The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: A 21st Century Fascist State

Considered one of the few remaining communist states after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea maintains a policy of intense isolation with juche, a concept of self-reliance supposedly based on Marxist thought, as its guiding ideology. This is the official narrative of the Korean Workers Party, the ruling party of North Korea since its establishment in 1948. Although the propaganda disseminated to the outside world displays a generally communist attitude, internal North Korean propaganda tells an extremely different story: a state modeled on ideas of xenophobia and ethno-centralism, ideals that do not belong in a communist state created in the image of communist China and the Soviet Union. Instead, the rhetoric and actions of the North Korean government as well as the structure and principles of the North Korean state align to a greater degree with fascist beliefs rather than communist ones.

Communism centers on self-denial for the benefit of the greater community and the ideas of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” which, if not applied in practice in communist states, is at least emphasized in their propaganda. Fascism, in contrast, is an inherently nationalistic system centered on the idea of ethnocentrism where one racial group within a state is held up as inherently superior to others, which then leads to the construction of a hierarchical system within the state where those in this racial group end up at the top and all others are below them. The idea of working for the greater good of all is promoted in communist rhetoric while fascist rhetoric focuses on inherent differences within races and the eventual triumph of one over all others. While communism dissolves classes (except for the ruling party) fascism enforces them.

Communism and fascism have a few important similarities, blurring the line between them and allowing confusion to occur. A key element of both ideologies is the mass-mobilizing power of the modern state, and an emphasis on loyalty to a group instead of to the individual; however, by overly projecting nationalist sentiments and beliefs in racial superiority, a fascist state cannot seek to spread its ideology to other countries not ethnically homogenous to their own except through war or ethnic cleansing. Fascism promotes the idea of ethnic superiority rather than the superiority of the working class, and while the upper classes of a society can be brought to a level of perceived equality with the lower classes, those deemed inferior by fascist can never become part of the preferred ethnic group. This leaves fascism without the internationalist aspect that communism has, as communism focuses on the union of all the working-class peoples of the world regardless of race, and the eventual unifying of all people.

North Korea has a government-enforced class system of its own. Called songbun, a North Korean receives his or her class standing at birth. Based on her relatives’ actions and political standing, as well as her racial background (those with ancestors from China or Japan have a lower songbun than pure Koreans), a North Korean’s songbun stays with her for life and dictates her demographics: her livelihood, her neighborhood, and even how much food she receives. North Korea rejects the idea of a classless society both officially and unofficially.

Furthermore, North Korea rejects the idea of a multiethnic society in favor of rigid uniformity. North Koreans pride themselves on their ethnic homogeneity, with outlandish claims like the absence of handicapped people. North Korea projects an image of a society where all citizens are healthy and genetically identical. As a citizen of North Korea said when asked this same question by a tourist to the country, “ [North Korea] is a very homogenous nation. All North Koreans are born strong, intelligent, and healthy.” North Korean women who return from China pregnant receive a state mandated abortion to protect the homogeneity of the Korean race. This bears similarity to the Nuremberg Race Laws of Nazi Germany, which, in part, forbade marriage or racial mixing between non-Aryans and Aryans.  North Koreans learn that dark skin symbolizes the morally inferiority of a race, to the point where the North Korean citizens tried to murder the Cuban ambassador when he visited the country. This directly contradicts Marx’s internationalist teachings, but bears great similarity to fascist racial teachings where external characteristics such as skin color or facial structure serve to differentiate ally from enemy.

All fascist countries have a designated scapegoat, a set of people they deem responsible for all their country’s difficulties. This group tends to be either a historically marginalized group within the state or a historical enemy of the government. Although all those considered not of the ‘chosen race’ receive scorn and hatred from fascists, fascists view this particular group or groups as sub-human and unworthy of existence. In the 20th century, the Jews held that spot in the minds of the fascist European Axis powers. For North Koreans, Americans and Japanese hold this position. North Koreans integrate anti-American and anti-Japanese lessons into the school curriculum from kindergarten where children learn math through problems like, “three soldiers from the Korean People’s Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?” On playgrounds, North Koreans insult others by calling them “miguk nom,” Korean for “American bastard.” These biases are also enshrined in the official North Korean history. This history states that Americans began the Korean War, lost it, and until today have worked to destroy the reunification process. These biases also affect the North Korean view of South Koreans and the South Korean government, harming the reunification process by weakening the ability of the North Korean government to recognize South Korea as a true independent state and not an American puppet. North Koreans consider Koreans in the South part of the chosen race, and South Korea is portrayed as a subjugated puppet of the American imperialists and in need of freeing from its masters. To North Koreans, this leaves South Koreans exempt from blame for the division of the peninsula but removes the legitimacy of the government of South Korea.

North Koreans see Americans as inferior not only due to the status of the United States as an enemy to the current North Korean regime, but also due to their lack of ethnic homogeneity. They are disgusted at the thought of a multi-ethnic society, as their government sponsored news agency states on their Korean-language website “mono-ethnicity is something that our nation and no other on earth can pride itself on…There is no suppressing the nation’s shame and rage at the talk of ‘a multi-ethnic, multi-racial society’…which would dilute even the bloodline of our people.” In art, North Koreans’ illustrations of Americans often give them dark skin and hooked noses, the latter part of which bears similarity to Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic cartoons. It also emphasizes the idea that Americans lack ethnic homogeneity the way North Koreans do and provides the North Korean government with a further reason to refuse to make peace with the United States.

Another difference between fascist and communist values lies in the tone the leader’s personality cult takes. The power of a communist leader comes from his strong leadership, and most importantly, his status as a champion of the proletariat. Joseph Stalin, one of the most famous communist leaders, even changed his last name from Dzhugashvili to Stalin, meaning “man of steel” to demonstrate his strength and image as a hardliner. In contrast, a fascist leader’s power comes from his almost divine status as the savior of his race and nation and fatherly demeanor. Communist leaders celebrate their supposed humble beginnings; fascist leaders are born, not made. In a communist country, a leader who was born into privilege would be condemned, but North Korean leaders such as Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un who were born into luxury remain revered because for North Koreans, genetics and their leader’s link to Kim il-Sung are more important than the achievements of said leaders. In contrast to the communist “man of steel” Stalin, fascist Hitler was frequently called “Uncle Hitler” or “Uncle Adolf” by his followers. Continuing with the theme of ethno-centralism, North Koreans believe their racial homogeneity makes them both superior to all others as well as childlike and pure. B.R. Meyer, a scholar whose work focuses on the Korean peninsula, describes North Korean ideology in this way: “the Korean People are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous to survive in this world without a great parental leader,” and as such, in need of a near divine parental ruler to protect them from the evils of the world and to guide them. As a defector from North Korean, Ms. Chae Young Hee, who fled the country 11 years ago, said in reference to the nation’s leaders in a CNN interview: “they’re God…And we can’t think for ourselves. When North Koreans watch news on the dear leader [Kim Jong-il], they believe in it. We live because of him.” North Koreans see the Kims as people sent to save them and their southern brothers from those who threaten to destroy their race, just like how Germans viewed Hitler.

The North Korean government hides all this behind a shield of propaganda and intense rhetoric that makes North Korea look like a familiar Cold War relic of Stalinist communism. Many observers feel content in believing this image because it makes North Korea more predictable. However, North Korea many of the basic features of communism: a classless system, a belief in internationalism, and a desire for equality. It does, however, have the characteristics qualifying it for fascism: xenophobia, a strict class system, a belief in racial supremacy, a parental leader, and a hated “other” group. North Korea’s doctrines center on its racial supremacy and its enemies’ moral degeneracy, which makes the current structure of North Korea’s government more aligned with fascist principles than communist ones.

One Reply to “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: A 21st Century Fascist State”

  1. Felix Abt

    Fascist, totalitarian or just authoritarian?
    The criteria for totalitarian or fascist, mentioned in this piece, apply much less nowadays since North Korea has been changing dramatically, at least by its own standards, over the past two decades, which went largely unnoticed by the outside world.

    For example “a strict class system” does not exist any longer as marketization has enabled people from lower classes to build their own business and become rich and even more influential than many party and government officials from the privileged “core class”, something still prohibited two decades ago, but obviously tolerated by the current leadership. To give you another example, the concept of “racial supremacy” and a “hated ‘other’ group” has been much weakened as well thanks to more (tolerated) interaction with the outside world, opening minds and challenging racial bias as I witnessed myself (more here:

    Normalization of relations between the West and China and Vietnam decades ago have helped boost reforms and led to a substantial transformation lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and offering more freedom to ordinary citizens in these countries; multi-faceted engagement instead of the current isolating and cornering will eventually have the same effect in North Korea.

    Felix Abt, author of “A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom”

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