A False Dichotomy: Professor Andrei Lankov on a Popular Revolution Imposed from Without

By | February 18, 2013 | No Comments

Revolutionary Martrs Cemetary | Image: Japan Focus

Revolutionary Martrs Cemetary | Image: Japan Focus

Division is everywhere in South Korea, from the body politic all the way down to the street. Nobody knows this better than the North Korean government, which appears to take great strategic pleasure in engendering internecine “south-south conflict” (남남갈등) whenever it gets the chance. And, because it suffers from such a divided, politicized academic discourse, nowhere is this easier than in the universities. Here with a primer based on some classic examples from the historical literature, an exclusive for SinoNK, is Professor Andrei Lankov. — Christopher Green, Assistant Editor

A False Dichotomy: Professor Andrei Lankov on a Popular Revolution Imposed from Without

by Andrei Lankov

South Korea is a country deeply divided. This may also be the case with South Korean society at large, but it is clearly an issue in South Korea’s intellectual and academic community, a space in which the (seriously nationalist) Left and the (somewhat less nationalist) Right argue about everything of importance – including of course, North Korea’s past and present.

Until the late 1970s, when the Right reigned supreme in South Korean universities (not without assistance from the secret police), there was little argument about the early days of North Korea. The country was then presented as a Soviet puppet state created by the malevolent and evil Soviet generals to enslave the poor, innocent peoples of northern Korea. In this endeavour, the nefarious foreigners were assisted by their local communist running dogs – whose actions were of course hated by all decent Koreans.

Then, around 1980, the South Korean Left made a powerful comeback and soon came to dominate history departments – while still fancying themselves as the heroic, encircled minority. The Left held a rather different view of North Korea’s early years. For them, North Korea was a product of a popular, democratic national revolution. Such a revolution, they insisted, began to happen in South Korea as well, but was cut short by the manipulations of the malevolent and evil US imperialists and their South Korean stooges.

In the 1990s, the partial opening of the Soviet archives as well as the emergence of new archival material from Eastern Europe and the US should have changed the nature of the debate. However, it did not. Both sides have continued to stick to their own ideas, blithely disregarding inconvenient facts and any evidence that contradicts their polemical narratives.

The Left has perhaps had to go to somewhat greater lengths to ignore the newly available evidence, since this evidence has demonstrated that the so-called ‘spontaneous revolution’ not only followed Soviet blueprints, but was in many cases even micro-managed by the Soviet generals. A good example of this was the land reform of 1946, which was from beginning to end planned and managed by the Soviet military administration, with the nascent North Korean administration merely rubber-stamping the final decision. Even though the relevant documents were published by a well known (and left-leaning) South Korean scholar in the late 1990s, the Left continues to pretend that no such documents exist. They continue to cite the land reform as an example of local political initiative.

Similar examples are numerous. Looking through the books authored by South Korean leftist (or, as they love to describe themselves, ‘progressive’) scholars, one can hardly find references to Soviet instructions about the exact composition of the soon-to-be-elected North Korean legislature (in truth, the Soviet generals even prescribed how many women should be elected). They do not mention the formal approval which was expected from the Kremlin in case of any major policy initiative in Pyongyang (to quote from a 1948 cable, “the North Korean government is allowed to hold a military parade and issue a proclamation about the establishment of its armed forces”).

However, new evidence from the archives is also damaging for the Right (though to a somewhat lesser degree). In the 1980s and 1990s, the US declassified a large volume of ‘captured documents’ (materials from North Korean grassroots social and administrative organisations, as well as private letters, diaries and other papers which were captured by US forces during their short-term advance into North Korea during the Korean War). These materials, studied by Charles Armstrong among others, leave no doubt: the North Korean regime in the late 1940s enjoyed significant support from below. It might well have developed in accordance with Soviet blueprints, but this fact – largely unknown to the North Koreans of the time – did not diminish the popular appeal of its policies and slogans. The North Korean government promised equality, social advancement and education for all, as well as the creation of a modern, developed and scientific society. The lure of such promises was irresistible.

Setting Up the Security State: Soviet Red Army leader in North Hamgyong Province, 1946-47 |  Image via National Archives and Records Administration

Setting up a security state: Soviet Red Army leader in North Hamgyong Province, 1946-47 | Image via National Archives and Records Administration

Indeed, for an impartial observer in 1946-7, North Korea would probably have appeared far more attractive than its southern counterpart. Both countries were authoritarian regimes, with the North being the stricter, but North Korea also had far greater social equality and provided its population with opportunities for upward social mobility. Its political class was a seemingly simple group of idealists, skilled technocrats, and patriotic former guerrilla fighters. This contrasted highly favourably with the political class in South Korea, which was characterized by landlords and former pro-colonial collaborators, or, at best, patriotic intellectuals who had never picked up a gun.

From the perspective of the average North Korean, his or her elections did not seem as undemocratic as they would later reveal themselves to be, either. The parliament was seemingly highly representative of North Korean society at large, and the elections themselves – unlike in South Korea – were not accompanied by mass bloodletting and violence. Of course, the North Korean parliament in reality had no power whatsoever, but this fact was not known at the time.

The Soviet involvement with the new regime in Pyongyang was considerable. Soviet control far exceeded America’s rather moderate influence in the South. However, the vast majority of Koreans did not know this. One cannot help but wonder, then: had the extent of Soviet control been fully known in the late 1940s, would such a revelation have had a decisive impact on popular attitudes towards Pyongyang’s regime? It is, after all, difficult to imagine that in 1946 North Korean farmers would have rejected free land had they known that this land had been bestowed upon them by the secretive Soviet viceroy and not by this young, plump guerrilla field commander named Kim Il-sung.

It seems that Korean historians are caught in a false dichotomy when they argue about whether the 1945-50 period was a time of foreign occupation or popular revolution. In fact, it was both. Irrespective of the Soviet advisors, who discreetly but firmly controlled developments, the major ideas resonated well with the majority of North Korean people and provided the language of the revolution. The Kim Il-sung regime of the late 1940s might have been a dependent or even a puppet one, but this does not necessarily mean that it was unpopular. Of course, its popularity was to a large extent based on naive expectations and illusions, but it was quite real nonetheless.

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