Pak Noja on Korean Nationalism and the Left
The talk given by Pak Noja recently at Yonsei University seems to have been quite an event with a thousand-strong audience. A transcript of his talk and the ensuing discussion with chairwoman Kim Ha-yong (who readers of this site may have heard of before) is now available on the Ta Hamkke website.
It would be great to have this in English, but translating the whole thing is a bit beyond the time I can spare at the moment, perhaps we can hope that Pak Noja will provide something in English on this subject sooner or later.
In the meantime I thought I’d just roughly translate a short extract, partly because this topic fits quite well with my recent post on autonomism in Korea and the discussion that followed. Apologies for the somewhat stilted translation. I’ve also had some difficulties with some of the terminology, I’ll try to come back to this and make some improvements at a later stage.
In this extract, after a discussion of the role played by nationalism and French imperialism in Vietnam, Pak turns to North Korea:
For us, one of the most difficult things to talk about is the North Korean revolution. The strength of the influence exerted by the legacy of imperialism and the intellectual inheritance of nationalism on the process of the North Korean revolution is worth thinking about. To some extent, we can talk about this even before the revolution in the North took the extreme form of a one-man dictatorship.
It is a fact that in the 1940s the North looked like a far more advanced and people-oriented society than the South. The fact that a great number of progressive intellectuals migrated to the North in the late 40s shows just how attractive the revolution was. For a considerable proportion of those who went North it would be hard to say that they were communists in the strictest sense of the word. Many intellectuals who were inclined towards nationalism and populism migrated. The land reforms carried out in the North were actually one of the reasons that land reform was achieved in the South at that time. The North Korean reforms provided a model and gave Yi Sŭngman (Syngman Rhee) a sense of crisis: “if we don’t also do this to some extent we will not be able to compete with the North.” So the historical contribution of quite a few aspects of the North Korean revolution can be evaluated positively.
However, already if you look at the series of campaigns that were waged between late 1946 and 1948, there is something about it that smells a bit strange. For example, the ‘Mass Mobilisation Campaign for the Cultivation of National Ideology’ (건국사상총동원교양캠페인) that began in late 1946 was aimed at educating people through a mass mobilisation of the whole nation to cultivate a national ideology. What was the purpose of this movement? According to the words of Kim Il-sung at the time it was “an ideological revolution to create among the workers of the new Democratic Chosŏn a national spirit, customs, morals and militancy.”
What is the meaning of ‘national spirit’ (국민정신) and ‘mass mobilisation’ (총동원)? Mass mobilisation was a phrase that was continuously used during the latter years of Japanese colonialism, and one of the phrases that expressed in the most compressed manner the fascism of the late colonial period. Talk of making people do ideological study through mass mobilisation was a commonplace of this period. Terms like ‘citizen-like spirit’, ‘national spirit’ and ‘spirit’ were actually Japanese words that were first brought to Korea by students returning from study in Japan. But the term ‘national spirit’ was something that was also created within the paradigm of nationalism following the model of Japan. The fact that the term ‘national spirit’ came to be used at that time in the North shows the influence of early nationalist ideology and perhaps also the influence of the Soviet Union, but we cannot eradicate the impression that the North Korean regime just took over a term that had been used as a commonplace in the late colonial period. Although of course at that time it referred to a different nation’s citizens.
Many of the other campaigns carried out in North Korea also had some similarities in their methods to the mass campaigns of the late colonial period, like the ‘Serving the Country behind a Gun Campaign’ (총후보국캠페인). Propagandists were sent out on a mass scale to forcibly mobilise people for education. Those who did not get on with the education programme or had different opinions were made to do self-criticism and undergo ‘ideological reconstruction’ (사상개조). If you look at the campaigns that were carried out in the late colonial period by state organs of ‘ideological cultivation’ like the Taehwasuk [an organisation of pro-Japanese Koreans] the similarity is quite noticeable.
So, when General Kim Il-sung was constructing a nation state, he brought in considerable parts of the apparatus of state control and repression that were taken from the mechanisms of administration of the Japanese imperialists, the very people he had been struggling against up until then. In other words, it is hard to get rid of the sense that the state created by the nationalists in some way inherited a great deal from the imperialist state.
I’d like to make some brief comments on this. Really the question that comes to my mind is: why was it that regimes founded by nationalists (whether or not they called themselves ‘communists’ let’s accept that’s what they were/are) took on much of the ideological and institutional apparatus of their erstwhile oppressors? I think it’s worth considering the possibility that these things were much the same from the point of view of the new rulers (Kim Il-sung, Ho Chi-min or whoever) as the factories that they inherited from the former colonialists. They were setting about creating an independent nation state (or in other terms an ‘independent centre of capital accumulation’). They needed the ideological tools for the job of mass coercion that is required when setting out on the path of primitive accumulation, just as much as they needed the physical tools that would combine with human labour to produce the steel, concrete, petrochemicals and so on.
I suppose what I’m saying is that since nationalism (in the colonial/post-colonial context) ultimately means achieving a capitalist state, it is natural for it to utilise the tools necessary for this job, however brutal they may be. Nationalism ceases to have any really progressive tendencies not long after it comes to power.