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New Left Review I/127, May-June 1981

Jon Halliday

The North Korean Enigma

North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (dprk), is an isolated enigma in Northeast Asia. [1] This is a revised version of a paper originally delivered at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University, and scheduled for publication in Robin Murray, Christine White and Gordon White, eds., Socialist Transformation and Development in the Third World (Harvester Press, 1981). I would like to thank Perry Anderson, Fred Halliday, Robin Murray and Gordon White for comments on an earlier draft; and Bruce Cumings, Aidan Foster-Carter, John Gittings, Gavan McCormack and Suzanne Paine for input on a related paper and many of the issues discussed here. © Jon Halliday, 1981. No state in the world lives with such a wide gap between its own self-image and self-presentation as a socialist ‘paradise on earth’ and the view of most of the rest of the world that it is a bleak, backward work-house ruled by a megalomaniac tyrant, Kim Il Sung. This gap demands explanation—and needs to be bridged. The dprk has largely been excluded from discussion of transformation in the Third World and from debate on questions of socialism. Yet its experience is important. It has achieved remarkable economic growth and advances in social services. It raises important issues concerning industrialization and self-reliant high growth for a medium-sized Third World country (1980 population: 18 million, est.). At the same time, it is generally agreed that the political system is one of the most dreadful ever constructed in the name of socialism: this, too, raises major issues, especially concerning the cult of personality. This text is an attempt to look at both parts of the equation and at the relationship between the regime’s political practice and its economic success, within the terms of socialism.

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