M.L. Sondhi

The Hindustan Times, April, 02, 1985

Since the beginning of the modern era, politically responsible Indians have been concerned to find political and social concepts which should eschew coercion and militarism. Satyagraha, Panchsheel, Non-alignment all sought successful solutions to national and global problems without imposing any hegemonic ideology on the complexity of problems. In this context it is very curious that some commentators have suggested that the North Korean sponsored Juche Ideology could be congruent with moral principles and could provide practical options for economic and social progress. To combat this false view we must not only take a close look at the egocentric individualism of Kim Il Sung, but also the pernicious results produced by the environment of Third World militarism on an Asian society leading to acute disproportions and a slowdown of the rate of development.

At a time when India is actively seeking up-gradation of technology and seeking to remove deficiencies of infrastructure in fields like transport, communications and energy, we cannot afford to confuse the rhetoric and reality of the closed society model which is an integral part of the concept of Juche together with a process of progressive militarization. North Korea stands today at a historic crossroad. It had been pursuing the Juche ideology of socio-economic and political self-reliance as the basis of its “unique” communism for decades but in September last year its death knell was sounded when Pyongyang adopted a joint venture law which specifically allows the introduction of foreign investment and joint ventures in North Korea.

Economic Crisis

It is strange how the regime has tried to absolve itself from the responsibility of creating the economic crisis by its ideological obsessions. It is indeed a hybrid logic which propagates Juche Ideology to Afro-Asian countries (and even maintains an Asian Regional Institute of Juche Idea – ARIJI – in New Delhi since 1979) while forgetting its radicalism in promulgating laws designed to allure capitalist countries to help North Korea’s sagging economy with men, money, material and technology.

It is unfortunate that North Korea has neither been circumspect nor cautious in its efforts to relate itself to the dynamics of the global economy. It has time and again fiddled with the idea of importing foreign technology from abroad. In the early seventies, North Korea started to procure western technology in an ambitious way for upgrading its obsolete technology. But this grand project ended in a fiasco because in the absence of a proper environment of modernisation it made its existing problems worse. There was neither proper training nor maintenance and economic decision-making in Pyongyang was caught in contradictory currents. As a result of the hardware purchases on credit from the West in the early 1970s, North Korea still owes some $3.5 billion to western banks and manufacturers, on which it has defaulted a number of times.

Not Realistic

If North Korean policy-makers had a more realistic and comprehensive outlook on international economic relations, they would have co-operated with South Korea which was willing to offer its technology. Moreover, most of the countries at whom the joint venture law was aimed did not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. Instead they have close commercial and political relations with South Korea. The whole question became an issue which hinged on the improvement of North-South Korean relations, since Seoul made it clear that it would favour foreign investments in the North only after propitious changes took place in the Pyongyang-Seoul relationship. For the most part Japanese and European firms remained sceptical about the modalities of working out the principles of foreign investment in North Korea. The reluctance of the North to put their relations with the South on a permanently sound basis was clearly evident when Pyongyang unilaterally suspended the inter-Korean Economic and Red Cross talks which South Korea had pursued diligently. This back-tracking only hurt North Korea in economic terms since it again focussed on Pyongyang’s refusal to open up and develop a real stake in the international economy.

The Founders of Non-alignment were careful to develop a political rhetoric to express the needs and aspirations of the broad masses of the people. According to them there was a great need for world peace so that the crippling waste of resources in an armaments race could be avoided. Conversely the Juche ideology hinges on the living legend of a Superman who expresses both a hegemonic and armaments culture in the terms in which he is eulogised: “a shining star in the heaven”, “the omniscient and omnipotent protector of Korea”, whose “eagle eye misses nothing”, and the “sun of the nation”. The strange pattern of distortion of political values is evident from the huge newspaper advertisements which are purchased by North Korean diplomats in Third World countries to stir up hysteria and fanaticism in extolling the virtues of Juche.

Ironically enough the North Koreans have no opportunity to make authentic comparisons of the pace of economic development in the two parts of Korea. They are simply not aware of the tremendous economic strides made by their brethren across the 38th parallel. The rising productivity in industry and agriculture and the high real income per head in South Korea show that it is possible for a modernising Asian country to be highly adaptive to changing circumstances through an open economy even though it lacks natural resources. The South Korean economy has been thriving on mutual co-operation and bilateral trade by taking a rational account of economic realities. Seoul has purposefully imported the latest technology and in turn offered its technical know-how to all countries. President Chun has persuasively offered technology (and other infrastructure necessary for the basic needs of life) free of cost to North Korea to stress the convergence of interest.

Good Start

It is important to pinpoint the fact that at the time of the partition of Korea, most of the heavy and light industries were in the North, and the South had nothing that it could boast of. It was even dependent on the North for its power requirements, as all the power stations were there. The verdict of history is that the South Korean economic miracle is the very antithesis of the North Korean Juche concept.

Can North Korea side-step its agonising economic problems by redefining the Juche concept? Unfortunately for Pyongyang the development of militarism and the building of a Humane Economy in the Third World are incompatible tasks. The structural weaknesses of the North Korean economy cannot be overcome without changing the rigid concepts and rules of the Juche ideology. The technical complexity of modern production cannot overcome without changing the rigid concepts and rules of the Juche ideology. The technical complexity of modern production cannot be mastered by a system which is rigidly hierarchic and bureaucratic at home and isolated and aggressive abroad.

The North Korean leadership is locked in a hopeless struggle on the economic front: decreased demand for its key exports and drastic decline in production below the prescribed targets. The fragile economy is nowhere more evident than in the conduct of North Korean diplomacy: Pyongyang appears to have allowed its missions abroad to traffic in smuggled goods and drugs. In 1983, even India was reluctantly forced to expel a North Korean diplomat on charges of smuggling diamonds, wrist watches and video-recorders. Similarly, North Korean diplomats have been expelled from Egypt, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Burma.

Arms Culture

The political interests of North Korea are now being dictated by the armaments culture which has dangerous ramifications. Despite chronic economic problems, North Korea is spending 25 per cent of its GNP on its armed forces. The number of its military personnel has doubled from the early 1970s and its commando force has grown to be the largest in the world. Under the circumstances South Korea can hardly be blamed for being apprehensive of the military intentions and terrorist designs of Pyongyang. The existence of 100,000 commandos kept in a state of alert for a pre-emptive strike on South Korea has greatly complicated the prospects for any form of positive integration and the development of interdependence in the Korean Peninsula.

Academic analysts of Third World studies are often concerned with the critique of the military-industrial complex model. The Juche ideology has only institutionalised this model and has sacrificed basic human needs to a non-productive armaments culture. The dogmatists of the North have only exacerbated the contradictions by ignoring the Juche party platform for purchasing industrial equipment and heavy machinery from Japan and Western Europe, and decision-makers in Pyongyang even sometimes traumatised themselves when they purchased South Korean machinery bearing other foreign labels.

North Korea has a good chance of reaching its potential if the growing opposition to the hereditary succession of Kim Il Sung’s son Kim Jong Il could help in the transformation of the comparatively narrow ruling elite’s ethos in the direction of pragmatic problem solving. The capabilities and resources of North Korea can be utilised in an optimal manner in a new era of economic liberalism and outward looking growth oriented commercial policies. The Juche as an ideology of repression is incapable of expressing the aspirations of Koreans, Indians or any other Asian, African or Latin American people who are in search of a prosperous economic future.

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