Kim Il Sung’s Stalinist Style
In virtually every political move Kim Il Sung had so far made and in most of his future behavior, he showed himself to be a thoroughgoing Stalinist. Like Stalin, he established a cult of personality in which he, the leader, came to embody the state. Praise of the leader equaled praise of the state; criticism of the leader was treason, and under both Stalin and Kim dissent was crushed. Kim also took his cue from the career of Stalin in his tactics when he formed temporary alliances and eliminated rivals within the party bureaucracy.
He was Stalinist in his control of information and use of propaganda inside and outside the state, in his insistence that the country was threatened by a capitalist world that wished to destroy its revolution, and in his tendency to attribute set-backs to conspiracies by spies and saboteurs (until he had eliminated his rivals, after which the accusations of treason ended).
Kim was Stalinist as well in his economic development policy, which was consistently driven by a rigid and simplistic communist ideology and a belief that the primary purpose of economic development should be to ready the state for war. Though Kim and many of the men closest to him came originally from a peasant background, he seems to have been little interested in the lives of peasants.
He saw agriculture’s job as the feeding of soldiers and factory workers, and he forced Korea’s farmers to join huge communist collectives, with the ultimate goal (never quite achieved) of turning farmers into wage earners. Like Stalin, he consistently allocated a disproportionate share of state resources to heavy industry—industry of the kind that was important to warfare.
The Soviet Union’s development of heavy industry in the 1930s, achieved by forcing great sacrifices on the Russian people, was widely credited with its defeat of the Nazis. If the forced development of heavy industry at the expense of all other sectors of the economy had worked for the Soviet Union, then the same methods would work for the DPRK—or so its leader appeared to believe.
The war that Kim Il Sung was preparing his country for was not World War III, however, but a second round of the Korean War, which would once and for all unify Korea as a communist state. To build socialism as he understood it, to unify Korea, and to retain power were Kim Il Sung’s three primary aims as the leader of the DPRK. He pursued them unwaveringly from the time he took power until his death, after which his son Kim Jong Il has pursued them just as unwaveringly.
As in Stalin’s Russia (and also as in Park Chung Hee’s South Korea), goals for the whole country’s economic growth were set in a series of multiyear plans. In contrast to South Korea, the economy was micromanaged from the top. Each factory and collective was given highly specific objectives, and workers and peasants were mobilized by ideological and nationalistic exhortations and encouraged to meet or beat preset numerical goals of production.
Teams of workers were encouraged to compete with each other in “speed battles.” Since ideology (rather than individual self-interest) was the driver of both workers’ and managers’ efforts, a Korean Workers’ Party committee was put in charge of production both at agricultural cooperatives and factories. In agriculture, this method was named the “Chongsan-ni” model (after a cooperative where this system was supposed to have produced wonderful results), and in industry it was named the “Taean Work System,” after the factory where it was first used (Oh and Hassig 2000, 63).
In the 1950s and the early 1960s, as the DPRK recovered from the ravages of the Korean War, Kim Il Sung’s methods resulted in rapid growth for the North Korean economy and perhaps in an improved life for most of its people. For those under the top level (where party big-wigs enjoyed special privileges and material benefits, as they did in the Soviet Union), life was hard.
Meat and fish were rare luxuries, but the distribution of goods was fairer than it had previously been. Education was more widely available. Every citizen not deemed an enemy of the state was assured a job and the bare means of subsistence. During this period the economy of the DPRK grew rapidly and on a per capita basis was well ahead of the ROK.
As the experience of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and the DPRK all show, however, micromanaged, top-down economic planning has severe limits. There is initial fast growth based on the building of infrastructure and the mobilization of previ-ously underutilized manpower and industrial capacity. Then there is stagnation.
The absence of feedback between different sectors of the economy leads to bottlenecks in the system or the overproduction of goods for which there is no immediate use.
Mistakes like these could apply to entire factories: In the 1980s the Soviet Union helped North Korea build a factory capable of producing 10 million ball bearings every year; the factory was successfully completed, but there was no demand either in Korea or outside for the bearings (Buzo 1999, 169–170).
In the DPRK central planning was more than usually inept, since Kim Il Sung had a mistrust of professional expertise and made a point of putting undereducated but loyal Communist bureaucrats from his guerrilla faction in charge of the economy.
Party bureaucrats and man-agers with political pull would get the resources they needed for their projects so that they would meet their goals under the multiyear plan, while those without such pull would not, regardless of which projects were really essential.
Kim Il Sung’s management of the North Korean economy was also misguided in one of its core principles—autarky, the goal of making North Korea economically self-sufficient with a minimum reliance on imports from and exports to other countries.
Autarky had been the economic goal of Japan and to a degree of the Soviet Union in the 1930s; it was in part a reaction to the international depression of that period, when a sharp decline in world trade made self-sufficiency seem necessary.
This goal was less appropriate to the postwar era, when world trade expanded, and less practical for relatively small North Korea than for the vast Soviet Union or imperial Japan (which had conquered Korea and Manchuria in pursuit of autarky).
Though the word juche is sometimes translated as “self-reliance,” and economic self-sufficiency was one of its principle goals, the DPRK has always depended on foreign aid; only the sources of the aid have changed over the years.