Academic journal article North Korean Review

Historical Changes in North Korean Nationalism

Academic journal article North Korean Review

Historical Changes in North Korean Nationalism

Article excerpt


In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels emphasized the importance of "proletarian internationalism," calling for the unity of the workers of the world. However, contrary to their socialist ideals, socialism as it existed faced the obstacles of extant nationalism in addition to the challenge of capitalist imperialism. For Marxists, the task of class liberation contradicted that of national liberation. The so-called "socialist patriotism" of Lenin and Stalin developed this contradiction between socialist theory and the reality of national allegiances. North Korea was one of the socialist countries situated in this contradictory reality.

North Korea has faced various domestic and international crises and difficulties since the Korean War (1950-1953). It fought with the United States during the Korean War, experienced the Sino-Soviet dispute and their interference, and created a military tension with the United States and South Korea. Contradictory to various alleged predictions, it did not collapse in spite of the breakdown of Soviet communism, the economic difficulties from a widespread shortage of food, and the international political conflict of the recent nuclear issue.

What is the essential force in North Korea's survival? It is evident that historically, nationalism has been a powerful ideological force for the survival of North Korea. In North Korea, it was a durable and resilient form of support in every momentous historic phase, such as the anti-colonial movement, the war-making social mobilization for national reunification, the emergence of the juche (selfreliance) ideology and "socialism in our style," along with the food crisis and an "arduous march." After over half a century of national division, today, North Korean nationalism should be viewed in a long-term historical context by incorporating the past with the present and looking back to the past to see the present, as Wada Haruki (2002, p. 23) suggested. Until now, few studies have touched upon the historical change of North Korean nationalism, and most of those that did have been brief treatments of it or short-term, period-based approaches. Thus, this paper aims to examine the historical change in North Korean nationalism, longitudinally, in time order following the periods of the 1930s-1945, 1945-1953, 1954-1970s, and 1980s- 1990s to the present. The main objective of this paper is to offer an explanation of how this North Korean nationalism was created, how it was transformed in the historical long-term, and more importantly, how this historical change of nationalism can be understood sociologically in terms of the theories of nation and nationalism. From this perspective, this paper will explore the features of the historical development of North Korean nationalism, critically reviewing most of the primary documents published in North Korea and supplementary secondary materials along with some interview data with North Korean defectors.

Theoretical Backgrounds

Nation and Nationalism

Traditionally, there are two main approaches for nationalism: the primordialist and inventionist (instrumentalist or constructivist) approaches. The former asserts historical continuities between modern national cultures and their antecedents, paying attention to cultural commonness based upon blood relations, language, geopolitical regions, and cultural custom (Geertz, 1973; Smith, 1986). In this approach, the nation is seen as a primordial and natural part of the human community beyond time and history. While this primordialist approach of nation shows the depth of the problem of ethnic and national attachments, it does little to advance an explanation of their ubiquity and power (Hutchinson and Smith, 2000). As opposed to primordialists, instrumentalists assert that "nationalism invents nations where they do not exist" even if it helps to have some pre-existing cultural traits. They indicate that the primordialist position underestimates the aspects of instrumentalist power of nationalism as the ruling mechanism of the modern states. …

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