More Distortions About North Korea

by Rick Gunderman

A curiosity about capitalist ideology is its claim to have fully advanced the movement for the freedom to learn, to express, and to speak.

By all appearances, it has. Those who have grown up in a capitalist society are told ad nauseum that they grow up in a “free country” (often a qualifier for the concurrent claim to be the “best country”) where constraints upon pursuing information are only reasonably limited, if at all.

In their renowned work on the political economy of the mass media, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman categorically challenge this view. Through numerous examples, including the attempted assassination of the pope and the Indochinese Wars, the authors show how the news media has five “filters” to censor certain information. They are:

Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation: The dominant mass-media outlets are large firms which are run for profit. Therefore they must cater to the financial interest of their owners – often corporations or particular controlling investors. The size of the firms is a necessary consequence of the capital requirements for the technology to reach a mass audience, meaning that larger media capitalists have larger influence.

The Advertising License to Do Business: Since the majority of the revenue of major media outlets derives from advertising (not from sales or subscriptions), advertisers have acquired a “de-facto licensing authority”. Media outlets are not commercially viable without the support of advertisers. News media must therefore cater to the political prejudices and economic desires of their advertisers. This has weakened the working-class press, for example, and also helps explain the attrition in the number of newspapers.

Sourcing Mass Media News: Herman and Chomsky argue that “the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access [to the news], by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring […] and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become ‘routine’ news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.”

Flak and the Enforcers: “Flak” refers to negative responses to a media statement or program (e.g. letters, complaints, lawsuits, or legislative actions). Flak can be expensive to the media, either due to loss of advertising revenue, or due to the costs of legal defense or defense of the media outlet’s public image. Flak can be organized by powerful, private influence groups (e.g. think tanks). The prospect of eliciting flak can be a deterrent to the reporting of certain kinds of facts or opinions.

Anti-Communism: This was included as a filter in the original 1988 edition of the book, but Chomsky argues that since the end of the Cold War (1945–91), anti-communism was replaced by the “War on terror”, as the major social control mechanism. Nonetheless, as repeated right-wing red-baiting of liberals and social democrats demonstrates, anti-communism as a trend is far from dead.

While the Western political left generally accepts this model as self-evident fact, it is rarely applied when dealing with socialist countries. Trotskyists and anarchists will praise and cite Chomsky, explain all the lies behind the Iraq War and the reasons for them, while in the same breath repeating the tired old anti-communist mythology. “Millions killed”, “tyrannical dictatorship”, “totalitarian state”, “no freedom”, “no democracy”, “widespread poverty”, “political elitism”, etc.

Popular targets for this misplaced, misguided, misinformed and misdirected criticism of course in Stalin and Mao, the confusion and contradictions in capitalist ideology leave them unsure of what to make of modern China and Vietnam, and their inability to override mass popularity of Fidel Castro across the Americas leaves Cuba an unsuitable target as well.

Enter the DPRK.

An Overview of the Accusations

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a socialist state on the northern half of the Korean peninsula that has outlived five of its rival states in the south. It’s history dates back to the struggle for liberation from Japanese colonialism and imperialism.

The extent of the falsehoods and distortions fed to Western audiences about the DPRK cannot be understated. Many of them are so cartoonish and far-fetched as to be easily written off as laughable, were they not given a “respectable” medium by which to be aired.

However, amidst all the juvenile mockery, there is a narrative that attempts to provide a somewhat credible but still fantastically cyberpunk portrait of the DPRK. It goes like this:

“No communist country, Stalinist or otherwise, has established a family dynasty in the way that North Korea has done…the country is a theocracy centred on a being endowed with supposed supernatural gifts who is worshipped with religious fervour.”

Charles Whelan, British Labour Party

“Decades of this rigid state-controlled system have led to stagnation and a leadership dependent on the cult of personality….The totalitarian state also stands accused of systematic human rights abuses. Reports of torture, public executions, slave labour, and forced abortions and infanticides in prison camps have emerged. A US-based rights group has estimated that there are up to 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea.”

The BBC, Country Profile

“The North Koreans know that it is in their own interest to be perceived as being emotionally distraught about the death of Kim Jong Il, and so they do what is expected of them…Their own, natural emotionalism makes it easier for them to perform.”

Donald Gregg, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea

The details differ slightly, but the general theme is the same: northern Koreans live in a perpetual state of repression, fear, starvation, and pressure to revere their leaders and their ideology without offering a shred of criticism at the risk of never being seen again.

Simply put, the available evidence does not add up.

Websites like Kim Jong Il Looking At Things mock the Koreans’ respect for their late leader, implying that he never did anything except “look at things”, while showing him strolling through grocery stores stocked with food, factories producing large quantities of various products, schools equipped with computers with flat-screen monitors and other modern-looking technology, department stores barely distinguishable from Japanese equivalents but for the written language, clean and modern buildings – in a nutshell, KJILAT betrays the claims of backwardness and extreme poverty.

Other websites like the Life Fund for North Korean Refugees is a frequently cited group based in Japan that peddles tales of death camps and state violence. Like neo-Nazi websites that show corpses of murdered white Europeans and claim it to be the work of the African National Congress in South Africa, LFNKR is mostly sensation and little substance. Solid evidence of their claims are scarce on their site.

The chorus of slander against the DPRK is too large to cover thoroughly without several volumes, but again, the specifics differ little. Scary-sounding labels like “Stalinism” and “totalitarianism”, coupled with frequent ad hominem terms like “crazy”, “insane”, “stupid”, “fucked up”, etc., are the norm, not honest, evidence-based discourse.

In order to achieve some semblance of that, a brief overview of Korean history in the 20th Century is in order.

The Korean Independence Struggle

Modern Korean history is shaped chiefly by resistance to imperialism, first Japanese then American.

Korea first became a Japanese colony in 1910, although they had been a Japanese protectorate for about five years previously. Independent Korea had been closely allied with Russia, and following Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1905 Korea fell under effective Japanese control.

Japanese rule was harsh, brutal, and characterized by a campaign to destroy Korean culture and replace it with Japanese culture. Some historians contend that the ultimate aim was to completely absorb the Korean nation into the Japanese nation. During this time, many anti-Japanese organizations were founded, including political and military organizations. Among these were many socialists, communists and left-leaning liberals. Typically, right-wing Koreans either collaborated with the Japanese, would turn to the Americans as new imperial sponsors, or both.

Korean culture on both sides of the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, highly reveres the anti-Japanese struggle, regardless of political affiliation. Both states, the DPRK and the Republic of Korea (ROK), claim to represent the continuation of the Korean independence movement.

To any honest observer, it would be obvious which of the states truly fights for Korean independence.

The south of Korea has played host to American soldiers since 1945, who in the early post-war years engaged in brutal acts of repression of the Korean workers’ movement and the movement for a truly independent Korean state. What was instead given to the people of south Korea was a series of military governments, all controlled ultimately by the United States. In between these military regimes were civilian governments, nominally democratic but always answerable to the occupying power.

In contrast, the last Soviet soldiers left the northern half of Korea in 1948. They would return only once in small numbers to help defend the DPRK against the southern collaborators and Western intervention forces, fearing open confrontation with the imperialist powers would set humanity on an irreversible course of annihilation. Instead, the Koreans repeatedly requested full assistance from the recently-established People’s Republic of China, who responded after months of pressure and several days of emergency meetings. The last Chinese soldiers withdrew from Korea in 1958.

Since then, the ROK and their military have received political, diplomatic, economic, technological and military assistance from the United States. In effect, the ROK is a client state of the United States. In stark contrast, the DPRK has historically received only minimal assistance from the USSR and the PRC (although this assistance would prove itself critical when it disappeared with the USSR).

What happened in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War – which, in this context, is to speak of the end of Japanese rule – set the stage for the division of Korea. The Soviet Union was in the best possible position to free Korea of Japanese rule, having been poised to liberate Manchuria. However, they agreed to stop their march through Korea at the 38th Parallel, as per an agreement with the United States. The two powers agreed to administer the peninsula jointly until independence after four years.

While the Allies negotiated over Korea’s fate on the eve of Japan’s imminent defeat, Koreans themselves had already made plans.

On August 15, 1945, the last Japanese Governor-General agreed to hand over power to Yuh Woon-Hyung, who immediately established the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence. Dominated by socialists, the Committee formed the basis for the People’s Republic of Korea, declared on September 6, 1945. Part of the process involved organizing people’s committees to form municipal governance across the peninsula. While the Soviets encouraged and assisted the PRK, the Americans loathed and attacked it.

The United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) immediately abolished the PRK in the southern part of Korea. Brutal military force was used to suppress all forces loyal to the PRK, which at that point had come to include virtually every sector of society. Forces loyal to the PRK remained active in parts of the south, notably on Jeju Island, where a socialist uprising in 1948 was brutally crushed by the US military and right-wing Korean armed gangs.

By February 1946, the PRK had been dissolved in all of Korea. But whereas in the south it was replaced by the USAMGIK, in the North it was reformed into the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea. Yuh was assassinated during this period, while he still held onto hope that he could persuade the Americans to allow Korean independence.

Even the United States has officially admitted that the PPCNK initiated a successful land reform policy and consolidated its power in a popular, democratic, grassroots way. This challenges the belief that the DPRK was a Soviet-imposed state.

On August 15, 1948, the first Republic of Korea was proclaimed on the power of the USAMGIK. Less than one month later, faced with the reality that there was virtually no hope for unified independence, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was proclaimed on September 9.

On the question of independence, it is clear that the DPRK, and not the ROK, is carrying on that proud tradition of the Korean people. Attempts by left-wing Westerners to portray the ROK as legitimate, democratic and independent (and the DPRK as none of the above) are dishonest and are simply capitalist distortions regurgitated with left-sounds phrases.

Economic Performance – South vs North

The division of the peninsula brought about economic problems for both sides. During Japanese colonial rule, the underpopulated but resource-rich north was given priority for heavy industrial development. Meanwhile, the south focused on agriculture. Division left the north cut off from 2/3 of the Korean workforce and most of the nation’s agriculture, while the south was deprived of adequate natural resources and heavy industry.

The five years between the end of Japanese colonialism and the Korean War were to be nullified by the massive, widespread destruction wrought by the Korean War. Pyongyang and other northern cities suffered particular devastation, with the US Air Force dropping approximately 420,000 bombs. Black leaders like Paul Robeson and NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois opposed the war, clearly and correctly identifying it as a racist war against the Korean people and their right to self-determination.

In the post-war years, the DPRK’s economy grew at a similar pace to the ROK’s as measured by GDP. The ROK only experienced rapid growth after their seemingly endless cycles of civilian and then military government coupled with economic stagnation forced the US to intervene less southern Koreans rise up against their puppets.

Like Cuba, the DPRK experienced a major blow to its progress and growth when the Soviet Union collapsed. American sanctions continue to hurt both countries.

It is worth noting that the loss of a major trading partner tends to hurt any economy, no matter what their structure or orientation. Had the United States collapsed instead, it is just as likely that North Korea would today be prosperous and South Korea impoverished.

As noted earlier, the tales of an imploded economy are easily observed to be false, even occasionally in the imperialist and capitalist propaganda itself.

Context must also be maintained. Korea is not a European or an American country – it is an Asian country. It’s historical pattern of development is altogether similar to other Asian countries, particularly those whose military-strategic importance to the Americans was low compared to South Korea and Japan.

The ability of the United States to influence global economic patterns cannot be underestimated. Since the First World War, the United States has replaced Great Britain as the world’s leading financial centre, the “global banker” as some say. The interests of the American economic elite tend to dominate those parts of the world that are plugged into the global financial system, exceptions notwithstanding.

The United States and other capitalist countries have been engaged in a decades-long campaign of economic strangulation of those countries it sees as roadblocks in its quest to bring every part of the world into their economic domain. Some countries have fallen underneath that pressure, such as Iraq, the Soviet Union and much of Eastern Europe. Others have persisted and endured, including China and Cuba, but none more than the DPRK.

The DPRK is by far the most centrally-planned economy remaining in the world (hence the common accusation of “Stalinism”). Theirs is a country where Western capitalists have virtually zero chance, save for the new Kaesong Industrial Region (formed to bring in Western technological and economic expertise without Western domination), to make a profit.

Political and economic independence – a sure cocktail to induce imperialist and capitalist hatred.

Examples of Inconsistency and Falsification

Broadly, this offers a basic glimpse into the current position the DPRK finds itself in. To round off, an example of obvious lies being peddled about the DPRK should be examined.

It is commonly said that the DPRK’s constitution has seen all references to communism and Marxism-Leninism removed. It is claimed, on the Wikipedia page for the Worker’s Party of Korea, that a representative of the DPRK claims that communism is no longer viable.

Neither of these are honest. Chapter One (on politics) of the DPRK’s Constitution establishes the DPRK as a socialist state, one of four times that the world “socialist” is used, with “socialism” being used twice. Chapter Two, on the economy, uses the word “socialist” or “socialism” 12 times. Chapter Three prescribes a socialist culture, using the word 10 times. In short, there is no absence of references to socialism.

The press representative in question has been misquoted on Wikipedia. On that page, he:

explained to South Korean officials that communism is not considered viable.

The page that Wikipedia references, an article in the Wall Street Journal, says that he:

explained to South Korean officials that Kim did not consider communism to be viable “as long as U.S. imperialism exists.”

This is a typical tactic of anti-communists, i.e. misquoting. Clearly, communism is off the table for the moment. This is widely accepted by Marxist-Leninists – that communism, the final victory of socialism, is not possible in one country as long as imperialism remains a threat. Mao spoke to this:

According to the Leninist viewpoint, the final victory of a socialist country not only requires the efforts of the proletariat and the broad masses of the people at home, but also involves the victory of the world revolution and the abolition of the system of exploitation of man by man over the whole globe, upon which all mankind will be emancipated.

If the North Korean communists no longer call themselves Marxist-Leninists, it seems that they still think like Marxist-Leninists.

This is a pattern repeated by every anti-communist who wishes to bash the DPRK, whether from the left (Trotskyists, anarchists, social democrats) or the right (liberals, conservatives, fascists). It has nothing in common with a scientific, honest, thorough, reality-based approach to analysing any society, let alone a socialist society.

Another key falsification that must be confronted is the belief that the DPRK promotes the “racial superiority” of the Korean people. This lie was advanced by Stormfront, a neo-Nazi website, the evidence for their claim being non-existent.

The Korean people exhibit a type of nationalism that has rarely, if ever, been replicated. Their belief in their right as a people to be free from the control of others asserts itself in the form of a sometimes-aggressive pride in their national heritage.

But Korean propaganda posters depicting US soldiers exhibit none of the racism characteristic of US military propaganda, with Japanese people portrayed as rats and their racial features exaggerated to ridiculous proportions during World War 2, for example. The claim that Koreans adhere to some bizarre brand of “national socialism”, as the Wall Street Journal and countless other allege, is simply groundless.

One final myth that can be quickly dealt with is that those in south Korea support the ROK and the United States. In fact, a recent poll suggests that only about 1/3 of south Koreans have a favourable view of the United States.

As far as support for their own government, voter turnout rates have been dropping consistently since the “democratization” period of the 1980s. Many commentators have expressed concern that this could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the ROK and its elections.

In direct opposition to US propaganda, most south Koreans do not hate north Koreans, and many support the DPRK. Such is the extent that the Americans and the south Korean collaborators are fearful of public support for the DPRK that ROK citizens are forbidden from accessing websites and information sympathetic to the DPRK.

Two Korean cultural organizations exist in Japan – Chongryon, affiliated with the DPRK, and Mindan, affiliated with the ROK. Although recently Mindan has become more popular, historically Chongryon has been the dominant organization for Koreans living in Japan. Considering the extent of the anti-DPRK campaign, especially in Japan, it’s a wonder that Chongryon continues to exist at all.


When the DPRK holds a military-labour parade, it’s called propaganda and mass brainwashing. When Western countries inundate their sporting events with military displays, it’s called healthy patriotism.

When the DPRK wishes to pursue an independent path to foreign policy and economic development, it’s called being a “hermit kingdom”. When the United States withdrew from global diplomatic circles in the 1920s and 1930s, it’s called “isolationism”.

When the DPRK launches rockets for space exploration, it’s called a dangerous threat to international peace. When the United States conducts active military drills close to its enemies’ sovereign territory and seas, it’s called keeping their foes on their toes.

When the DPRK holds three-party elections with a 90%+ voter turnout, it’s written off as falsified or forced. When the US holds two-party elections with less than 60% voter turnout since 1968, it’s hailed as an example of democracy at work.

The list goes on and on, but the point is the same. It is the job of every honest communist with a Marxist-Leninist outlook to challenge the hypocrisy of the lies told about the DPRK, and instead turn the political gun on the real enemy. We must investigate the evidence and come to our own conclusions, not simply swallow the conclusions of the imperialists and capitalists.

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