DPRK Briefing Book : Ruediger

DPRK Briefing Book : Ruediger

The End of Socialism and a Wedding Gift for the Groom?
The True Meaning of the Military First Policy

Ruediger Frank, Visiting Professor, University of Vienna, December 11, 2003.

“Seon’gun,” or “military first,” is a familiar term in North Korean propagandistic publications in 2003, as is the fact that North Korean society is highly militarized. It really does not come as a surprise that the DPRK, like many autocratic states in the past, emphasizes the role of the military, since the latter helps the state to secure its power against external and domestic challenges. This preference and its expression are a rather old story. However, there are a number of issues connected to the Military First Policy that have been overlooked in the last few months. They call into question some of our very basic assumptions of North Korean society. In fact, they change the very nature of the DPRK. The North Koreans use not only the term Seon’gun Jeongchi, which refers to a policy, but increasingly employ Seon’gun Sasang (ideology). A new ideology is what indeed is hidden between the lines.

Military “first” means that something else comes “second.” The Rodong Sinmun is very specific about what that is. “it [the military first policy, RF] is a line… putting the Army before the working class” (Rodong Sinmun 2003a). This means that in fact, North Korea gives up the idea of Socialism in Marx’ sense. The ideologues in Pyongyang are well aware of that: “In the past, it was recognized as an unbreakable formula in socialist politics to put forth the working class. However, the theory and formula that was generated one and a half centuries ago cannot be applicable to today’s reality.” (Rodong Sinmun 2003b). One and a half centuries ago – this can mean nothing less than the sacred Communist Manifesto. In terms of logic, the argument is quite remarkable since in principle, it repeats the North Korean approach towards economic reforms and hints at a certain connection between those and the changes in ideology .

We witness an outstanding and dramatic ideological experiment. Nothing like this has ever been done before. To be sure, in hardly any country socialism really had existed. But North Korea went further and gave up pretending. To fully understand the magnitude of the issue, let us remember how things would work in a perfect socialist world: According to Marxist theory, there are two classes, with membership determined by the economic conditions of the individuals. There are those who own means of production and engage in making profit by exploiting the workers and competing with each other, and there are the others who do not own means of production, have to sell their workforce and get exploited. The interests of these two classes are antagonistic; contradictions will aggravate, workers and capitalists will engage in class struggle, and eventually the working class led by its agent, the party, will win and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is supposed to happen in the highest developed capitalist country, by the way, which makes Lenin the first heretic. At any rate, there is no room for the army as an independent unit in Marx’s economically determined theory. The army is part of the state, the state is the instrument of the ruling class, and hence after revolution, the army becomes a tool of the working class. Since it is staffed by working class members, the army might be seen as a subset of the working class, but it is by no means a class itself.

If the working class does not matter anymore or at least not as much as it did before, who cares about membership in this class? Who cares about classes at all, if the military is to be the elite now? “The revolutionary army is composed of the most brilliant advance warriors among the other working classes and circles [dareun modeun gyegeubgwa gyecheung] who are ready to lay down their lives in the revolution…” (Rodong Sinmun 2003a). That reminds of a Samsung advertisement: Everyone’s invited. One just has to serve some time in the army (“…the discharged soldiers trained in the People’s Army excellently play a leading role…”), or show loyalty to it, or work for it. No objective laws anymore that determine class membership. No economic criteria. The leadership alone decides. This is almost perfect, and in a way, it is brilliant.

Instead of the economically determined, more or less objective criterion of class membership, it is the politically determined and highly subjective relationship with the military that decides whether a North Korean is with the state and the nation, or against it. This sounds awful, but in fact marks a great opportunity. It helps Kim Jong-il to simply circumvent the need to force the group of entrepreneurs, who will very likely emerge as one of the results of successful economic reforms, into an obviously anachronistic ideological and propagandistic corset. The Chinese solution for the same problem, the Three Represents, works there because not too many citizens really care about ideology anymore. For the small North Korea with the almost religious function of ideology, things are different. A functioning ideology is a crucial precondition for the stability of the whole political system, which guarantees the rule of the current elite. The Chinese developed their Three Represents long after realities in their country had changed; Kim Jong-il shows exceptional foresight to deal with this issue now, in this early stage of economic reforms.

The working class loses its position as the leading group in the North Korean society. Without the working class, what happens to socialism and its final stage, communism? Very simple: they are gone, although this is not openly admitted in North Korea yet. Dictatorship of the proletariat, socialist property, all history. But what will take socialism’s place? There is a simple answer on that, too, and we call it nationalism, also known as Juche in the DPRK. “Nation is [positioned] over class and stratum, and the fatherland is over idea and ideology.” (Rodong Sinmun 2003b). Socialism is equaled with independence: “The current era is one in which a life-or-death struggle is waged between socialism and imperialism and between the force of independence and the force of domination.” (Rodong Sinmun 2003a).

The transition will be smooth, because already since its introduction in late 1955, Juche began to gradually replace Soviet-style socialism in North Korea anyway. Kim Jong-il has now finished what his father once started and thereby en passant mastered to resolve the inherent systemic contradiction of socialist countries, which might well have been the reason for their collapse: A universalist ideology, by definition one of class, not of nation, stood opposed to nation states within the socialist camp, each with their own and often (a Neo-Realist would say necessarily) conflicting national goals. From a purely academic point of view, it is simply impressive to see how the Juche ideology designed to keep external influence at bay (“our-style-socialism” originally meant “not-Soviet-or-Chinese-style-socialism”) is now used to replace socialism by nationalism and to explain dramatic changes as nothing but the application of Juche’s “creative principle.”

To be a bit more provocative, in addition to the aforesaid, “military first” might mean something else, too. Remember the German unification? East Germans hardly had a say in the negotiations, for a very obvious reason: They had nothing to offer, which is the weakest position one could think of. Now imagine the reforms will lead to a gradual change in the North, a conversion of North and South, and finally, after some years, both sides will talk about unification of some sort. Or a group feels reforms proceed to slowly, decides to stage a coup d’etat, overthrow Kim Jong-il and push for unification. What, then, will the North have to support its claim for a more active, equal role in hammering out a deal? Wondering? I suggest reading the Rodong Sinmun. “With the fatherland’s reunification, our country will soar as a great power in the East that has a population of 70 million, invincible military power, and great economic potential, and our nation will display its might as a great nation that is wise and dignified.” (Rodong Sinmun 2003b). “Invincible military power” – could that be a codeword for the A-bomb? Is the bomb intended to be the wedding gift of the North Korean bride to her rich, but militarily second-class South Korean groom, so that the new family can rise as a new star in the East?

This is of course not to say that that the South would readily accepted such a position. On the other hand, up till now, who has seriously considered the position of a unified, independence-hungry Korea in post-unification bi-polar East Asia, a region which will most likely be characterized by the competitive relationship between China and Japan? At any rate, what counts here is the North’s perspective.

Many of us were wondering for quite some time why the risky economic reforms started so late, now that the worst (famine 1995-1997) is actually over. Part of the answer might be that after witnessing the fate of Afghanistan and Iraq, the military feels the urgent need to reform its old and outdated equipment. The Rodong Sinmun (2003c) recently emphasized: “The modernization and informationalization of the national economy becomes a material guarantee for building a militarily powerful state… Producing the ultra-modern military hardware suited to the specifics of a modern war would be unimaginable without the modernization and informationalization of the heavy industry.”

This modernization costs. Where does the money come from? Economic reforms. How are these and their effects explained by the propaganda? Military first ideology. What does North Korea need nukes for? Deterrence in the short run, a hedge against unification by absorption in the long term, as well as a cost-effective weapon that allows to follow the international trend to have smaller, but better trained and equipped armies.

If these speculations turn out to be true, this has a number of implications. First, the North needs the nukes, and when it ever gets them, will not give them up easily. Second, although a politically strong military always is something to worry about, the real meaning of “military first” might be “working class second,” which will please conservatives around the world. The ideological ballast of socialism over board, North Korea might be getting much closer to a developmental dictatorship resembling South Korea under Park Chunghee. Such a model is not unproblematic, but with some luck it paves the way for societal change with a reduced danger of a collapse and economic success. Add some patience and favourable external conditions, most crucially the continued support of the international community, and it will also contain a very real, although unintended, prospect for democratization. Who said Kim Jong-il was evil?


Rodong Sinmun 2003a : Military-First Ideology is an Ever-Victorious, Invincible Banner for Our Era’s Cause of Independence, March 21st, 2003.

Rodong Sinmun 2003b : Military-First Ideology is a Precious Sword of Sure Victory for National Sovereignty, April 3rd, 2003.

Rodong Sinmun 2003c : The Modernization and Informationalization of the National Economy and the Construction of a Strong and Powerful State, November 25th, 2003.