North Korea in the 1950s: Capital accumulation and power struggles, part one
Time for another translated article from Ta Hamkke newspaper. For the last few months they've been running a series of excellent articles by Han Kyu-han on post-liberation Korea to mark the 60th anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonial rule. I've started, somewhat illogically, with part 9. Hopefully I'll get around to some of the others at some stage, but this one particularly interested me as it covers both factional struggles and the [state capitalist] economy in the 50s. Original here in Ta Hamkke no. 56. Any mistakes in translation are of course my own...
First here's the editor's introduction on the purpose of this series of articles:
This year is the sixtieth anniversary of [Korea's] liberation. During that time the analysis of modern Korean history has been divided on the basis of one's attitude toward the US and the Soviet Union and between those who supported the South Korean regime and those who supported the North Korean regime.
But these [two sides] are just mirror images of one another. This view of history could only present in a distorted form, or give a secondary role to the lives, anger and resistance of ordinary people.
The viewpoint from which we look at Korea's modern history is closely bound up with our approach to the specific incidents that actually occurred. Ta Hamkke will therefore publish a series of articles looking at the main contentious issues in modern Korean history.
North Korea in the 1950s: Capital accumulation and power struggles
In February 1956 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held its 20th congress where Stalin’s successor Krushchev openly criticised Stalin.
This incident brought a great wave of change to Communist Parties in many different countries. As Chris Harman has pointed out, “Every Communist Party in the world experienced great difficulty maintaining internal discipline.”
The commotion within the ruling class of the Soviet Bloc even gave rise to popular uprisings in Hungary and Poland.
North Korea was no different. Krushchev’s criticism of Stalin’s cult of personality could also be applied to Kim Il-song. In fact, the opposition faction within the North Korean Workers’ Party, centred around the old Yanan and Soviet factions, used the opportunity of the all-members meeting of the party’s central committee in August 1956 to mount a challenge to Kim Il-song.
North Korea’s ‘August Incident’ of 1956 was not a simple power struggle. The August meeting actually revealed the structural contradictions of the position that North Korea was in.
At the time, the North was experiencing a severe crisis of capital accumulation. In fact the country was suffering a double crisis because in addition to the contradictions that are characteristic of a strategy of high speed heavy industrialisation, foreign aid was being curtailed.
The South similarly experienced an accumulation crisis as a result of the reduction of aid from the US and this led to the collapse of Syngman Rhee’s one-party dictatorship triggering the series of events that led subsequently to the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee.
North Korea’s rapid heavy industrialisation strategy was based on the sacrifices of the majority of workers and farmers. The origin of this accumulation strategy was the pressure of military competition with the South.
Completing the transition from a “machinery importing nation to a machinery producing nation” was seen as the “most important condition for guaranteeing the independence of the state.”
This was something that Kim Il-song demanded. In a 1958 speech he said, “We can achieve in the course of two five-year plans what the other Socialist nations have achieved in three five-year plans.”
Superficially at least, North Korea’s economy developed rapidly during this period. During the ten years after the Korean War the country achieved an average of nearly 15 percent [annual] growth.
During the period between 1954 and 1960, investment in heavy industry occupied 80 percent of all investment in industry in North Korea.
The characteristic ways in which capitalism functions – that is the competitive accumulation of capital – also operated in North Korea. It is for this reason that the [North Korea] working class were subjected to superexploitation.
North Korea continued to maintain the harsh labour regulations it had introduced during the Korean War, even after the war had ended. This meant that even though the war was over the ‘wartime labour system’ continued. Workers who left their workplaces voluntarily were subject to strong punishments.
Workers’ control over production was blocked from the beginning and ‘one-man management system’ was introduced. The government also introduced the ‘contract system’ to encourage competition among the workers.
North Korea boasted that workers’ nominal wages had risen rapidly. Workers’ income in 1956 had risen 158 percent as compared to 1953.
But this rise was purely nominal and was meaningless in reality. The reason for this was that the production of consumer goods, which had been sacrificed to the ‘heavy industry first’ line, had been massively curtailed. There were actually no goods to buy with one’s wages. As Kim Yôn-ch’ôl has noted, “It was planned so that the quantity of goods being distributed in many of the workers’ districts could not absorb even 50 percent of the wages of the [industrial] workers and office employees at the local enterprises.”