A doomed reinvention
The author is a professor of economics at Seoul National university.
On April 6, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un launched a crusade to “reform” his people at the 6th Conference of Cell Secretaries of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang. In a speech to the grassroots units of the party — the first speech of its kind since he took office in 2011 — Kim stressed that if millions of “party cells aggressively reinvent the people,” it can make North Korean people dedicate themselves to the development of the country. Kim’s remarks reflect his earlier emphasis on “ideological armament and anti-corruption strife” he underscored in the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party in January after accepting economic failures under his reign.
Empirically and historically, Kim’s holy war to change human behavior is certainly doomed. As he said in the address, a non-socialist trend is widespread in North Korea. A study of over 1,000 North Korean defectors by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University (SNU) showed that only 15 percent supported socialism more than capitalism when they lived in the North. Also, only 15 percent said they prioritized loyalty to organizations over individuals and family. The share of North Koreans who had not given bribes to officials also stood at 15 percent. The reality that 85 percent of North Koreans can be categorized as non-socialists means the socialist ideology so ardently championed by the regime is on the brink of collapse.
Ideological education is not effective either. According to research by SNU, meetings of North Koreans to check and reflect on their past behavior on a regular basis did not affect their values at all. Sometimes, party cadres in charge of indoctrinating the people support capitalism more than ordinary citizens do. That means Kim’s struggle for “human reinvention” is nothing but an illusion. The more the regime stresses the importance of ideological “armament,” the more the people’s disgruntlement will grow. Some 60 percent of them viewed indoctrination negatively and only 10 percent positively. If their thinking does not change regardless of the regime’s methodical inputs of ideology, Kim’s march to convert his people into his loyalists will fail.
We saw the same conclusion in humankind’s experiment with socialism. Karl Mark’s claim that human selfishness will naturally disappear under Communism because it is a byproduct of the capitalist system pushed the Soviet economy into historical levels of chaos. After pressing ahead with economic policy based on such a belief after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviets had to see their industrial output in 1920 drop by 80 percent compared to 1913. After learning a lesson, the Soviet Union practically dumped its campaign for human reinvention since the 1930s. Why would it not do so when its methodical push to change human instincts through brainwashing, surveillance and punishment was unsuccessful? “Homo Sovieticus,” published in 1981 by Soviet sociologist Aleksandr Zinovyev, satirically pointed out that socialism fueled the pursuit of self-interest in a degraded form rather than nurturing altruism.
Mao Zedong launched China’s Cultural Revolution in 1966 after picking up the human reinvention theory the Soviets tossed into the dustbin nearly four decades earlier. In his famous 1974 book “Logic of a Transitional Era,” late scholar Lee Young-hee praised Chinese people for “sleeping in the field to sleep less in a battle to build a paradise of socialism” as if the revolution had succeeded. But Lee turned a blind eye to the brutalities of the revolution such as countless deaths, unjustifiable violence and forced migrations. His book could see the revolution from a drastically different angle, but failed to see reality. Eventually, China abandoned the human reinvention concept and started so-called reforms and opening up in 1978.
Kim Jong-un’s resorting to a defunct idea testifies to the desperate need to stabilize his country and keep mounting public disgruntlement from being squarely leveled at his regime. But it will only exacerbate the situation. A majority of North Koreans who have tasted the sweetness of the market hate to spend time listening to indoctrination from the regime. They give bribes to officials to avoid such classes. If corruption is consolidated between ordinary citizens and officials, Kim’s control is doomed.
Kim’s reinvention drive is nothing but a paper shield to fend off the ramifications of international sanctions. Despite his demand for party members’ loyalty, they are already enthralled by the market. The people who most successfully adapted to the monumental change of Communism to capitalism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc were members of the communist party as they abhorred the socialist system and yearned for its demise more than anybody else.
The Moon Jae-in administration must not give up on the denuclearization of North Korea. Kim’s desperation to find a breakthrough in the crisis suggests he has taken a step closer to the moment of truth. Self-reliance and human reinvention simply does not work. Pyongyang should know that its dependence on Beijing is not promising either. That’s the only way to peace on the Korean Peninsula.