Class struggle in North Korea

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” 

– Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

And yet, no place is quite so perfect a laboratory for Marx’s ideas of class struggle and alienation as the state that some neo-Marxists claim as a paradise of socialism, even as others wishfully declare that capitalism is breaking out there. Both views are wrong, of course. North Korea hasn’t been socialist for a long time. Its officials are accomplished profiteers and money launderers. It practices economic totalitarianism because that serves its greater goal of political totalitarianism. One form of economic totalitarianism is as good as the next:

Recent reports suggest that the consumption gap is widening in Pyongyang, increasing tension between North Korean residents and the regime. According to sources inside the country, the newly affluent middle class, known as the donju, are fueling the trend by providing premium high quality products to wealthy customers while offering sub-standard items to ordinary citizens.

“Pyongyang, the heart of the revolution, is becoming a place of severe income disparity – even more so than in a capitalist state. This is because the privileged classes are in control of the Pyongyang Department Store [No.1], the General Markets, and the trading infrastructure,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on February 27. [Daily NK]

What the report really describes is state capitalism, or crony capitalism, in which most Pyongyang residents rely for their needs on markets that are rigged by a predatory oligarchy that profits from its political connections, not its merits or talents. Party officials, their wives, and their relatives have used those connections to seize control of state stores, markets, and the trade in the goods that fill them. They have a de facto monopoly that excludes all but the highest rungs of North Korea’s political caste system:
What this has resulted in is a situation in which all the prosperous individuals are either direct relatives of officials or those who donate significant loyalty funds to government departments. Having absolute power over trading infrastructure, the donju have taken control of the market in Pyongyang with the authority to import foreign goods freely, and price them however they wish.
Any poli-sci professor at Berkeley could have told you the inevitable outcome of that:
As a result, many residents are feeling alienated from the benefits of marketization, and complaints against the regime are rising. In addition, criticisms are increasingly targeting the wealthy class who are openly squandering their money while maintaining their wealth through the political control of enterprise assets.
Consequently, the report says, “the majority of” Pyongyang residents have come to detest the donju and their conspicuous consumption.
Some of the more opinionated residents are saying that, ‘They (the cadres and donju) should be bumped off first if a war breaks out,'” a source in Pyongyang added.
Marx may or may not have said that (though Douglas Adams said something very much like it). Incidentally, North Korean defectors have told me that “when the war comes” is code talk for revolution. This is the natural result of Kim Jong-un’s policy of enriching the party elites while keeping everyone else just hungry enough to control them efficiently and enslave them profitably. Is there some law against the CIA sowing Marxist agitprop? It is malpractice that our own government’s broadcasts and information operations fail to exploit the timeless and universal appeal of class struggle, given the legitimacy of its basis in the capital of such a dangerous enemy.


  1. Rat race, dog eat dog DPRK style. China cares only if it effects them. How about a 10 year to 11 year conscription: it is the DPRK man’s life. Defectors and escapees – 70% of them are women (National Geographic).
    And some Massachusetts piss-ant goes to Pyongyang then studies Chemistry in India, all to serve the regime.

  2. Class warfare: the Vietnamese ‘prostitute/working girl/whore’ who murdered Kim Jong-Nam in Malaysia. Her father has one leg, he lost it in Vietnam war. Twenty- Seven Republic of Korea (South Koreans) unfriended her on Facebook. Malaysia released the North Korean chemist with no job (named RI) to the DPRK diplomats for deportation. The DPRK is a super predator. They abuse women, friends and other Asians ; communist or not.

  3. Do you have any evidence for that or are you just saying nasty stuff about her? I’d say being an assassin is bad enough. Stick to what you can prove.

  4. “Her father lost part of his leg fighting for the North in Vietnam war. Vietnamese authorities had been in touch since the arrest,he said. … said Doan Van Thanh, 63, who works as a security guard in a local market.”
    Baynes Chris; Tojtevin, Mathew. 22 February 2017 “Woman arrested over assassination of Kim Jong Un’s brother ‘was contestant on Vietnamese Pop Idol show'”
    “Joseph Doan confirms that his sister was Doan Thi Huong and she was born in Nam Ding province, north of Hanoi. … Respected AP news source reported his 18 year old neice Dinh Thi Quyen confirmed that Quyen posted to Facebook under the name ‘Ruby Ruby’. Her last post was Feb 11th from Kampeng Besut, Malaysia”
    Lion, Patrick. “LOL assassin suspected of killing Kim Jong UN’s brother is my sister claims Vietnamese man”. Feb 19, 2017. Mirror Online.

  5. “…A South Korean police official confirmed she visited South Korean holiday destination of Jeju Island for four days and where looking in what she may have been doing there, but declined to provide further details. Of 65 friends on ‘Ruby Ruby’ Facebook page, 27 have Korean names. Fifty-six of friends are men….Most photographs in accounts of Huong attending parties, in hotel rooms, or portraits. In many she blew kisses to the camera.”,
    ” ‘I want to sleep more, but by your side’, the post reads above a picture of her, eyes closed and wrapped up in bed….Huong was described by (Malay) police as “an entertainment outlet employee”, but did not give details of where she had been employed or what her immigration status was….pictures of boarding pass to Hanoi although most of her relatives believed she worked in Hanoi…”, Ibid, Baynes; Tostevin, 22 Feb 2017, Mirror Online.

  6. This is an interesting post compared to the recent one quoting B.R. Myers. The one that asserted NK has a decent shot at victory over South Korea by using its nuclear weapons program to force some sort of “confederation.” So it would seem to be a race between confederation and internal collapse. But even if confederation is achieved, I wonder, could this internal class warfare prevent NK from exploiting it the way it wants to?

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