In Background, Book reviews, North Korea, Stephen Gowans

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“If Eastern Marxism is the use of patriotism, the military, and state-directed economic development to achieve and defend emancipatory goals, then the DPRK is, in practice, a quintessentially Eastern Marxist state.”

By Stephen Gowans

Published on WHat’s Left, Apr 3, 2021

On the eve of the First World War, and for a good many years thereafter, the bulk of humanity was in the thrall of a handful of great powers: Britain, France, Russia, and the rising powers of the United States, Japan, and Germany. These self-declared chosen nations and soi-disant models for humanity, enjoyed unexampled prosperity as the product of their ruthless despoliation of nine-tenths of humanity, made possible by their military and industrial supremacy.

In East Asia, the French raped Indochina; the British plundered Borneo, Malaya, Siam, and Hong Kong; Japan held Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria in colonial subjection; the United States colonized the Philippines and Guam; the Netherlands looted Indonesia; the Portuguese enslaved Macau and East Timor; and China, as Sun Yat-sen remarked, was exploited by everyone.

The First World War—the Weltkrieg, or World War, as the Germans called it—marked the beginning of the end of the Columbian period, that era marked by the plunder of the world by Europe and its offshoots beginning with the voyages of Columbus to the Americas at the end of the fifteenth century and continuing through today. The 500-year-plus domination of Asia, Africa, and Latin America by the West has been aptly called “The 500 Year Reich,” an allusion to the identity of the practices used by the Nazis with those of their predecessors and contemporaries, not only by Germany, but also by the other ‘model nations’ as well. These practices comprised the methodology of colonialism. Deployed by Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, the United States, Italy, and Japan outside Europe, they became the paradigm for the Nazis, whose great crime in the eyes of their rivals was that, as Sven Lindqvist put it, they did in the heart of Europe what had theretofore only been done in the hearts of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Racism, genocide, dispossession, and colonial subjugation outside of the metropole were acceptable in the capitals of Western Europe and North America, deemed necessary and inevitable, even extolled, but became great iniquities only when the Nazis inflicted them upon Europe.

Today, nearly half of the world’s wealth is controlled by the 10 percent the population that makes up the G7 countries, while the other half is shared by the remaining nine-tenths. The chasm dividing the East from the West has considerably narrowed with the Communist Party-orchestrated rise of China, a phenomenon ultimately traceable to what Domenico Losurdo argued was the signal event of the Weltkrieg.

The World War of 1914-1918 was many things, but among these it was “a war between two groups of the imperialist bourgeoisie for the division of the world, for the division of the booty, and for the plunder and strangulation of small and weak nations,” as Lenin put it. Lenin called for unity among the workers of the “model” nations, to emancipate, not only their labor from its exploitation by the bourgeoisie, but also to liberate their bodies from the war of industrial extermination the bourgeoisie had visited upon them. At the same time, the Bolshevik leader called for unity between the workers of the West and the oppressed peoples of India, China, Korea, Indochina, and elsewhere, against their common oppressor, the metropolitan bourgeoisie.  Broadening the compass of Marxism, the Bolsheviks extended Marx’s and Engel’s 1848 battle cry “Workers of the world unite!” to “Workers of the world and oppressed peoples, unite!”

This widening orientation, along with the Bolsheviks’ success in using the state and patriotism to mobilize the Russian population against the intervention of the “model nations” in Russia’s Civil War of 1919–21, inspired revolutionary nationalists like Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Kim Il Sung, inaugurating a movement to end the 500-year Reich.

The World War, and the Bolshevik Revolution that sprang from its womb, had generally positive effects in the East. The toll of the war weakened the grip of the exploiting nations upon the peoples they exploited, while the Bolshevik example precipitated the anti-colonial revolution in the East. An Eastern Marxism developed, responsive to the needs of colonial peoples to overcome their dependency and achieve political and economic sovereignty.  Revolutionary nationalists would make good use of patriotism, the state, and industry to achieve political sovereignty and economic independence, as well as to protect dearly bought gains from the unceasing efforts of the imperialist Leviathans to reverse them.

By contrast, the Weltkrieg was a catastrophe in the West, and Western Marxism developed to reflect the experience of the war in Europe. Whereas the revolutionary nationalists of the East harnessed patriotism to the project of national liberation, Marxists in the West eschewed national devotion as a bourgeois subterfuge used to divide the proletariat along national lines. In the East, Marxists saw violence as a means of liberation and the military as an instrument for defending national revolutionary gains. In the West, the horrors of the war envenomed Marxists to violence and the military. Marxists of the Orient viewed the state as the means to organize economic development and as an instrument of repression to be ruthlessly deployed in the defense of revolutionary nationalist gains. Marxists of the Occident viewed the state with suspicion, an engine of class oppression, that had been used against them.

Each form of Marxism represented a set of proposed solutions to the problems of emancipation present at a specific time and place. In the East, the germane question concerned how people under colonial and semi-colonial domination could achieve political and economic sovereignty and safeguard their achievements once gained. In the West, the relevant question revolved around how to win political power to liberate industry from the control of shareholders and financiers and vest it in the hands of the proletariat.

Whether intentional or not, A.B. Abrams’ Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power, examines the relationship between North Korea and the West from an Eastern Marxist perspective. Without using the idiom, Abrams presents the DPRK as a quintessential Eastern Marxist state. Korean patriotism, strong central authority, military preparedness, self-reliance, and the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are identified as sources of North Korea’s resilience in the face of Washington’s 73-year project to bring about “the end of North Korea”, as John Bolton once described Washington’s policy aim. These practices are presented as the bases for the DPRK’s success in achieving the revolutionary nationalist goals that lie at the center of the Eastern Marxist project.

Abrams’ history of the DPRK-US relationship begins with the arrival of US forces in Korea in 1945, after Koreans had declared a Korean People’s Republic, with which the US military government immediately went to war. Abrams devotes considerable attention to the Korean War, known as the Great Fatherland Liberation War in North Korea (memorializing the success of the combined Korean and Chinese forces in evicting the US invaders from territory administered by the DPRK), and the War to Resist America and Aid Korea, in China. Nearly half of the tome, weighing in at 675 pages, covers events since 1990, and a substantial part deals with recent events.

Abrams’ history is not archival; he uncovers no new facts. Instead, it is perspectival, offering a fresh take on what the archives have already revealed—or, what seems like a fresh take to those, like myself, who are familiar with an historiography that is congenial to the Western Marxist perspective. To illustrate, Abrams makes an observation and poses a question that, at best, are quickly passed over in Western  accounts, if broached at all, but within the framework of Eastern Marxism, are critical. The observation is this: Of small countries that have liberated themselves from the iron-grip of colonialism, only North Korea, a country of a mere 24 million, has survived the aggressions of US imperialism, stood unbowed before relentless military pressure, withstood the burdens of sanctions, and developed its military strength to a high degree sufficient to take a US war on the East Asian state off the table. To be sure, in the realm of post-colonial resistance to US imperialism, Cuban resilience also stands out, but unlike the DPRK, Havana cannot stay the hand of US military aggression with a retaliatory strike capability.

Indeed, there is a lengthy list of states that have succumbed to US efforts to reverse the tide of national liberation. Egypt betrayed the Arab nationalist cause; the Soviet Union surrendered; Ba’athist Iraq was outmaneuvered; Gaddafi fell prey to the West’s blandishments and left his country defenseless; Ba’athist Syria has been partitioned among the United States, the Turks, the Israelis, Al Qaeda, and Kurd separatists; Iran’s economy is squeezed by a US blockade; and Venezuela is bedeviled by the twin demons of low oil prices and US sanctions. “Yugoslavia, Haiti, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Syria and others were all much softer targets,” writes Abrams.

“The KPA [Korean People’s Army] boasted the most sophisticated defense industry, densest air defense network, best trained soldiers, hardest fortifications, and largest submarine force and special forces of these states. Of America’s potential targets, Korean air, artillery, tank and ballistic missile forces were second only to those of China.”

North Korea’s borders are secure; it has a manufacturing economy that produces many of its own goods; it makes its own tanks, artillery, and submarines (including those capable of launching ballistic missiles), manufacturers MiG-29s domestically under license, and produces some of the world’s most advanced missiles. Pyongyang exports military gear to Cuba, Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, and has provided special forces training to its allies. Its pilots flew missions on behalf of Arab nationalist forces in the 1967 Six Day War, the 1973 October War, and against US forces in the Vietnam War.  Far from being a failed state and the impoverished, bizarre,  laughing-stock of US propaganda, North Korea, in point of fact, is the most accomplished of the small post-colonial states. This gives rise to the central question that lies at the heart of Abrams’ book. How has Pyongyang managed to pull off this extraordinary feat?

“The successes of North Korea’s defense sector in developing high end missile technologies, and having done so in such a short time, with a very limited budget, totally contradicted predominant Western perceptions of the state as corrupt, inept, and backward. …[How] could the failed ‘Kim Regime’ have developed such technologies?”

In 1950, the DPRK fielded an army of soldiers equipped with rifles against a nuclear-armed military whose brutality knew few limits. In a footnote, Abrams observes: “It is estimated that the number of civilians killed by the IDF [Israeli military] in more than 70 years of frequent wars [is] less than the US-led coalition killed in an average week of war in Korea.”

Since the US  war of mass extermination against the DPRK—at a minimum, 20 percent of the country’s population was killed by US and allied marauders from 1950 to 1953—the United States has continued to do everything in its power to enfeeble North Korea. It has deployed battlefield nuclear weapons to the peninsula; threatened the DPRK repeatedly with nuclear annihilation; and imposed the world’s longest lasting, and by now, most comprehensive, sanctions regime. Despite facing Himalayan obstacles, North Korea has advanced both economically and militarily. Its economy is stronger than ever, and it has replaced rifles with nuclear-tipped ICBMs as its principal means of self-defense. This represents a radical break from the Columbian era, when Europe and its offshoots felt free to wage war on the peoples it sought to conquer, knowing their victims were incapable of retaliating. No more will the DPRK face a nuclear-armed United States with rifles alone.

In Abrams’ view, the DPRK’s successful test launch in 2017 of an ICBM capable of striking the US mainland…

“represented the first time a medium or small state was able to effectively deter a superpower at such a peer level without need for support from a nuclear umbrella of a superpower sponsor of its own. In this respect North Korea’s achievement in 2017 was historically unprecedented, and was referred to by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Commander of the US Strategic Command John Kyten as having ‘changed the entire structure of the world.’”

This radical change, construed as ominous by Kyten, is assessed as a welcome development by Abrams—one which heralds peace and stability in East Asia.

“Considering the rationales widely expressed for American military action against the DPRK [and] the apparent willingness [of the United States] to bring death and destruction to supposedly allied Northeastern Asian states [in pursuit of the US foreign policy goal of bringing about the debellation of the DPRK] there is a strong argument that North Korea’s development of a viable nuclear deterrent with an intercontinental range is strongly in the interests not just of its own population—but of peace and stability in the entire region. Had the US and its Western allies been free to initiate a war, South Korea and Japan would have been devastated alongside North Korea and very likely parts of China and Russia, as well. By constraining America’s ability to start a war in East Asia through introduction of mutual vulnerability, North Korea’s deterrence program has ensured that extra-regional actors cannot initiate a regional war by ensuring that they too could be targeted should hostilities break out.”

What accounts for North Korea’s success?  Abrams traces the DPRK’s achievements to:

“The Korean nationalist state’s rooting in both Korean history and culture, its ‘culture of resistance’ built on the potent historical memory of subjugation, and its firm commitment to the centrally organized party system…These often overlooked factors do much to explain its unique ability to sustain a conflict under immense pressure for so long.”

Immovable Object argues that Washington’s hostility to North Korea originates, not in the East Asian state’s  proliferation activities, alleged human rights abuses, or mislabelled ‘provocations’ (North Korea doesn’t initiate provocations, but it does respond to them), but in Pyongyang’s embodiment of the fundamental values of the UN Charter—values which contradict Washington’s arrogation of world “leadership” (read dictatorship).

“North Korea’s existence is considered unacceptable [to Washington] because it refuses to submit to the imposition of Western leadership and become part of the Western-led order. For Pyongyang, the Western position is considered unacceptable because it is contrary to states’ right to self-defense as contravening international law and the UN Charter. The Western Bloc are so often referred to as ‘the imperialists’ in Korean rhetoric because they seek to impose their values, their ideologies, their economic and political systems and above all their soldiers and governance—whether direct or indirect—on the Korean people.”

In Abrams’ view, the mutual hostility of the United States and DPRK springs from a conflict between their antithetical Weltanschauungs. This isn’t…

“…a clash of capitalist and socialist ideologies, but rather of nations’ perceptions of the nature of international relations, world order and states’ rights to self-determination. The DPRK, like other East Asian states which won their independence in the aftermath of the Second World War, expressed a strong belief in global and regional orders comprised of nation states equal in their rights to their sovereignty, including self-defense and self-determination and prohibiting forced external interference into their domestic affairs. This is the same order enshrined in the United Nations Charter.”

While I agree to a point, I would argue that Washington is not opposed to Pyongyang’s embodying the UN Charter simply because it doesn’t like the UN Charter,  but that it dislikes the UN Charter for legitimizing the right of countries to pursue their own economic development outside of a system that privileges Wall Street’s interests.  This view is summarized in the words of Norman Bethune, a Canadian whose life anticipated that of Che Guevara: physician, communist, internationalist, martyr. Bethune died while serving with the Eight Route Army in China. He wrote: “Money, like an insatiable Moloch, demands its interest, its return, and will stop at nothing, not even the murder of millions, to satisfy its greed. Behind the army stands the militarists. Behind the militarists stands finance capital.” To which can be added: Behind finance capital stands a contempt for the UN Charter and any country that, exercising its Charter-defined right to independent economic development, denies the insatiable Wall Street Moloch its interest.

Abrams’ compares South Korea’s Westernized society, with its strong US cultural influences, to North Korea’s non-Westernized society, with its strong indigenous influences.

“[South] Korean society [values] US education ties more than any others—with the majority of professors at leading universities holding degrees from the US … Similar trends can be observed among the country’s political elite. From 1948-1968 much of the [South] Korean leadership boasted higher education in Japan, which, as the previous imperial power occupying Korea, had heavily influenced the Korean elite through education. This Japanese influence would gradually recede to be replaced by an American one, and from 1968 to 2001 71% of ministers in the ROK held degrees from the United States. This fosters not only positive views towards and close ties with the new hegemon, as it was intended to do towards Japan beforehand, but also ensures American thought will continue to have a major influence over scholarship and political discourse in the country.”

The contrast with North Korea is sharp.

“North Korea lacks the colonial-era foundations for Western soft influence and an idealization of the West common to many countries formerly under American or European rule. North Koreans were never second class citizens in their own country, which combined with a lack of Western soft influence and strongly nationalist ‘Korea-first’ identity, perpetuated through media and education, means its population are not moved to remake themselves in the image of or to idolize the West—esthetically or otherwise. The extent of Western influence in South Korea and other Asian client states, and the depths to which it has permeated, shows the alternative fate for the Korean population to that of resistance under the DPRK—namely life under a system which attributes the greatest value not to one’s own nation, culture and thought, but instead under one which is heavily influenced by and idolizes the Western hegemon.”

One important aspect of Abrams’ book is its delineation of North Korea’s foreign relations and the vital support it provides to other small- and medium-sized states that are on a congeneric path of development independent of US domination and control. This is a neglected area. In Western propaganda, North Korea is portrayed as a ‘hermit kingdom’, hermetically sealed and separated by choice from the family of nations. While it is undoubtedly a US aim to isolate North Korea, and block its commerce with other countries, the aim is not reality. Readers might be surprised to discover that the DPRK has long been engaged in aiding the struggles of other peoples to free themselves  from the 500-year Reich. I will highlight two: Syria and Hezbollah, though Abrams also covers DPRK engagements with Vietnam, Iran, Libya, and southern Africa.

“Of all America’s adversaries,” notes Abrams, “it is the Syrian Arab Republic which has relied most heavily on North Korean support in the face of Western and allied military and economic pressure.” From 1980 to 2010 the KPA “bolstered Syria’s defenses with a permanent stationing of forces including pilots, tank operators, missile technicians, and officers who trained much of the country’s military.” North Korean engineers “developed a specialized class of missile specifically for Syria’s defense needs, known as the Scud-ER,” and the East Asian state furnished Damascus with nuclear technologies to construct a reactor based on the DPRK’s Yongbyon plutonium reactor. The Syrian reactor was destroyed by Israel in 2007.

“Without continued Korean assistance Syria’s deterrent capabilities likely would have eroded into obsolescence in the post-Soviet era,” writes Abrams, “leaving the state highly vulnerable. Korean actions thus served to severely constrain Western and allied freedom of military action against a leading regional adversary.”

The resurgence of the Islamist war on the secular Arab nationalist state in 2011 led to stepped up North Korean aid.

“Notably, in 2015, the Korean People’s Army reportedly set up a command and control logistic assistance center to support the Syrian war effort, with Korean officers deployed to multiple fronts, including the frontlines of engagement against jihadist forces in Aleppo. A number of Western sources have meanwhile claimed regarding the KPA role on a second front in 2013: ‘Arab-speaking North Korean military advisors were integral to the operational planning of the surprise attack and artillery campaign during the battle for Qusair. According [to one report] KPA pilots were operating Syrian aircraft against jihadist forces. Considering the significant shortages of trained pilots Syria has endured since the mid-1990s, this report has some plausibility. Other reports … indicate that North Korea dispatched two special forces units … to Syria to engage jihadist forces, and that these units proved ‘fatally’ dangerous on the battlefield.”

Notably, Syria established a park in 2015 to honor the founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il Sung. The park is adjacent to a street in Damascus named after the Korean leader.

The DPRK’s military aid to Hezbollah has also been extensive. Abrams notes that “much of Hezbollah’s central leadership, including current Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, Security and Intelligence chief Ibrahim Akil and head of counter-espionage operations Mustapha Badreddine, were trained” in North Korea.

Hezbollah’s military wing is “effectively a smaller reproduction of the Korean People’s Army.”

“Some indications of the extent of defense cooperation between the two parties were highlighted in the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War—a conflict in which the militia’s means of waging war indicated strong Korean influence. Israeli experts described Hezbollah’s war effort as ‘a defensive guerilla force organized along North Korean lines,’ concluding ‘all the underground facilities [Hezbollah’s], including arms dumps, food stocks, dispensaries for the wounded, were put in place primarily in 2003-2004 under the supervision of North Korean instructors.’ Other intelligence sources indicated that the Korean People’s Army had a military presence on the ground, concluding that Hezbollah was ‘believed to be benefiting from assistance provided by North Korean advisors.’ A further decisive factor was Hezbollah’s high degree of discipline and effective command and control…These factors were reportedly strongly focused on by the KPA when training Hezbollah’s special forces and officer corps.”

Abrams’ attributes Hezbollah’s success in defeating the Israeli military in 2006—the first time Israel had been vanquished in war—to the assistance it received from Pyongyang.

“Had Hezbollah lacked the tunnel networks, intelligence network, high level training, or missile assets provided by the DPRK, it is highly likely that it would have faced a swift and outright defeat in the summer of 2006 as the Israeli government had initially predicted. The tunnel and bunker network in particular, alongside the communications network and fortified armouries, were all reportedly built by Korean Mining Development Trading Corporation.”

Abrams’ chapter on North Korean ideology is particularly valuable for Westerners, for whom North Korean thinking may seem to be opaque, and may to Marxists appear to be un-Marxist. The renowned Korean scholar Bruce Cumings was once asked: “How many liberal democrats are there in North Korea?”  He replied: “As many as there are followers of Confucius in the United States.” Many Westerners fail to understand the DPRK because they view it from the lens of Western culture and fail to grasp the unique set of circumstances that created the Korean experience.

Abrams’ writes:

“From its formation North Korea’s ideology has been influenced by and has assimilated parts of the country’s traditional culture, Confucianism in particular, in a way that few if any other ideologies have in communist states. Premier Kim Il Sung’s reformism Juche speech in December 28, 1955, which outlined the country’s future ideological position … notably stressed the need to draw inspiration from national culture, history and traditions... While no mention was made of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao or even Stalin, the Korean leader warned against the ‘negation of Korean’ history with ‘foreign ideas,’ emphasizing above all else the importance of a Korean national identity. While the Stalinist economic model, which had rapidly industrialized the Soviet Union, would be largely adopted, this would be interpreted and applied in a way that was compatible with Korea’s own culture. As the Korean leader envisioned, the ‘essence’ and ‘principles’ of communist ideology would be ‘creatively applied’ in line with the needs of the Korean nation—the former would bend to the latter rather than vice-versa. He thus strongly criticized ‘dogmatism and formalism’ in ideological work and advised: ‘There can be no set principle that we must follow the Soviet fashion. Some advocate the Soviet way and others the Chinese but is it not high time to work out our own?’”

The coincidence of North Korea’s ‘Stalinist’ economic model with the ability of the country’s economy to weather the fierce storms of US hostility, raises two questions: Can the same model be exported to other countries to produce the same success? What could North Korea achieve without the unceasing efforts of the United States to bring about its destruction? While Abrams doesn’t address these questions, elsewhere he has written:

"If the country were free to trade and export its goods, capitalizing on advantages including a weak currency and a highly educated and skilled workforce and established technological and industrial bases, annual growth rates several times higher and likely significantly over 10% would be expected.”

Syria’s ambassador to North Korea in 2017, Tammam Sulaiman, intoned, “I visited many other countries. I look at this country I see that … they do miracles here, really. This country, after the sanctions and with the skills that they have, they are making miracles.” Pausing he asked, “What if they were not under sanctions? They would do even more.”

According to one view, communism is the politics of liberation. Indeed, communists have always been involved in, if not in the van of, the world’s greatest emancipatory struggles. “The socialist revolution is by no means a single battle,” Lenin wrote in his essay “The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination.” Instead, it is “a whole series of battles around all problems of economic and democratic reforms” including “equal rights for women” and—importantly from the perspective of people trying to free themselves from colonial subjugation— “self-determination.” Socialism “would remain an idle phrase,” Lenin insisted, “if it were not linked up with a revolutionary approach to all the questions of democracy, including the national question,” by which he meant the right of peoples, including Koreans, to exercise sovereignty over their own affairs, rather than being dominated by imperialist masters.  Lenin envisaged what he termed “a truly democratic, truly internationalist” order, in which each nation is free to set its own course, and freely join with other states in relationships of mutual benefit. That, significantly, is the vision of the DPRK.

If Eastern Marxism is the use of patriotism, the military, and state-directed economic development to achieve and defend emancipatory goals, then the DPRK is, in practice, a quintessentially Eastern Marxist state. It is, moreover, a successful one, whose emulation by similar states in similar circumstances inspired by similar goals could significantly advance the world’s struggle to achieve a complete victory over the 500-year-plus Reich.


Immovable Object is published by Clarity Press.

Stephen Gowans is the author of Patriots, Traitors, and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, and Washington’s Long War on Syria, both published by Baraka Books.


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