Sino-NK 2013 Rewind: The Byungjin Line and North Korea in an Era of Songun Politics

By | December 13, 2013 | No Comments


“Forward Korea, Forward (in the direction of) Byungjin” reads the text to the KCTV video for the Byjungjin line on YouTube. | Image: Uriminzokkiri YouTube Channel

While the execution of Jang Sung-taek certainly came as an unexpected surprise to commentators, analysts, and the public, North Korean politics often offers up the unexpected. Back in the rhetorical heat and nuclear fury of spring 2013, the Byungjin line arrived, seemingly a fully formed theoretical paradigm shift, similarly entirely unannounced.

At Sino-NK we have spent the year considering the impact, structure and potential of Byungjin. Our Editor-in-Chief has delved into the historical narratives, seeking Byungjin’s precursors and shadows and there has been extensive analysis of other, developmental aspects of Byungjin’s manifestation. Only last week, the first in this Sino-NK Rewind series examined Byungjin’s connective activation between North Korea’s politics of charisma and the peripheral realm of grasses and land reclamation .

Peter Ward of Korea University and New Focus International, here in the second of this weeks’ Sino-NK 2013 Rewind pieces addressing politics and the political in 2013, analytically and literally “rewinds” to Byungjin’s beginning. Ward’s piece investigates and analyzes the Byungjin Line’s initial and formative appearance, structure and content as present within KCNA’s April 2013 publication “Nuke and Peace” [혁과 평화]. Where Byungjin goes next, or whether it continues at all in 2014, will be for future consideration. But perhaps Ward manages to crystallize its form ahead of potential or possible diminution as both a principle born out of practicality, and ultimately a North Korean political manifestation generated by its distinct, local and now almost entirely peculiar engagement with the global past and present. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Sino-NK 2013 Rewind: The Byungjin Line and North Korea in an Era of Songun Politics

by Peter Ward

As part of Sino-NK’s look back on the year 2013, this essay on ideology and politics in North Korea focuses specifically on “Nuke and Peace” [혁과 평화], a two-part editorial that appeared in the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in April of this year (part 1 and part 2). The editorial represents an authoritative on North Korea’s nuclear politics and how state ideology relates to it.

In this article, ideology is taken to be a legitimating set of ideas—or discourse—that forms a view of the world that justifies the existence and actions of a particular actor and actions. Of course, ideology can be many things and is often thought of as being a coherent worldview and also a guide to action. In this article, however, North Korean ideology will be discussed in relation to regime legitimation, that is: the foundation upon which the regime acts.

Released on Korean Central News Agency on the April 26, “Nuke and Peace” represents both a tour de force of North Korea’s characteristic rhetorical belligerence and a firm statement of ideology. The rather mangled translation (part 1 and part 2) of the KCNA article, which originally appeared in Rodong Sinmun—the official newspaper of the Korean Workers’ Party—does not obscure the underlying message of the piece: North Korea is a nuclear state and demands to be recognized as such by the international community.

North Korea explains its need for nuclear weapons with reference to the world system of international relations. This is a world dominated by “U.S. imperialism” that “despite all kinds of splendid sermons and advertisements about freedom, equality, growth and civilization” is defined and constituted by “the logic of strength, order of strength and rule of strength by the U.S. imperialists.”

This logic itself seems relatively coherent and realistic from the standpoint of North Korea’s people. We should not forget that President Clinton considered a strike on Pyongyang, and that some 28,500 US troops remain on the Korean peninsula—the threat of the latter is frequently discussed in North Korean propaganda. As it is put in the text,

“One should not talk about love for peace without building strength.”

Anti-Americanism is an ideological pillar of the regime, and continues to be used as a justification of the country’s militarism and its need for a permanent war-footing—its military-first politics (선군정치). It is important to remember that the latter finds its roots in the militarization of the country that began in the 1960s, as the Vietnam War got underway.

In many regards, the text reads like it could have been written by Machiavelli himself:

“Korean people have never led a peaceful life amid the vortex of endless threats of war… the nation keeps its dignity or submits to others and whether it survives or ruins.”

The North Korean government clearly is attempting to make use of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to justify having nuclear weapons. However, it is also trying to position itself as a leader of smaller nations, a group that faces the threat of the “big powers.” This is a role that North Korea’s leadership has sought for itself since the 1960s as part of the Non-aligned Movement[1], and still seems to remain important to the North Korean state’s self-image at home.

It is through these  ideological staples–weapons and national defense, autonomy and socialism–that the North Korean state seeks to legitimize itself as the true representative of the Korean people. In a striking passage, the writers of the piece borrow a popular left-wing nationalist refrain one can see in many South Korean history books:

It is shame for south Korea to boast of itself ranking among world’s economically advanced nations with the help of fund and technology provided by the U.S. with an aim to use it as a springboard for the continental domination. What is all the more irony is the disgusting behavior of the south Korean puppet forces trying to admonish the DPRK, unbecoming for their inferior position in the aspect of possession of satellite and nukes, symbol of a country’s might in the world arena.

The logic is unmistakable: As the DPRK works with the peoples of the world and their states to struggle with US imperialism, the ROK is a willing participant in perpetuating its own neo-colonial dependence and spreading such dependence across the Asian continent. North Korea’s nuclear weapons confer upon Pyongyang an autonomy  (자주성) and dignity (존엄성) that the South has long since lost. The North seeks to use nuclear weapons to bring peace and liberation.

It is this curious admixture of socialism, militarism, nationalism, and third-worldism (the belief in helping third-world based socialist struggles for national autonomy) that makes up the contemporary North Korean worldview—and very much has since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s.

[1] On this see: Dae-Sook Suh, Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader (Columbia University Press, New York: 1988), esp. 260-68.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.