This is the second part of a two-part series examining the similarities – and differences – between North Korea and the superpower which created it. You can read part one here.
The major ideological difference between the DPRK and the USSR is North Korea’s de facto rejection of a concept of communism. In the Soviet Union, “communism” meant the future utopia the country officially strived to build; it was the justification of its very existence. In North Korea, the very word “communism” is no longer mentioned and the state simply states that they need to protect status quo under the leadership of the Brilliant Marshal.
As for personality cult, this is probably the most prominent trait of North Korea: after 1967, the personality cult in the DPRK became so intensive that even Stalin’s cult looks very moderate by comparison.
A portrait of the Leader on a special wall (nothing else is to be hanged there) in every house, a mandatory quote in almost every text, study of the Leader’s official biography from kindergarten as a special subject, an order to all people who have the same name as the Leader to have it changed: nothing of these existed in the USSR.
Freedom of movement
The USSR allowed for much greater freedom of movement: if, for example, a resident of Kiev wanted to visit Riga, he/she could have simply buy a train ticket and go. No “permission to enter the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic” was necessary. There were, of course, some restricted areas – like so-called “closed cities,” but the majority of the Soviet Union could be visited without any restrictions.
After 1967, the personality cult in the DPRK became so intensive that even Stalin’s cult looks very moderate by comparison
As for North Korea, one needs a permit even to visit a neighboring county and if one is to visit Pyongyang or a special city like Rason – a special permit which is not easy to obtain. One should mention that the system allows more freedom for residents of Pyongyang and areas adjacent to the border, but they also cannot visit the whole country without a permit, a system that was introduced in 1967.
The USSR was also more liberal in allowing its citizens to visit foreign countries. A Soviet citizen, especially a member of the Communist Party, could have hoped to visit another socialist country as a tourist and, for those who had connections, even a capitalist one. In the DPRK, however, only the top elite and the richest entrepreneurs can afford to travel abroad while not on a state duty or business. Bribes for passports and exit visas are still excruciatingly expensive.
Access to information
When it came to the information space, the difference between the USSR and the DPRK is as large as the USSR and modern Britain.
First, the main Soviet newspaper Pravda (even under Stalin) was by far more honest and interesting than Rodong Sinmun after 1967, and in the Brezhnev era, it contained arguments which could get a North Korean executed: criticism of small and middle bureaucrats, and even acknowledgments of occasional minor imperfections of the system.
In the Soviet Union, one could easily buy literature from other socialist nations. Polish books were especially popular, since the censorship in the People’s Republic of Poland was significantly weaker than in the USSR. Some people even read foreign literature translated into Polish.
In major Soviet cities, one could have bought newspapers published by Communist parties of capitalist nations, and, according to a special agreement with Britain, the United States and West Germany, three magazines: the British Angliya, the American Amerika and the West German Guten Tag were sold in the USSR; though these had no political content at all.
Soviet citizens could have learned a lot of interesting things from old books. The CPSU showed some concern about it, but they never attempted a full-scale crackdown. In North Korea, all old books are of restricted access: they were all purged from libraries short after 1967, as well as books published in the USSR and other communist countries.
There is literature on technical issues, some world classical literature is translated and printed, and sometimes modern novels are also allowed to be printed (for example, if the Leader liked a Japanese novel he read, he may allow it to be printed). That is all.
In big Soviet cities, one could have bought newspapers published by Communist parties of capitalist nations
Even official press in the USSR differed in style. In the 1960s, Soviet people very well knew the difference between the liberal magazine Novyj mir and the Stalinist Oktyabr. All North Korean newspapers are of one tone: they fiercely support the Leader and the party line.
Logically, North Korean culture could not have even tried to compete with the Soviet one. If the USSR sometimes produced masterpieces, which were well received even in the West, only under Kim Jong Il did North Korea come to have real paintings and good music. However, there are very few films made in the DPRK which are not of terrible quality and as for literature, well, the best way to use North Korean novels would probably to have them recycled, so the paper would not be wasted.
Prisons and camps
Readers might expect something truly horrible here, but I think we should begin by pointing out that North Korea is better that Stalin’s Soviet Union: the DPRK probably does not have Stalin-style completely random repression. Under Stalin, random people from the street were sentenced to forced labor or death. This is not so in North Korea – you have to commit some crime first.
However, when it comes to the definition of that crime, the Soviet Union, once again, looks pretty liberal in comparison. For example, according to the DPRK Penal code, merely listening to foreign radio is punishable by two years in a labor camp and if one listens to it five or more times, the sentence would be up to five years in a concentration camp.
If you tell a joke about the Leader, you’ll likely be sentenced to forced labor for life and if the Leader’s portrait falls from your hands and hits the ground, it is very possible that you would face a death sentence. Of course, the DPRK has a death penalty, which is widely applied (there was a short period, from 1947 to 1950, when the USSR did not have capital punishment).
There are very few films made in the DPRK which are not of terrible quality
As for ordinary, non-political crimes, the DPRK under Kim Il Sung was a very safe place. Criminal activity is also not approved by the state and as such was immediately crushed. Thus, even after the famine years, the situation is much better than one could have expected: everyone learned to fear, including those who could have become thugs and killers.
Although North Korean concentration camp system was created under the guidance of Pang Hak Se – a former Soviet Korean official of the Soviet secret police, it is quite different from Stalin’s Gulag.
Under Stalin, political and ordinary prisoners were held together. In the DPRK, they are kept separately and there are actually camps for ordinary prisoners, which look very similar to the Soviet ones. The camps for political prisoners evolved from settlements for people sentenced to exile and now these are among the darkest places on the planet.
Religion and the state
The USSR, a country of state atheism, was quite negative when it came to religious affairs, however, the degree of this negativity varied greatly. All in all, the more the Soviet Union considered itself a home for world proletariat destined to lead to the world revolution, the harsher life was for believers, priests, monks and mullahs. The more the Soviet leadership pressed the idea that the USSR was a successor of historical Russia with its traditions, the more liberties were granted to believers.
The DPRK was, and is, quite different. Unlike the USSR, the state ideology of the DPRK was never popular outside the country – because, amongst other things, the “Juche idea” has no meaningful content outside of the sentence “Man is master of all things.”
The USSR wanted to ultimately conquer the world, the DPRK wanted only to annex South Korea and failed to do so in early 1950s. In general, North Korea is a much more traditionalist state than the USSR, but its treatment of both traditional Korean beliefs and Christianity is very harsh.
The USSR, being a country of state atheism, was quite negative when it came to religious affairs, however, the degree of this negativity varied greatly
They did create a few organizations which were de jure supposed to unify all believers, but these are purely decorative and exist solely for propaganda for foreign audiences. When it came to real believers, the policy was simple: this man is a Buddhist? Send him to concentration camp. This woman is a Christian? Send her to concentration camp. What, you say, she dared to spread the Bible around? Have her shot then.
However, from the times of Roman Empire, Christianity had shown itself to be able to survive under state repression, and North Korea has a small Christian underground which cautiously goes on with their missionary work.
Through the mirror, darkly
One could easily imagine how Soviet and North Korean people felt about each other. For those Soviet citizens who were interested in life abroad, North Korea looked like a tragicomical parody of their own country. The parody was very funny – up to the moment one understood that this is the real place, not one created by authors of Pyongyang’s propaganda magazines.
For North Koreans, the USSR was what Poland was to the USSR: a country ruled by communists, but which was more free, more interesting, richer and frankly speaking, better. Thus, the Soviet Union was and is widely liked in North Korea – and to a certain extent this positive view is projected onto modern Russia as well.
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Featured Image: 1980s by payalnic on 2009-01-06 18:35:09