Wrapped in a Fog: On the North Korean Constitution and the Ten Principles
by Christopher Green
There are many oft-cited tales of North Korean foreign policy under the leadership of Kim Jong Il, but one stands out in particular. Not so long after the death of Kim Il Sung, the “Dear Leader” gathered a number of key Information Department cadres together and proceeded to praise them for their sterling efforts to glorify the Party.
However, Kim is said to have cautioned, “That is only fine for the domestic audience.” Internationally, he urged, “Chosun must be wrapped in a fog.”
Kim’s point, one echoed in policy throughout the late ruler’s years in power, was that it is to North Korea’s advantage for the international community to be unable to understand, preferably not even to know, what is going on inside the country and by what principles it is being run.
One aspect of this approach has to do with what is not said. North Korea pursues the goal of perfectly controlling inflows and outflows of information. This is obviously impossible, as all attempts at perfection are; nevertheless, the ambitious extent of the effort can be discerned.
We witness the attempts to control information in events including, though by no means limited to:
(1) ongoing crackdowns the length and breadth of the Sino-North Korean border against defection and smuggling;
(2) the way those media companies that operate on the ground in North Korea are restricted and impeded in their efforts to report on the country;
(3) the way information on key political events is either selectively reported or not reported at all by the state media; and
(4) the way top Party leaders are removed, rotated and replaced without so much as a press advisory.
Meanwhile, the other aspect of the strategy has more to do with what is said and how. Nowhere is this concept better illustrated than in the recent case of the ‘nuclear constitution.’
Not Quite a Peace Constitution | In the annual session of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly in April, the gathered members of the country’s rubberstamp parliament, fittingly, rubberstamped an amended version of the Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The amendments in question were predominantly in the preamble to the document, and were universally and unapologetically related to the herculean task of inserting the name “Kim Jong Il” into as many clauses as humanly possible.
For example, as I reported here for Daily NK when the amended document appeared on North Korean portal site Naenara, the endeavor led to a new opening clause:
“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the socialist motherland of Juche which has applied the idea and leadership of great leader comrade Kim Il Sung and great leader comrade Kim Jong Il.”
The pre-existing sentence in the amended version from late 2009 (published 2010) had ended on the words “Kim Il Sung.”
However, there was one clause that went beyond constitutional housekeeping of this sort. It was entirely new, and it enshrined the country’s nuclear status.
“In the midst of the collapse of world socialism and the wicked attacks of the imperialist alliance, Kim Jong Il gloriously defended the noble socialist inheritance of comrade Kim Il Sung with military-first politics, turning our nation into an invincible political ideological state, nuclear-possessing state and undefeatable militarily strong state, and paving the glorious way to the construction of the strong and prosperous state.” (Translation by Destination Pyongyang)
As can be seen in the translation, and as was noted here by Stephan Haggard, the clause does not “declare” or “announce” the nuclear weapons status of North Korea, instead stating that Kim Jong Il was the one who achieved the transformation of North Korea into a country that possesses nuclear weapons (actually, the more indistinct “nuclear-possessing state”, a fudge that is no doubt designed to come back and haunt the international community in the fullness of time).
This, Haggard went on to suggest, “looks like a classic commitment technology to us: the regime raises the bribe price of negotiating over the nuclear program by writing it into a constitution with both Dear and Great Leaders’ names on it.”
Reflecting Governance, or Mere Advertisement? | But irrespective of educated guesses as to North Korea’s intent, anyone reading should have started to ask a different set of questions by now. For is it not the case that the constitution of a given state should be reflected in what goes on in that state, rather than vice versa? To put it another way, the way of Merriam-Webster;
“con·sti·tu·tion noun \ˌkän(t)-stə-ˈtü-shən, -ˈtyü-\
The basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people in it.”
For while it is fair to say that amendments to constitutions and other fundamental governing documents do occur relatively frequently in other places around the world all the time, and it is no less fair to say that the North Korean constitution does (at least nominally) set out the distribution of powers in the state as per the above definition, it is not really appropriate to call it a constitution in the strictest sense.
All North Korea has done here is post-facto reflect in the preamble to its constitution the supposed greatness of Kim Jong Il and his achievements (notably in a nuclear sense).
Therefore, when Professor Choi Jong Kun of Yonsei University told CNN that “North Korea previously announced its nuclear capability through its state-run broadcaster and newspapers, ‘but no expression can be stronger than including it in their constitution,’” he was, in my view, doing a grave disservice to CNN’s readership. We would be closer to the mark regarding this “constitution” as an “advertisement”, and treating it with the same circumspection as we treat all other advertisements that we come across.
Hwang Jang Yop and the Ten Principles | What is particularly baffling is that someone of Professor Choi’s standing would still be making this kind of erroneous claim so many years after former Workers’ Party Secretary Hwang Jang Yop explained in very simple terms what the real governing document of Kim Jong Il’s, and probably Kim Jong Eun’s, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea actually is; namely, the Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System (hereafter “Ten Principles”).
Upon his arrival in Seoul, Hwang commented that he was very impressed with the quantity of books on North Korea that were available. However, he was less impressed when he started to read some of them, and he found it particularly disturbing that nobody seemed to know anything about the Ten Principles. This was because, he said, nothing could be more important.
According to John Cha’s new book ‘Exit Emperor Kim Jong Il’;
Young and old, everyone has to memorize and recite the principles at Party meetings, schools, farms, factories and offices across the country. This practice has gone on for the last forty years, and this doctrine supercedes any other form of rules or laws, such as North Korea’s Socialist Constitution or the JuChe Philosophy.
Hwang made it perfectly clear that, since their creation by Kim Jong Il as he worked to seize the reins of power in the early 1970s, the Ten Principles have been the key to understanding the North Korean system. In essence, if the preamble to the constitution reflects society, then society reflects the Ten Principles. Hwang therefore asserted that any scholar who failed to pay heed to the presence of the Ten Principles would be unable to reach many valuable conclusions about North Korea as a whole.
As I noted in a review of Cha’s book last week here, it is wholly unclear why a number of the things Hwang said during his 13 years in South Korea have seemingly slipped under the radar with the passing of time. Regardless, as a result of this shortsightedness there are many North Korea experts and students who have seemingly now forgotten that looking at North Korea only through the materials officially disseminated by the North Korean authorities will not provide all, or indeed most, of the answers. This includes the Socialist ‘Constitution’ of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for the country only has one constitution, and it is the Ten Principles.