Kim Jong-un and the Intellectuals: Scientific Socialism with North Korean Characteristics and Reform from Within

The intelligentsia forms an important stratum in any society, and the so called socialist societies have had a peculiar fascination with intellectuals as a class. This probably has much to do with Marx as intellectual, and with the positivist progeny of the authoritarian strand of socialism sometimes known as “scientific socialism.”

Socialism in one country is a common, essential, feature of Stalinist states. In this way all the so called socialist states developed after the Soviet example were Stalinist, to one degree or another, and I would argue that North Korea is no exception.

The dominant strand of thinking about North Korea, especially in popular commentary and analysis, these days considers North Korea as a neopatrimonial state dominated by the Kim family at the centre, an arrangement which is legitimised through a virulent Korean nationalism and traditional Korean Confucian values. The impression is that North Korea is and is meant to be almost semi-feudal.

A key crux in the debate on the fundamental nature of the North Korean political and economic system is based on the question of uniqueness. Those who see North Korea as unique tend to adopt the “under the loving care of the fatherly leader” thesis, to borrow from the title of a book by Bradley Martin very much written within this tradition, whereas those who see North Korea part of a common braid tend more to adopt the Stalinist interpretation.

I tend to think that although North Korea is kind of queer it shares plenty in common with Stalinist societies, and its more pathological features could be interpreted as flowing on from an especially strong commitment to socialism in one country. In the East European context Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu was a weird outlier, but interestingly Ceausescu’s commitment to socialism in one country was the greatest of all. The others were enmeshed in the Soviet dominated order. Furthermore, whatever we might say about North Korea’s economic performance, Pyongyang has always exhibited a strong commitment to modernity.

One expression of that Stalinist commonality and that commitment to modernity was the Chollima Movement industrial strategy adopted by Kim Il-sung from 1958 to 1962. A key facet of the Chollima Movement was speed. The idea was to accelerate the attainment of the developmental goals set by the five year plan then in force. Chollima is the name of a mythical horse able to fly a thousand ri a day (1 ri equals 3.93km). The state exhorted workers to work at “Chollima speed.” Chollima encouraged Stakhanovism, something shared among the Stalinist states. To be a Stakhanovite in North Korea was to be a “Chollima Rider.”

Even Tito’s Yugoslavia exhibited this, for example Alija Sirotanovic, a Yugoslav Stakhanovite, appeared on legal tender

The Chollima Movement, like the Stakhanovite original in the Soviet Union, also was based on competition. Workers would be encouraged to compete within and across industries to boost overall labour productivity. The Chollima Movement, therefore, emphasised, Leni Riefenstahl like, not necessarily the importance of science and technology to boosting productivity so much as “the triumph of the will.” We shall return to this point.

In many respects the Chollima industrial strategy was like the Great Leap Forward in China, for it too encouraged industrial decentralisation at the communal level, so one might say it was not Stalinist but the Great Leap Forward should be seen in a Stalinist context. For example, it sought to develop industry in parallel with agricultural collectivisation. Because the objective was building socialism in one country all the Stalinist states, in essentials, encouraged industrial development through both coerced extraction of capital from peasants and oppressive work norms induced and imposed upon workers. The Chollima Movement was cut off Stalinist cloth. This movement did lead to economic growth and industrial development, and the Chollima industrial strategy never really had a definite and crisp end unlike, say, the Great Leap Forward even though in the literature it is recognised as formally ending in 1962. It continued to be used in ideological pronouncements well into the rule of Kim Jong-il. The emancipation of the working class it is not, something that can only be achieved through a global process. Socialism in one country can never be socialist.

Chollima is still an important ideological term, although Kim Jong-un refers to it also as “Mallima” and to be a Stakhanovite in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea is to be a “Maillima Rider.” In the 2018 New Year Address Kim Jong-un used both expressions, kind of interchangeably. The big difference between Chollima and Mallima is speed. If Chollima could fly at 1000 ri a day, Mallima flys at 10000 ri a day what is called “Mallima speed.” According to a North Korean defector some North Korean workers can be heard to exclaim “We don’t even have enough to eat, what the fuck is this Mallima?” Mallima is presented by Kim Jong-un in terms of socialist development, but it is not and cannot be in principle. The biggest lie in Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin Line policy is that it is designed to build socialism, one not questioned in Western discourse ironically enough.

Here is a graphical representation of nuclear and missile testing under Kim Jong-un as compared to Kim Jong-il.

You might want to call that Mallima speed. Many have and continue to ask what lies behind the success of North Korea’s missile programme under Kim Jong-un? Perhaps, in part, Mallima industrial strategy has something to do with it. That volume of testing is an externally discernable manifestation of the hard work put into the missile programme. It appears also that competition was fostered by the centre. For example, it could well be the case that there were two competing research and development teams competing to develop an ICBM. One based first on developing the Musudan MRBM with the 4D10 engine of the Soviet R-27 Zyb SLBM. The Musudan-4D10 route would, in theory, lead to the KN-08 and KN-14 long range missiles. The other road would be based on what we know now to be the Paektusan engine (said by North Korea to be for an SLV when it was initially hot tested) used on the Hwasong-12, 14 and 15 missile boosters. The second route was the successful route. That would be consistent with Chollima-Mallima. That would also be taking a leaf from the Stalinist playbook, as Moscow did the same with Glushko and Korolev leading up to the R-7 Semyorka.

Anyway, one of the points I want to make here is how Chollima-Mallima in a way contradicts with the increasing centrality that North Korea is placing on science and technology in its industrial development strategy. North Korea is a positivist paradise and some of Kim Jong-un’s proclamations are the most extreme statements of positivism ever seen. Science has been a strong feature of Kim Jong-un’s public remarks, his 2018 New Year Address and the important April plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea which emphasised the economic aspect of the Byungjin Line policy. The idea appears to be retooling and refurnishing the industrial base of the North Korean economy through high technology, especially precision machine tools, and advances in the applied sciences, especially in the energy sector, to boost productivity and so economic growth. The contradiction is there so long as Mallima encourages Stakhanovite triumph of the will extraction of labour productivity from the North Korean working class rather than achieving Mallima speed through science and technology recapitalising the supply base of the economy.

I got to think about this when taking another close look at the famous 2017 photo of Kim Jong-un with what appears to be, or is a model of, a two stage thermonuclear device

In particular I was struck by the younger scientists taking notes as Kim Jong-un appears to be offering “on the spot” guidance. The younger physicists know that peanut to be their baby, and their taking notes is an absurd charade. It takes a geek to know a geek, and charades like this are just an affront barely to be tolerated. After the cold war one of the things that Soviet nuclear weapon scientists were keen to show their US counterparts was that they didn’t build Joe 01 just off espionage. They had a certain pride of work.

In 2014 38North published a fascinating paper by Michael Madden on the emergence of a new crop of younger scientists in the military sector, who have been critical to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes under Kim Jong-un. The economic strategy that Kim Jong-un has adopted will encourage the rise of a new cadre of scientists and technicians and they may start to tire of “on the spot guidance” and kowtowing to somebody they know to be inferior to them. There does appear to be one form of resistance manifestable already. A news report has appeared of researchers at Kim Il-sung University reportedly producing junk publications in junk journals that nobody reads because of junk productivity metrics from management developed to show that the University is a world class institution. Kim Il-sung University appears to share much with the neoliberal university where publication of junk at Mallima Speed is a requirement and that too for global rankings.

It is possible that a rising scientific and technocratic class will chafe at Mallima work norms instituted by state and industrial bureaucrats for whom they may come to have little respect. Scientists and engineers are Stakhanovites that work at Mallima speed but that is an impulse that comes from within not without.

However, one would think that a more likely outcome would be for the state to strike a bargain with a growing scientific and technical class. Scientists and engineers will be lavished with resources from the state and so they will be able to devote themselves to their own narrow technical concerns whilst expressing loyalty to the political leadership. This has been a feature of modern science and the modern state.

Either way it is possible that scientists and technocrats will come to enjoy a more prominent place in the ruling Workers Party of Korea.

Another theme that I have spoken of previously is a possible reassertion of the Party. One feature of Stalinist systems is that the generalissimo at the top tends to deemphasise the Party. That certainly has been the case since the Kim Il-sungisation of the WPK, however Kim Jong-un has revived the Party, in a formal sense, and has elevated it to pride of place in the implementation of the Byungjin Line policy although substantively it functions as a rubber stamp. It could be possible that a rising scientific and technocratic class will take up more positions of influence within the Party apparatus as the emphasis upon science and technology proceeds, and this technocratic class might encourage the reassertion of the Party in ways that mitigate its continued Kim Il-sungisation. That’s probably drawing a long bow, admittedly. But if North Korea is a Stalinist state rather than a semi feudal family based Confucian order it’s conceivable that reform from within could take roots in this fashion.

There were factions against the absolute dominance of Kim Il-sung and the Kim Il-sungisation of the Party was cemented as late as 1958. The deification of the Kim family has not been an eternal feature of the North Korean state nor of the Workers Party of Korea. I had mentioned Romania previously. Ceausescu completely dominated the Party such that it wasn’t really a functioning political party much like the Kim family has dominated the WPK. The 12th Congress of the Romanian Communist Party in 1979 didn’t go according to plan. One of the founders unexpectedly asked for the floor and spoke against Ceausescu and his absurdist cult of personality. He was hounded down, true, but he did go on to play a role in the Romanian Revolution. Nobody, least of all Ceausescu, would have expected this.

You don’t have to know Romanian to understand what’s happening in this quite amazing video of the 12th Congress, nor is it needed to know what the toads clapping feverishly really think now if not really thought then.