- Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, by Anne Applebaum
- The North Korean Revolution: 1945-1950, by Charles Armstrong
- The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, by Andrei Lankov
I’ve read numerous histories of the Chinese Communist Party, its leaders (Mao, Zhou, Deng, etc.), and enemies (Chiang Kaishek, Chiang Ching-Kuo, and Mao himself), but my knowledge of the Communist experience elsewhere has not grown much over the past few years. Indeed, the ferocity with which Mao destroyed the Soviet system in the Cultural Revolution has left me feeling vaguely sympathetic to the Stalinist bureaucrats.
So I read three books, Iron Curtain (by the wife of a Polish Foreign Minister), The Real North Korea (by a Soviet-trained North Korea area expert), and The North Korean Revolution (by Charles Armstrong, a former student of Bruce Cummings, who has the reputation of being the most sympathetic to North Korea of any mainstream historians).
Iron Curtain is itself a comparative history of Soviet occupations of Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, so The North Korean revolution allowed me to witness the post-Soviet invasion in four countries, on opposite ends of Eurasia. The political dynamics of the four countries were similar, but North Korea from the beginning was a special case:
Political Composition of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia in 1945:
1. Middle-class parties associated with business
2. Populist farmer’s parties associated with the Catholic Church
3. Social Democratic parties associated with workers and intellectuals
4. The indigenous Communist Parties
5. The Soviet Occupation
Political Composition of North Korea in 1945:
1. Middle-class Christian parties associated with the Catholic and Presbyterian Churches
2. Syncretic Buddhist-Farmers Party-Religion (Cheondogyo)
3. An “indigenous” Communist Party” centered around the future of South Korea
4. Chinese-trained guerrillas who returned to North Korea (New People’s Party)
5. Soviet-trained guerrillas who returned to North Korea
6. The Soviet Occupation
When written out in a list, North Korea immediately appears more confusing. Three separate vocal religious movements, each deeply suspicious of each other but each with deep roots, are active in the country. Simultaneously, the “local” Communists find themselves under American Occupation, while the Soviet-ordained capital of North Korea (Pyongyang) is in the most heavily Christian part of the country.
The confusion doesn’t end there. The indigenous Korean Communist Party had been eradicated by Imperial police, and the Japanese Communist Party (which absorbed its remnants) called upon Korean Communists to turn themselves in (!!!), with the reasoning that such would allow them to act as missionaries to prisoners.
The two rival groups of guerrillas, the Soviet-trained and Chinese-trained, were both survivors of the defunct Manchurian Communist Party, which in spite of its name was predominantly Korean and, (like the KCP) was obliterated by a successful Imperial counter-insurgency campaign. Those who fled to the Soviet Union would largely wait in Siberia until the Empire fell. Those that fled to China likewise waited in Yenan, building up close connections to Mao, Zhou, and the rest of the Chinese Communist leadership.
It was perhaps this confusion that allowed Kim Il Sung to pull off a trick that would prove impossible anywhere else. Elsewhere, the Communist regimes would either turn into Soviet occupation state with the indigenous Communist leaders imprisoned or killed (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc), or else as home-grown regimes which were never under Soviet occupation (Cuba, China, Vietnam, etc.). In North Korea alone, the Soviets came, Soviet allies were set up, and Soviet spies died as the local Communist party triumphed.
In Eastern Europe, the People’s States would be “local in form, Soviet in content.” While much hay was made out of local architectural adornment, local folk art, and such, the Soviet Empire was run bureaucratically from Moscow. In North Korea, by contrast, the state was “Soviet in form, local in content.” Subsequent to North Korea, the only internationally active government that could challenge it for lack of educational attainment among its leadership was Taliban Afghanistan. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that Kim Il Sung and his acolytes would give speeches against women working outside the home, against wage leveling, and against the Communist Party serving as a vanguard.
The Real North Korea updates this to the present day. While Lankov notes that North Korean, alone among Communist languages, has two different words for “comrade” depending on the speakers’ relative social status, Lankov’s book describes the implications of such a non-egalitarian “Communism.” Indeed, there are no longer references to Communism, Marx, or Lenin, in North Korea’s interpretation: it is only foreign countries that insist on treating North Korea as Communist, whether it is China (which communicates to North Korea thru Chinese Communist Party Korean Workers Party channels) or the United States (which views North Korea as the last remnant of the Soviet Empire). Rather, as B.R. Myers implied in The Cleanest Race, North Korea is a fascist, explicitly racist state that is a successor to the Empire of Japan.
All of these books are well worth reading. Applebaum’s Iron Curtain is somewhat tedious because the story is tedious: the Soviet obliteration of civil society in Eastern Europe. Armstrong has fallen in love with his subject — a naive reader would believe it was “natural” for Kim Il Sung to ban all dissent because dissenters wanted someone else to lead them. Lankov’s The Real North Korea is the best of these, the perspective of someone who feels the Soviet system to be natural but is deeply weirded out by North Korea.