North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (dprk), is an isolated enigma in Northeast Asia.footnote1 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.

Korea is a single nation, with a rich national culture and unchallenged sense of identity stretching back thousands of years. There are few nations on earth which can lay stronger claims to being one. In spite of its proximity to China and Japan, Korea developed a phonetic alphabet in the 15th century. It has never threatened or invaded any other country. It is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world, with 99 per cent of the population made up of ethnic Koreans. Yet, the country was divided by the us across the middle, along the 38th parallel, at the end of World War ii. South of the Parallel the us set up a separate regime, the Republic of Korea (rok), based on Seoul, the traditional capital; this regime, headed by Syngman Rhee, was formally installed on August 15, 1948 and exercised sway over two-thirds of the population (approximately 17 million out of some 26 million).footnote2 The dprk was officially inaugurated on September 9, 1948. Both regimes claimed jurisdiction over the entire nation and both recognized Seoul as the nation’s capital.

It is impossible to understand the dprk without a brief look at its immediate past and the particular factors which made it what it is today. In the space of one decade it went from extremely harsh Japanese colonialism (which had lasted an entire generation) through Soviet liberation and occupation for 3 years (1945–48), two years of difficult independence (in a divided nation) and three years of devastating war (1950–53), during which 90 per cent of its territory was occupied and almost the entire territory laid waste. This condensation of external pressures and tragedy has few parallels, if any, in world history.

Japan formally occupied Korea as a colony from 1910 (de facto from some years earlier) to 1945 and integrated it as a subordinate component of a highly militarized empire. By 1938 99.3 per cent of Korea’s foreign trade was within the yen bloc (80.8 per cent with Japan proper and 13.9 per cent with Manchuria).footnote3 There was ‘spectacular industrialization.’footnote4 combined with large-scale extraction of mineral resources, construction of large dams, an extensive metropolis-orientated communications system, the takeover of large amounts of land, a big increase in agricultural output combined with a sharp decline in Korean consumption, the expulsion of millions of Koreans from their homes and severe political, cultural and linguistic oppression. In brief, distorted growth with maximum extraction, plus harsh repression and cruel dislocation on a large scale.

By 1939 industry and mining together (39 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively) had overtaken agriculture (42 per cent) as a proportion of total output by value. Within industry, heavy industry in the same year accounted for 47 per cent of production (28 per cent in 1936) and the chemical industry ranked no. 1, having ousted food-processing (no. 1 in 1936).footnote5 The chemical industry (including the second largest petrochemical plant in the world) was made possible by the development of hydroelectric power in the 1920s, with large dams in the area of the River Amnok (Yalu) on the border with China. Most of the heavy industry was in the North of the country (see Table 2). The communications system was far more extensive and comprehensive than in either colonial Vietnam or pre-1949 China.footnote6 With the exceptions of the middle part of the East coast and the mountainous regions, the whole of Korea was penetrated by the railway system by 1945.