re-enter Korean society as full citizens.

In and of itself, Whitehouse’s hit-piece on Korean socialism isn’t worth the bandwidth it takes up because it doesn’t make any serious arguments against the Fight Back! News piece to which it was supposed to respond. However, it remains important for Marxist-Leninists to confront the ISO’s unique and disturbing blend of left-anticommunism when it arises and defend the gains of the Korean people.

Despite its challenges and shortcomings, Democratic Korea is one of the last remaining countries where workers were able to control society collectively as a class. As one of the socialist countries to survive the fall of the USSR, Marxist-Leninists must study and learn from the resilience of the Korean people.

Long live the Korean revolution!

Hands off the DPRK!

One Korea!

(1) “Korea stands strong: Kim Jong-Il in context,” Fight Back! News, December 21, 2011, http://bit.ly/uLybSH

(2) Josef Stalin, Marxism & the National Question, “1. The Nation,” 1913, http://bit.ly/tQjf1l

(3) Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, 2004.

(4) David Whitehouse, “Socialism in one dynasty,” Socialist Worker, January 12, 2011, http://bit.ly/ysT2e1

(5) “Where We Stand,” The International Socialist Organization, Socialist Worker, http://bit.ly/y4ht0W

(6) Ahmed Shawki, “China: Deng’s Legacy,” International Socialist Review, Issue 2, Fall 1997, http://bit.ly/xapFEV

(7) Dianne E. Rennack, “North Korea: Economic Sanctions,” Congressional Research Service, January 24, 2003, http://bit.ly/vpv9NO

(8) Tad Daley, “Nuclear lesson from Libya: Don’t be like Qaddafi. Be like Kim,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 2011, http://bit.ly/w1wO00

(9) Stephen Gowans, “US Ultimately to Blame for Korean Skirmishes in the Yellow Sea,” what’s left, December 5, 2010, http://bit.ly/xnID99

(10) Socialist Worker, September 1991; Quoted by Workers Vanguard, No. 866, March 17, 2006, “Parliamentary Cretinism ISO Goes All the Way with Capitalist Greens,” http://www.icl-fi.org/english/wv/866/isogreen.html

(11) Socialist Worker, editorial, March 9, 2011, “The US is no friend to the Libyan uprising,” http://socialistworker.org/2011/03/09/no-friend-to-libyan-uprising

(12) Alan Maass, Lance Selfa, “Washington celebrates Qaddafi’s death,” Socialist Worker, October 24, 2011, http://bit.ly/z8Df7r

(13) Ellen Brun, Jacques Hersh, Socialist Korea: A Case Study in the Strategy of Economic Development, 1976, Monthly Review Press, New York and London

(14) Stephen Gowans, “Understanding North Korea,” what’s left, November 5, 2006, http://bit.ly/AyDa8q

Posted on January 17, 2012, in Actually Existing Socialism, China, DPRK, Libya, Miscellaneous. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Fantastic work – exactly what is needed in face of such ridiculous Trotskyist slander. Keep it up!

  2. Brilliant article, as always, comrade Sherman! Though, I’d like to make a slight critique on, what I believe to be, an unintended error on your part (a natural occurrence to all of us, obviously). You made a certain comment in which, when reading between the lines, makes one to believe that the DPRK did, indeed, start the Korean war:

    Many bourgeois scholars and critics of the DPRK argue that the Korean People’s Army (KPA), centered in the north, initiated the Korean War by crossing the 38th parallel, the act that is often cited as the start to the Korean War. While the KPA did send troops into South Korea on June 25, 1950, calling this an act of aggression by one sovereign state towards another implicitly legitimizes the imperialist division of Korea at the Potsdam Conference in 1945.

    What’s quoted is an important topic to get into, but what’s in bold came to interest me the most regarding said topic. Like I’d said, it gives one the impression that the DPRK did, in fact, start the Korean War (not to imply that it was your intention to deliver said impression).

    Fact of the matter is that, despite popular belief, the DPRK didn’t start the Korean War, nor was the sending of troops in June of 1950 the first action of said war. Before troop deployment into the south initiated, the RoK had already sent paramilitary forces – i.e. Northwest Youth – in attacking several villages located in the north.

    Before the north was even remotely able in deploying their troops into the south, the south had already made plans in invading themselves. These plans were materializing as the RoK military began carrying out several large massacres of those who were suspected in being secret communists. All of which, as one would easily come to the conclusion, was done so in preparation of a future assault, which were to be initiated against the north.


    While your comment that I’d quoted isn’t necessarily wrong – quite the contrary! – my only objection was in how you worded it. Wording your articles is just as important as the content itself. Though, again, it was absolutely a brilliant article and can’t wait to re-publish it onto my news blog, The Prison Gates Are Open…

  3. Dear comrade Vince Sherman.

    We just posted your tremendous article in Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language), as (again) another a valuable lesson for us and (hope) to our readers regarding … “a hit-piece on Kim Jong-Il and dusted off the typical Cliffite-Trotskyite arguments against actually existing socialism”… “have never led the masses in revolution precisely because they understand socialism and revolution in utopian terms” … “pushing their bogus state capitalism line than applying a rigorous, dialectical materialist analysis of Korean socialism,”… “left-cover for imperialism” … “demonstrates the ISO’s non-materialist understanding of socialism, both in theory and practice” … “blend of left-anticommunism”… things which in our opinion dominated those so called “leftists” in Indonesia at the moment.

    Terima kasih banyak kamrad Sherman. Salam merah!
    (Many thanks comrade Sherman. Red salute!)

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  6. Justifying hard prison labor
    huge YIKES

    It’s a no from me, dawg. Very “right-leaning and traditionalist” of you. Very *un*-emblematic of the level of empathy- esp. for such an undertaking as “reeducation” (assuming you’re not just using it as a buzzword that otherwise means “forceful indoctrination”)- that one should expect from socialism. While it may well be true, in some respects, that the North Korean prison system is ‘better than the US’s’, hard- probably *uncompensated*, for all we know, too- labor in what may well *unsafe working conditions* doesn’t sound like the “most leftist” thing to support, honestly.

    Also… isn’t there a potential hypocrisy here? Leftists the world over (rightly) complain about things like LOWLY-COMPENSATED PRISON LABOR in US prisons, but… some of them actually “like” or “support” what are otherwise referred to as “gulags” in many Marxist-Leninist states?? Why is prison labor “oh so bad” in the US but somehow “suddenly real good” in the US? Lol. And if the ‘rehabilitation’ does, in fact, contain far more than prison labor then… how about just *dump* the prison labor bs and focus more on the more-productive, ideological “correction” exercises instead?

    No matter how you slice it, in many capitalist *and* so-called “communist” states, time and again, the “dregs” of society, so often, are treated like absolute sh*t behind bars! Forced to become “extra laborers to do the dirty work of capitalists and/or the state”

    No thanks… You can keep your silly gulags (and possibly harsh forced indoctrination and/or torture disguised as “simple re-education”)- which probably don’t even “work” in terms of “re-education” and just lead to the “reeducated” hiding their “newfound change in ideology”, 9 times out of 10, to “impress the people in charge” and get out faster- or whatever you wanna call them! I’ll support, rather, much-better- and, probably, more empirically-supported, objectively- rehab efforts, and esp. *restorative justice* (something which many brutal ‘state socialists’, for some reason, esp. in countries like China and N. Korea, seem to have all but “forgotten” the value of, despite claiming to be “big leftists”)

    Lastly… isn’t it weird how so-called “comrades” who RECOGNIZE that material conditions like poverty *so often lead to more crime* for some reason are willing to, rather than FIX those horrible material conditions of said ‘criminal’, put a lot of them in very-harsh forced-labor camps (with probably little compensation for their work, for all we know) and do some phony exercise in “re-education”? I mean, come on… Also… do/did ML states like the USSR, N. Korea and the China, upon *letting out* said “re-educated” gulag prisoners, even HELP them ‘get back on their feet’ in a big way? Like… did they, for example, give them better access to basic amenities like food, maybe a new house/apartment, some new clothes, a good job, etc.?

    Link me to some articles about this if you can find ‘evidence’ of such a thing happening. I’m curious. Cuz, for whatever reason, the author certainly *did not* mention that- weirdly- in your rebuttal about ‘gulags’ near the bottom of this article! And if, in fact, the North Korean authorities “don’t” provide such amenities to *help w/ their material conditions* upon release… why? Come to think of it, I’m also curious what “brilliant psychologists, therapists or criminologists” who, say, have conducted their fair share of *studies* backing-up the “socialist re-education program in N. Korea” you can cite as well? Or is it just a bunch of random ‘Marxist-Leninists’ in power with *no academic or professional training in this regard whatsoever* leading a “rehab” program?

    Or are therapists and criminologists “too bourgeois” now (as if studying ’causes of crime and how to fight them’ and ‘how to counsel people’ are somehow “something only capitalist nations need/do”)? Kinda like how, if memory serves, Maoist leaders in China back in the day *actually had the gall* to call sociology “bourgeois”, for whatever reason.

  7. Or is there some ‘mystical theory’- based on almost no evidence, in all likelihood- among many Marxist-Leninists that *hard labor* doing the most “unwelcome” of activities few others in society would wish, in and of itself, suddenly has “rehabilitative properties” (…how? wut?)? I mean.. wtf

  8. You complain about “how punitive” the US prison system is, and yet… how is *forcing people into hard labor doing some of the “worst” work in the country few others would willingly do (let alone “like”)* NOT, in itself, “punitive”, to some extent??
    Suddenly prison labor is “rehab”, because it occurred in a “socialist state”

    Don’t make me LAUGH. You’re just grasping at straws to justify this, rather than CALL-OUT gulags and the like! And tell states like N. Korea and China, in this regard, to ‘do better’ in terms of incarceration.

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