How Communist is North Korea? From the Birth to the Death of Marxist Ideas of Human Rights

Jiyoung Song. Cambridge Review of International Affairs. Volume 23, Issue 4. December 2010.


This article focuses on the Marxist characteristics of North Korea in its interpretation of human rights. The author’s main argument is that many Marxist features pre-existed in Korea. Complying with Marxist orthodoxy, North Korea is fundamentally hostile to the notion of human rights in capitalist society, which existed in the pre-modern Donghak (Eastern Learning) ideology. Rights are strictly contingent upon one’s class status in North Korea. However, the peasants’ rebellion in pre-modern Korea was based on class consciousness against the ruling class. The supremacy of collective interests sees individual claims for human rights as selfish egoism, which was prevalent in Confucian ethics. The prioritization of subsistence rights and material welfare over civil and political rights was also the foremost important duty of the benevolent Confucian king. Finally, unlike Marx’s reluctant use of the language of ‘duties’, rights are the offspring of citizens’ duties in North Korean human rights discourse.

The North Korean understanding of rights is composed of historically post-colonial nationalist, politically Marxist and culturally indigenous ideas. This paper deals with Marxist characteristics in North Korea’s interpretations of human rights. Marx’s original ideas on rights were not initially much reflected in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or ‘North Korea’). However, the applied ideas and policy behaviour of rights and duties in real politics in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China were largely transferred to the DPRK after the formation of the country’s government in 1948.

When Marxist ideas first arrived in North Korea, they met other pre-existing ideas. Many Marxist features such as collective rights and the primacy of socio-economic rights and duties of citizens existed in the indigenous Korean philosophies, namely, Choson Confucianism, Sirhak (Practical Learning) and Tonghak (Eastern Learning). For this paper, I use ‘Choson Confucianism’ to refer to the dominant governing philosophy, shared among the upper-class scholar-officials, yangban, in the early to mid Choson dynasty (1392-1910). Sirhak was a subdivision of Choson Confucianism in the 17th to 19th centuries; Sirhak scholars proposed limited revolutionary ideas about social reform to abolish the hereditary slave system and enhance commercial activities and the import of science and technology from China and the West. Tonghak was created by a failed aristocrat named Choe Je-u in the 1860s and later developed in the form of nationwide peasants’ uprisings. Tonghak encompasses the most revolutionary ideas among all indigenous Korean cultural traditions.

The Soviet influence was the first and single most powerful source for the establishment of the DPRK’s laws and institutions on human rights at the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Between August 1945 and September 1948, Kim Il Sung borrowed the Soviet system to build an independent state in North Korea. In this revolutionary and transitional period, Soviet Marxism was intertwined with the country’s strong post-colonial anti-Japanese sentiments to formulate the post-war rights thinking in North Korea.

This paper analyses some of the Marxist features of human rights in the DPRK and how they have been implemented in the country’s legal and political practices. The Marxist influence has been slowly toned down since Kim Il Sung established his own ideology called Juche (Self-Reliance) in the late 1950s and has significantly withered away since his son, Kim Jong Il, reinforced Juche ideology with ‘Our Style’ Socialism and ‘Our Style’ human rights after the end of the Cold War. Marxism-Leninism was deleted from the DPRK’s 1992 Socialist Constitution and finally communism from the amended Constitution in April 2009.

Korean Communism under Japanese Colonization (1910-1945) and Human Rights

Shortly after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, two organizations of Korean expatriates were formed in the hope of spearheading socialist revolutionary movements in Korea (Choe et al, 353). One was the Korean Socialist Party (KSP) led by a well-known radical revolutionary, Yi Tong-hwi; it began in Khabarovsk in June 1918. When Yi was named premier of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai in 1919, many of his KSP members formed a communist faction within it, the so-called ‘Shanghai Group’. In January 1921, Yi formally adopted the name ‘Korean Communist Party’ (KCP) for the Shanghai Group, which received the funding for anti-Japanese independence movements from Moscow. The other organization, known as the ‘Irkutsk Group’, consisted mostly of Korean émigrés in the Soviet Union (USSR). It began its existence as a Korean section of the Irkutsk Communist Party, castigating the Shanghai group as bourgeois nationalists feigning Marxist convictions in the hope of obtaining aid from the Comintern.

There were early signs of human rights in the KCP’s political manifesto. A large proportion of KCP slogans in 1925 included Soviet-style welfare rights as well as nationalistic anti-Japanese clauses, including (Choe et al, 358):

  • Establishment of an eight-hour labour law (a six-hour law for miners);
  • Establishment of a minimum wage, unemployment compensation and relief;
  • Establishment of a social security system;
  • Political, economic and social equality for women;
  • Payment of maternity benefits and the granting of a set period of rest with pay prior to and after the birth of a child;
  • Compulsory education and vocational education for all at the government’s expense;
  • Freedom of speech, press, assembly and association;
  • Abolition of colonial slave education;
  • Compulsory elementary education;
  • Use of the Korean language in elementary schools, the replacement of principals of elementary schools with Koreans, universities primarily for the benefit of Koreans (the so-called ‘Korea for Koreans’);
  • Freedom of student association for high-school students.

As part of the anti-Japanese sentiments, these slogans included a provision for the boycotting of Japanese goods. However, members of the KCP also warned against the excessive nationalistic advocacy of Ch’ondogyo (an indigenous Korean philosophy and religion created by Choe Je-u in the 1860s). KCP members noted that ‘a great danger to the victory of the Korean revolution is the fact that the toiling masses of the country still have illusions about Ch’ondogyo and other so-called nationalistic organisations’ (Choe et al, 359).

The North China Korean Independence League (hwabuk chosun dongnip dongmaeng), which merged with the KCP in 1946, issued programmes and platforms on 15 August 1942 (Choe et al, 365) that were similar in nature to the KCP slogans of 1925. The platform of the League included various democratic measures and human rights as follows:

  • establishment of a democratic government by popular election with all people voting;
  • freedom of speech, publication, assembly, organization, religion, thought and occupation;
  • establishment of a social system wherein the human rights of the people are respected;
  • the equality of the sexes in their livelihood, in society and in law;
  • eight-hour labour laws and assurance of the rights of labourers in society;
  • abolition of forced labour systems and miscellaneous taxes on the people and the establishment of a uniform tax system;
  • a compulsory education system supported by the state.

As we’ve seen, both the 1925 KCP slogans and the 1942 platform of the North China Korean Independence League exhibited early communist forms of guaranteeing human rights in Korea. These early ideas survived in DPRK’s post-colonial Marxist context, as will be shown in the following sections.

The Denial of Human Rights in Capitalist Society

Like Marx, the DPRK is fundamentally hostile to the notion of human rights used by Western liberals under capitalism. Marx opposed the bourgeois concept of the rights of man under an exploitative capitalist economic structure and insisted on abolishing the system in order to emancipate working people fully. Similarly, the pattern of the DPRK’s official discourse of human rights normally starts with a criticism of capitalist society as follows: ‘capitalists talk about the rights of man, but there is no right to work, no right to food, no right to medical treatment and no right to education in capitalist countries’ (Kim Il Sung/1982, 91)

Human Rights, ‘Human Rights Protection’ and ‘Human Rights Issues’

The DPRK’s hostility towards the notion of human rights in capitalist states is apparent in its definitions of ‘human rights’ (ingwon), ‘human rights protection’ (ingwon boho) and ‘human rights issues’ (ingwon munje). The Dictionary of the Works of Great Leader Kim IlSung Suryong (Kwahak beakasajeŏn Ch’ulp’ansa 1982) broadly defines human rights as ‘political, economic, cultural and social rights granted to citizens’. In keeping with Marx’s theory of historical materialism, it starts with an idea that ‘concepts of human rights are different from one society to another, depending on the class characteristics of a society and the state’s socio-economic structure’. Secondly, the range of North Korean human rights is very broad, covering almost every field of human rights: political, economic, cultural and social. Thirdly, however, the wide range of human rights is unavoidably ambiguous, providing no concrete human rights to any individual person in society. Fourthly, only a person whose class status is justified as a member of the working people can be a legitimate citizen and thus entitled to proper rights.

The regime shows an obvious hostility towards the idea of the ‘protection of human rights’: this is defined as a ‘deceitful slogan aiming to destroy revolutionary struggles and demean the superiority of the North Korean socialist system’. It sees the language of human rights protection as mere political rhetoric used by Western ‘imperialists’ and thereby as a ‘hypocritical manifestation of the ruling bourgeoisie in a capitalist country’. The DPRK insists that capitalists pretend to be interested in the human rights of the working class, but their real purpose is to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie by taking advantage of the working class by manipulating the concepts of human rights.

There has been a significant change in the DPRK’s perception on human rights since the end of the Cold War. The 2004 International Law Dictionary (Sahoekwahak ch’ulp’ansa) develops a more articulated definition of human rights. It explains the philosophical and institutional development of international human rights since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ‘Human rights issues’ are defined as ‘those related to the protection and promotion of the fundamental rights of human beings and to struggles against violations of rights’. Furthermore, human rights are ‘important issues with respect to human dignity, human values, and social status’. The 2004 International Law Dictionary states that ‘international human rights treaties have been adopted in order to protect human rights of all people and that these include all rights related to the existence of human beings such as a right to subsistence, a right to dignity, a right to free press, a right to work, a right to preservation, a right to self-determination and a right to education, all of which are inalienable and inviolable’ (Sahoekwahak ch’ulp’ansa 2004). The United States (US) is depicted as a country using human rights rhetoric in order to attack and isolate revolutionary and progressive governments from being members of international society. The 2004 International Law Dictionary does not specify which countries the US is criticizing, but from the political context it is apparent that the DPRK is one of them.

In the definition of human rights issues, the institutional development of international human rights treaties is explained in an objective and neutral tone. Again, the range of human rights is very broad although the primacy of economic rights and collective rights, such as the right to subsistence and the right to self-determination, are more prominent than other rights. In fact, the only political right included is a right to a free press. The DPRK employs the naming and blaming strategy, accusing that the US interest in international human rights institutions and treaties is only to serve, instrumentally, the interests of a few capitalists and to isolate socialist countries. In doing so, the DPRK seems to believe that ‘the best defence is a good offence’.

Human Rights of Capitalists and Imperialists

The difference from Marx’s historical materialism is that, for the DPRK, it is not only capitalists but also imperialists who cannot provide the basic conditions for the protection of human rights. Although Kim Il Sung uses ‘imperialists’ and ‘capitalists’ almost interchangeably, the main reason for his criticism of the US is its capitalist socio-economic structure (1977/1986, 532-534):

There is no democracy in capitalist countries. Countries without democracy cannot protect human rights. In capitalist countries, the working People cannot be guaranteed human dignity or political rights or even a right to subsistence. If there is any ‘human right’ in capitalist countries, it would be a ‘human right’ to exploit, repress, and disrespect the working masses by a handful of the privileged social stratum.

At other times, he criticizes the US for being ‘imperialists’ and for the ‘worst form of social inequality and human rights violations’ taking place there and in its ‘puppet countries [i.e. South Korea]’. Kim/1986, 532-534) said,

Imperialists deceive people by saying that they have ‘equality for everyone’ or ‘personal freedom,’ but they are all lies that can never come true … The democracy defined by imperialists is a fake democracy and the ‘equality’ or ‘freedom’ they praise is all camouflage in order to deceive the working People and hide the inhumane origins of anti-revolutionary capitalism.

The conflation of ‘capitalists’ and ‘imperialists’ is not a random mistake. It is part of the continuation of the post-colonial and post-revolutionary rhetoric used to mobilize and unite people against foreign influence. In other words, the DPRK authority used both anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist language so that it can appeal to the working class and to bourgeois nationalists when necessary.

The Repression Over the Anti-Party Movement

In practice, the DPRK’s denial of human rights was used to repress the domestic anti-party (more accurately, anti-Kim-Il-Sung) movements in the 1950s. The anti-Kim movements in North Korea were ignited by the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR when Khrushchev denounced Stalin and initiated a process of de-Stalinization in his ‘secret speech’ in 1956. Throughout the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, domestic communist parties protested, there were campaigns against the personality cults of their respective party leaders, and general secretaries who modelled themselves after Stalin were subsequently deposed. For example, the 1956 Hungarian revolution was a spontaneous nationwide revolt against the Stalinist government of Hungary and its Soviet-imposed policies.

The anti-Soviet and anti-Stalin international communist movements in the mid-1950s influenced some North Korean communists. Some of the anti-Stalin political slogans included, to a considerable degree, democratic principles and human rights. They contained ‘equality before the law’ or the ‘protection of human rights’ and were soon espoused by anonymous Korean critics of Kim Il Sung’s Stalinistic rule. The KWP was alarmed by this movement and immediately responded by declaring that the party’s political aim was ‘to promote the rights of the working People including workers and peasants’ (Kim Il Sung/1981d, 208-210). The DPRK claimed that ‘the political manifesto of the anti-Stalin movements that “the law should be equal for everyone” was originally bourgeois propaganda that aimed to deceive the working People’. Furthermore, to the DPRK, the main reason for what were called ‘anti-party sectarian elements’ (bandang jongp’a punja) wanting to bring back this bourgeois propaganda was the attempt to perpetuate the interests of human rights violators (that is, the bourgeoisie) while hijacking the very concept already grounded in its political and legal framework during the post-colonial period of 1945-1948. Kim Il Sung (1981d, 208-210) argued that the sectarian argument against the party was ‘absolutely out of class interests and proletariat dictatorship, aiming to protect the interests of landlords and capitalists’.

Kim Il Sung believed that the 1956 Hungarian revolution had diffused the ‘bourgeois’ idea of human rights into North Korea and agitated North Korean ‘revisionist sectarians’. Siding with the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Kim condemned North Korean cabinet members and especially the members of the Ministry of Justice for ‘abandoning the seriousness of revolution and giving up the inalienable fight against anti-revolutionary forces in the guise of human rights protection’. The background of the ‘revisionist sectarians’ that Kim (1981a, 159) identified was ‘the imperial US that attempts to destroy socialist allies and the [South Korean] Syngman Rhee administration that is increasing its military power to attack the DPRK’. The ‘anti-party sectarian elements’ were criticized because they were believed to ‘contaminate other ideologically-ill party members by spreading revisionist internationalism disguised with the protection of human rights’.

The ‘August Incident’ (p’arwôl chongp’a sakkôn) in 1956 was one of the few anti-regime political coups against Kim Il Sung, little known to the outside world. Several members of the Central Party Committee, the ‘Yanan’ and ‘Soviet’ factions, criticized Kim Il Sung’s dictatorial leadership at a party plenum while Kim was away in Moscow in the summer of 1956. The two groups accused Kim Il Sung of violating human rights. The incident was indirectly influenced by Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin’s personality cult and dictatorship, followed by other Eastern European countries’ protests against their dictatorial political leaders. The anti-Kim-Il-Sung forces criticized him for developing a personality cult and distorting the ‘Leninist principle of collective leadership’ (see more on this in Lankov, Scalapino and Lee and Suh). Kim Hak-chul, a North Korean novelist in northeast China, in his non-fiction political treatise entitled The Myth of the Twentieth Century, denounced the destruction of democratic principles and ‘violations of human rights’ resulting from the personality cult and dictatorship of Kim Il Sung in the DPRK (Kim Kuan Woong). The August Incident, however, ended up being a total failure because of a strong defence from pro-Kim-Il-Sung factions; those who criticized the regime were all purged or fled to China.

It is noteworthy that a human rights discourse did exist in the DPRK’s domestic politics as displayed by the anti-regime factions in the 1950s. However, they were completely rejected as ‘wrong-thinking’ capitalists and later all purged by Kim Il Sung. Those whom Kim called ‘anti-party sectarians’ or ‘revisionists’ were criticized for having been influenced by bourgeois ideas and consequently became subject to purges. Since then, no visible anti-Kim faction has been reported outside the DPRK.

Anti-Capitalist Education

Kim Il Sung paid particular attention to the class-conscious anti-capitalist education designed for soldiers and workers. The idea of class struggle against capitalism is one of the main themes in North Korean education. As you can see from the anti-US posters reproduced in Figure 1, anti-capitalist propaganda has been an ongoing subject in North Korean public discourse. Kim (1982, 86-87) suggested that people abhor the entire capitalist class, not just some individual landlords or entrepreneurs, and should fight against the exploitative capitalist structure. He constantly repeated the contrasting conditions of capitalist and socialist countries. Although he admitted that North Koreans could not live as wealthily as landlords or capitalists, he emphasized that they had no worries about food or clothes and could work, study and receive proper medical treatment.

North Korean anti-capitalist education takes several forms. First of all, Kim Chang Ryol, a North Korean human rights commentator (1990), argues philosophically that the Western concept of human rights, when conceived in the 17th and 18th centuries, was nothing to do with ‘People’s sovereignty’, which he believes holds the true meaning of human rights. He continues:

the protection of human rights was demonstrated by the bourgeoisie in their anti-feudalist revolutionary movements. It did have a certain impetus to reform the previous social structure. However, their slogans were devoid of truly meaningful human rights such as the sovereign right of the People. Consequently, the bourgeois idea of human rights has become absolutely irrelevant to the genuine protection of human rights. (Kim Chang Ryol, 92)

Second, Kim Il Sung has used a language of rights to criticize human rights situations in capitalist countries. Whenever the DPRK is under attack because of its bad human rights record, it responds with a long list of anecdotes about ethnic North Koreans who have been discriminated against by the Japanese government because of their ethnic origin and cultural heritage, the conditions of jobless and part-time irregular workers resulting from financial crises and subsequent structural adjustments in South Korea, and the racial discrimination and jobless or homeless people in the US. Using rights language, the DPRK claims that ‘the right to have decent living standards should be guaranteed to North Koreans in Japan. The Japanese government must provide them with jobs, the right to return home to North Korea and other democratic freedoms and rights’ (Kim Il Sung/1980b, 374). The DPRK’s selection of extreme human rights violation cases in South Korea is certainly exaggerated and highly selective. The statistics given below were probably true in the early 1960s, but not since the 1970s when the South Korean economy began to boom.

Today’s South Korea is in a state of absolute poverty, non-existence of rights, and is full of colonial slaves … [it is] the land of darkness where all democratic freedoms and rights are annihilated and the killing field of the People where terror and slaughter are taking place every day. (Kim Il Sung/1981a, 243)

In South Korea, an uncountable number of homeless people are holding empty cans in the street, begging money and frozen or starving to death, eventually, somewhere under nameless bridges. Many students do not have the chance to learn and some even have to sell their blood to save money for their tuition fees. (Kim Il Sung/1982, 89)

In Seoul, twenty per cent of the population eat only one meal a day and ten per cent hardly eat. While the South Korean bourgeoisie waste food and drink every night, each one drunk along with tens of prostitutes, the majority of people are starving all the time. (Kim Il Sung/1985, 216)

Thirdly, since the late 1980s, the anti-capitalist campaign patterns have been slightly amended. The government has admitted that the country is not more wealthy than most capitalist countries but instead has started emphasizing ‘the growing gap between rich and poor’ in capitalist countries (Kim Il Sung-1990/1995, 393-395). The regime insisted that

It is true that the production levels of socialist countries are not higher than those of capitalists. We can import capitalist technology but not the capitalist system. The high technology in capitalist countries does not mean that their system is superior. (Kim Il Sung-1989/1995, 203-207)

—and continued to promote its own socialist system:

Our society’s democratic characteristics lie in the fact that everyone practices a completely equal political right, enjoys sound and stable material and cultural life, lead others based on like-minded love and faith, and strive for common interests and collective betterment. (Kim Il Sung-1992/1996, 51-52)

These rather defensive and solipsistic arguments partly came from the country’s economic inferiority to capitalist South Korea. The leadership has also admitted several times that capitalist countries are economically more advanced than North Korea. Still, the DPRK regime did not want to lose face and the logical conclusion was to focus on those aspects of human rights which they thought capitalist countries could not fully guarantee: especially a universal right to basic subsistence.

Ordinary North Koreans are taught by political propaganda that true protection of human rights can only be fully achieved under North Korean socialist democracy. According to a North Korean defector who was a teacher in a middle school in 1995-1999, every morning North Korean schools begin with an ideology lesson about ‘corrupt capitalist societies’ and the superiority of North Korean socialism. However, due to the economic crisis in the mid-1990s, schools in North Korea have not been able to function properly and have failed to provide a minimum level of public education, including morning ideology lessons. More people realize that the government cannot provide them with basic subsistence. According to recent reports from Good Friends, a Seoul-based NGO working in the field of humanitarian assistance to North Korea, ordinary North Koreans, especially women on street stalls, are rapidly learning market principles as a matter of survival while the government constantly but unsuccessfully tries to control capitalist elements.

Socialist Democracy: A Prerequisite for Human Rights

Following Marx, the DPRK makes it explicit that socio-economic structure is the most important factor for judging the true nature of a society. The DPRK government perceives that a society’s socio-economic structure is not only an important criterion to determine the nature of a society, but also a critical element for the protection of human rights. It claims that socialist democracy is the perfect system for that purpose. To Marx, having a system of human rights in post-revolutionary society was only a transitional means to enhance people’s lives and a system that would eventually disappear when communism was achieved. However, to the DPRK, the protection of human rights is taken to be not only a means of transition but also an end to be realized.

The government defined its own socialist system as ‘socialist democracy’ (sahoe chuuijok minju chuui), claiming that it is the most suitable for North Koreans. According to Kim Il Sung (1986, 532-534), democracy is

the politics that represent every demand from the masses of the working People. In other words, democracy is a system under which a state establishes policies according to the working People including workers and peasants, implements policies according to People’s interests, and guarantees true freedom, rights, and decent lives to the People.

Although the 1972 Socialist Constitution did not specifically codify class rights, various statements by Kim Il Sung confirmed that North Korean rights thinking was based on a Marxist class conception, which emphasized a socio-political structure to guarantee all human rights under a proletariat dictatorship against class enemies of the working people. Kim Il Sung (1986, 532-534) defined socialist democracy as a prerequisite for the protection of human rights, insisting that socialist democracy was ‘the most supreme form of democracy that can only provide true freedom and rights’.

Human Rights Contingent on a Person’s Class Status

The second Marxist characteristic of human rights in the DPRK, as in other Marxist states, is the conditionality of the entitlement to human rights upon a person’s class status. In contrast to the established liberal position that perceives human rights as the universal entitlement of all human beings, as derived from our innate moral value or worth (Vlastos), Marxist rights are contingent upon each person’s socio-economic relationship to the means of production (Weatherley and Song). In practice, this has often meant that the bourgeoisie, who owned the means of production under the pre-revolutionary order, are deprived of their rights in the post-revolutionary state. Conversely, the proletariat, who were previously forced to sell their means of production, are accorded the full range of rights. The idea of class struggle against the bourgeoisie and the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat impacted on the non-inclusive characteristics of human rights in the USSR and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As a result, both the 1918 Constitution of the USSR and the 1954 Constitution of the PRC restricted the rights of the bourgeois ‘exploiting’ classes.

The Weak Indication of Marxist Class Rights in Constitutions

Notwithstanding the official establishment of the DRPK as a Marxist state on 9 September 1948, there was no distinction in the 1948 Constitution between classes, and the same was also true of the 1972 Constitution, suggesting an absence of any class conditions to the enjoyment of rights. Article 6 of the 1972 Constitution appears to confirm this assumption by declaring the end of class struggle (kyekup t’ujaeng) in North Korea: ‘in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, class antagonism and all forms of exploitation and oppression of man by man have been eliminated for good’. Logically and also according to Marx’s ideas on the disappearance of the need of rights in communist society, it was not necessary to use social class as a measure of who should or should not enjoy rights.

The National Census: ‘Three Strata and Fifty-One Subcategories’

The first profiling of the entire domestic population took place in December 1958 to December 1960, through a series of ‘political examinations’ by the central party in order to identify ‘impure elements’ in society (Ministry of Unification, 327). Since then, there have been several national registration or renewal projects (April 1966 to March 1967, April 1967 to June 1970, February 1972 to 1974, January-December 1980, November 1983 to March 1984, October 1989 to December 1990 and February 1998 to October 1998) (Centre for North Korean Human Rights Studies (KINU, 116). There were other investigative projects to identify naturalized foreigners, South Korean defectors and Korean-Japanese in 1980-1981. The English version of White Paper on North Korean Human Rights (2007a, 162) states that they were ‘family background investigation projects’, which implies that DPRK’s national census is not particularly associated with Marxist class perceptions.

Most significantly, the 1967-1970 classification project that divided the North Korean population into three ‘classes’ (core, wavering and hostile) has received particular attention from abroad. According to KINU (87-108), the ‘core class’ is essentially the North Korean ruling class and comprises approximately 28 per cent of the population, including relatives of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as well as high- and mid-level cadres: they are described as ‘clean judicial cases’ (Kang, 19-20). The ‘wavering class’ comprises about 45 per cent of the population, made up of urban and rural workers who are not KWP members. The ‘hostile class’ comprises about 27 per cent of the population and consists of those individuals deemed to be enemies of the KWP (Weatherley and Song). They include people who owned land or business prior to the establishment of the DPRK, public officials who worked under the Japanese colonial government, religious activists, persons of South Korean origin or family members of those who fled to the South, family members of South Korean soldiers who were taken prisoner during the Korean War and other ‘unreliables’ (see Hunter, 3-11; Kang, 19). Members of the ‘hostile strata’ have limited access to the full entitlement of human rights in such areas as education, employment, housing and medical benefits, according to the reports (2006, 87-108).

The hostile strata category did contain certain Marxist aspects of judging people based on their property or land ownership. One of the clearest examples of the class-based approach was Kim Il Sung’s accounts of alleged human rights violations against political prisoners in North Korea. Kim (1986, 535-537) explained that the imprisonment and forced labour of political prisoners was ‘a legitimate measure to protect the country’s democracy from its hostile and impure elements who have abused democratic order and attempted to destroy our socialist system’. He further stated that

Our communists are not hiding the Party’s identity or class-consciousness in implementing democracy. Socialist democracy is not supra-class democracy that can provide freedom and rights to hostile elements who oppose socialism or impure elements who act against the interests of the People. The type of democracy which can guarantee freedom and rights to the People, including workers, peasants, and the working intelligentsia and at the same time which can punish a small number of class enemies is the type of socialist democracy we have in our country. (Kim Il Sung/1986, 536-537)

However, more importantly, those categorized as members of the ‘hostile class’ are invariably made so by reference to their family background or class origins in keeping with the Maoist definition of the continuing class struggle even after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie because of surviving capitalist elements within the party and society, but in contrast to the conventional Marxist understanding of class as relative to a person’s socio-economic relationship with the means of production (Weatherley and Song). For example, even though two generations have passed since the ‘socialist liberation’ of North Korea, an individual can still be classified as a member of the ‘hostile class’ if his or her grandparents owned land or business under the pre-socialist system or were in the government during the Japanese colonial period. This method of determining class status derives from a belief that class is a ‘state of mind’. The objective here has been to cast the net wide enough to ensure that both actual and potential opponents of the regime are identified and duly deprived of their rights.

Especially since the Cold War, the Marxist characteristic has become so minor in determining the population’s class status that now most of the ‘core strata,’ especially those living in big cities, possess property and accumulate wealth. Since the end of the Cold War, the Marxist concept of class rights in the DPRK has significantly weakened and been replaced by other categorizations such as a person’s political beliefs or, more crudely, a person’s loyalty to the party and the leader. Therefore, the ‘three classes’ and alleged discrimination by the DPRK government, which it totally denies, are based on profiles of family backgrounds and the current generation’s personal loyalty to the party’s hegemony and Kim’s leadership. This perception of personal loyalty, with rights bestowed in return, pre-existed in late Chosun Korean philosophy before the arrival of Marxism in Korea. Confucianism focused on the hierarchical social order and subjects’ loyalty to the king. Further traditional elements were added when the government officially introduced Juche ideology and adjusted its interpretation of human rights accordingly. In discovering a person’s ‘true’ class status, the KWP is seeking to identify those who are loyal to the nation and the nation’s aims and objectives. Only those who are deemed to be loyal to the nation are entitled to rights.

Collective Interests over Individual Rights

The third Marxist feature in DPRK rights thinking is its prioritization of collective interests over individual human rights. The collective nature of human beings as ‘species-beings’ or zoon politikon was emphasized by Marx. Therefore, the rights of man or woman as an isolated and egoistic individual were denied whereas the rights of the citizen were given room to some extent in the post-revolutionary period. Both the 1977 USSR Constitution and the 1982 PRC Constitution state that the exercising of freedom and rights must not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society and of the collective.

The prioritization of collective interests over individual rights was also desperately needed for the mass mobilization to build a new national economy in the post-colonial context in the DPRK. More importantly, the implementation of collective mentality over individual interests was not new to Korean people. It had long been present in indigenous Korean philosophies before the introduction of Marxism to Korea. Confucianism, being a role-based ethical system, had preached an ideal of united and harmonious society.

Collectivism and Individualism

The DPRK’s preference for collectivism over individualism is clear in the definitions of individualism and collectivism. According to the North Korean Dictionary of the works of Great Leader Kim IlSung Suryong (Kwahak beakasajeŏn ch’ulp’ansa 1982), individualism is

an ideology of the exploitative class who hope to live well only for themselves regardless of others’ interests within society. Individualism is based on the exploitative characteristic of capitalism … Individualism is the biggest obstacle for a collective lifestyle and is the fundamental reason for all the rotten philosophies such as liberalism, individual heroism, egoism, and ambition for individual fame and success.

As seen above, individualism is equated with liberalism, capitalism and selfish egoism, the biggest enemy of the communist lifestyle. Therefore, any claim for individual rights might be not only against communism but also an unethical social vice. Collectivism, on the other hand, aims

to prioritise collective interests over individual rights and to struggle for society, the People, the Party and revolution. In other words, collectivism is a revolutionary idea under the communist principle ‘one for all, all for one’, encouraging personal attitudes to help and lead one another in society. Dictionary of the works of Great Leader Kim IlSung Suryong (Kwahak beakasajeŏn ch’ulp’ansa 1982)

Collectivism is believed to be the ‘fundamental characteristic of the working class, the basis of socialist and communist lifestyle for workers united and the principal action for communists’. Collective interests come before individual human rights under this social and political context.

The Collective Principle in the 1972 Constitution

The significance attached to collectivism and the rights of the collective is particularly apparent in post-1948 DPRK constitutions. The DPRK’s propaganda for the collective principle, ‘one for all, all for one’ (hananun chonch’erul wihayo, chonch’enun hanarul wihayo), is prescribed in Article 49 of the 1972 Socialist Constitution (Article 63 of the amended constitutions in 1992 and 1998, respectively). The first DPRK constitution of 1948, the so-called People’s Constitution, did not indicate this collective spirit.

Article 68 of the 1972 Constitution stressed particularly that citizens should enhance the collective spirit (chipdan chuui chôngsin). It states that ‘citizens must cherish their organizations and establish the revolutionary trait of working devotedly for the sake of society and the People and for the interest of the homeland and the revolution’ (Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 21). Similarly, Article 82 of the amended 1992 Constitution stresses that ‘collectivism [chipdan chuui] is the basis for socialist lifestyle. Citizens shall cherish their organisation and collective and work devotedly for the good of society and the people.’ Surprisingly, however, this collective principle disappears in the amended 1998 Constitution.

The collective interests of the family also feature strongly, the 1972 Constitution and each of the 1992 and 1998 amended constitutions declaring that ‘the state pays great attention to consolidating the family, the basic unit of social life’ (Articles 63, 77 and 78, respectively). Indeed the preface to the 1998 document lauds Kim Il Sung for transforming the whole of North Korean society ‘into one big united family’.

In contrast to the Soviet and Chinese constitutional traditions, there is no explicit provision in DPRK constitutions that nullifies an individual right if it is exercised in a manner deemed to be harmful to the welfare of the collective (for example, state, society and the nation). Notwithstanding this, the priority given to collective rights in North Korean rights thinking is borne out by reference to the broad-based and overriding nature of the provisions discussed above and also by reference to the overriding principle of ‘one for all, all for one’ contained in all three post-1948 DPRK constitutions.

Cooperative Farms

In practice, the emergence of collectivism and the suppression of individual rights in North Korea have been implemented through its collective management system in agriculture and industry. There are other socialist collective management mechanisms, such as the public distribution system, state ownership and mass organizations, but this paper here introduces the cooperative farms, the Tae’an Work System and the highly organized collective education and mass games in the DPRK because they are the particular contexts in the Works of Kim Il Sung where Kim stresses the need to repress individualism and promote collectivism in relation to ‘human rights’.

As Marx was particularly critical of the right to private property, seeing it as the right of egoistic individuals, Kim Il Sung was also cautious about widespread individualism for private property among North Korean peasants in the late 1950s and considered it the biggest obstacle to communist victory in the country (Kim Il Sung/1981b, 407-408). In remote agricultural areas, peasants were used to possessing their own farming land and local officials and party cadres initially had little experience in practising the newly adopted socialist cooperative agricultural structure. The affluent peasants and blood-based tribal landlords who had accumulated leadership and technical skills were in favour of individual farming (Kim Seong-bo, 338-340). Some peasants did not sell rice to state-run public markets but instead piled it up in their private barns so that they could sell it at a higher price when demand increased.

Kim tried to abolish this individualistic attitude among peasants. A nationwide ideological education scheme was introduced as a means of eliminating this ‘bourgeois’ element among peasants. The situation was perceived by Kim as a battle of ‘the new vs. the old’, ‘the progressive vs. the conservative’, ‘the active vs. the passive’, ‘collectivism vs. individualism’ and ‘socialism vs. capitalism’ (Kim Il Sung/1981c, 591-592). Accordingly, the government made a decision on collective farming policy in August 1953 and finalized the scheme by 1958 via several steps. There was considerable resistance from affluent peasants or traditional landlords to the socialist government’s agricultural policy. Rich peasants and local landlords opposed the policy by collectively withdrawing from collective corporations, not cooperating with the national plan of purchasing rice, slaughtering their own livestock or conducting sabotage (Kim Seong-bo, 322-323; Kim Yeon-chul).

‘Profit-driven individualism’ among North Korean peasants was still a big problem throughout the 1960s. Kim Il Sung introduced even tighter programmes in the North Korean agricultural structure and state control mechanism, as well as compulsory state ideology lessons by local councils. Kim Il Sung’s solution for the party officials’ lack of ‘Marxism-Leninism and collective ethic’ was to place well-trained central party officials, such as former revolutionary fighters, family members of the People’s Army, or discharged soldiers, in local cooperative farms above the peasant-based local party officials (Kim Seong-bo, 342-343). In this way, local officials were hierarchically under the strict control of selected appointees from the central party. Under this new collective agricultural scheme, individual peasants were no longer able to seek personal profit and were forced to learn the ‘Marxist collective lifestyle’.

Tae’an Work System

The collective system was introduced not only in suburb farms but also in urban workplaces in North Korea. The so-called ‘Tae’an Work System’ was provided as a role model for collectivism in the workplace in 1961. The Tae’an Work System, Kim Il Sung (1982, 497) explained, would run in a collective way whereby senior office workers ‘lead and help the work of junior labourers within the strong fraternal comradeship under the collective principle of “one for all, all for one”‘. According to Hwang Jang-yup, the high-level North Korean defector who was international secretary of the KWP, the Tae’an Work System was named after a city called Tae’an in South Pyong’an province. Kim Il Sung visited a power plant in December 1961 and ordered a special instruction on how a ‘factory party committee’ (kongjang dang wiwonhoe) should operate the factory’s work system. Since then, Kim Il Sung’s collective methods to run factories have been called the Tae’an Work System and implemented not only in factories but in every field of industry, becoming the model management system for socialist society.

The Tae’an Work System was meant to check the bureaucratic practices of factory managers through guaranteeing collective guidance by factory party committees. In reality, the Tae’an model has systematically placed workers in a collective work environment and prevented them from developing personal skills or attitudes in a workplace constantly checked and evaluated by party secretaries on the ‘factory party committee’. According to North Korean defectors who gave their testimonies to Daily NK, a Seoul-based daily online newspaper on North Korean affairs, the Tae’an Work System was welcomed by workers at the beginning but has become a repressive totalitarian management system that is operated predominantly by party cadres who heavily control workers and administrative officials in factories, especially since the emergence of Kim Jong Il’s leadership (Lee Joo-il). Party secretaries control the supervision of all productive activities by factory managers and engineers and even try to monitor their private lives. Party secretaries often abuse their power to arrest people arbitrarily and send them to labour camps as scapegoats when their factories cannot reach a yearly target that has been set too high by the party secretaries in order to demonstrate their loyalty to Kim Jong Il. Daily NK reports that, sometimes, party secretaries persecute people just because these people are not loyal enough to Kim Jong Il or simply because the former have a personal grudge against the latter. The Tae’an Work System has created enormous social conflict and tensions between party members and administrators and significantly discouraged workers from developing individual skills and talents, according to Daily NK (Lee Joo-il 2003).

Collective Communist Education and Mass Games

The collective spirit is particularly stressed in youth education. The party instructed teachers in preschool and orphanages that they should teach children to be selfless communists, full of collective spirit. Kim Il Sung (1981b, 76-78) emphasized that ‘the most important part of communist education is to teach our children the spirit of love of the People, friends, affiliated organisations and communities’. The ideal communist society depicted by Kim (1981b, 76) was one in which ‘people all work and live well together … have common interests and aims to achieve and help one another closely in fraternal relation … like one big family under the banner of “one for all, all for one”‘. He asserted that selfish ideas should not be endured in a communist society, and continued,

In order to be a communist, you should cherish your parents and siblings at home, your teachers and peers at school, and your colleagues in the workplace. Those who like playing alone and hate getting along with other friends are careless people and they cannot be communists. In order to be a communist, you should care for the interests of People first, not your own. You are often closer to your revolutionary comrades than your family. Individual heroism brings individualism and dogmatism and is a dangerous selfish idea of capitalists to harm collective unity and harmony in communist society. In order to abolish this kind of ill-thought capitalist idea, everyone should learn communist collectivism from a young age. From preschool, you should learn that collective power is so enormous that it can solve almost every problem beyond a level that one single individual cannot even imagine. (Kim Il Sung/1981b, 77-78)

As part of collective school education, the DPRK introduced mass games to train young children to have improved ‘organisational skill, discipline and collectivity’ (Kim Il Sung/1987, 191). Mass games are a form of gymnastics in which tens of thousands of performers take part in a highly regimented performance that emphasizes themes of political propaganda and group dynamics rather than individual prowess. Mass games are often accompanied by a background of cardboard-turners occupying the seats on the opposite side from the audience. They embody youth, strength, militarism and unity. Kim explained that the merit of mass games is that the youth can build their physical strength, advance their artistic skills and most importantly learn the party’s policies more effectively.

Collectivism and Labour Mobilization

The main purpose of the government’s promotion of collective spirit was to mobilize people’s labour power. Kim Il Sung (1955/1980a, 264) stressed that ‘labour is the essential part of human lives’. Members of the party were told to prioritize the interests of the party and society over their own. ‘Popular heroism’ (daejungjok yong’ung chuui), which refers to altruistic heroes among ordinary workers, was encouraged to help achieve better performance in daily economic and military activities, whereas ‘individual heroism’ (kae’injok yong’ung chuui) was suppressed as a form of selfish individualism (Kim Il Sung/1983, 281). The Ch’ollima movement, a state-sponsored movement in North Korea analogous to the Chinese Great Leap Forward, also aimed to promote rapid economic development with collective spirit.

The 1972 Socialist Constitution praises labour in a socialist country as ‘the most divine and honourable activity’ (Article 2). It also states that labour should be the workers’ collective activity for the common interest under the principle of ‘one for all, all for one’ (Article 3). Working is both a duty and a right in the DPRK constitutions. The 1972 Constitution claims that there are two ways of promoting collectivism in the workplace: ‘team-based management system’ (punjo kwallije) and ‘the premium system’ (jakoban wudeje) (Article 44), both of which are intended to encourage workers’ labour and therefore increase the amount of national production and the country’s material capacity.

The rationale behind the emphasis of collective spirit and selflessness was to mobilize collective labour to build a strong state economy and military. It was also to fight the bourgeoisie and imperial capitalists and achieve the dictatorship of the proletariat. As briefly indicated earlier, these collective ideals already existed in indigenous Korean thinking: they were seen particularly in the Confucian emphasis on social harmony and the collective unity of society. Collective measures like the land reform were already attempted by the late 19th-century Tonghak followers, especially by poor peasants and other lower-class people. The prioritization of collective interests over individual human rights has continued in the public discourse of the DPRK to enhance the Juche leadership of Kim Il Sung and to foster the ‘military-first politics’ of Kim Jong Il.

Primacy of Socio-Economic Rights

The fourth Marxist characteristic in DPRK human rights thinking is its concern for material conditions and stress on socio-economic rights. Marx’s historical materialism shed some light on fundamental problems of the poor material conditions of the working class and continued to provide an ideational foundation for the primacy of socio-economic rights in Marxist states. Both the 1936 USSR Constitution and the 1975 PRC Constitution included an extensive range of welfare rights, including the right to work and rest, the right to education and the rights of women. Like other Marxist states, the DPRK included a considerable list of welfare rights in its constitutions.

However, the primary concern for people’s material well-being was the basic qualification of a benevolent ruler in Confucian society and also the chief motivation for reform-minded Sirhak scholars and Tonghak followers. One of the most important duties of a ruler in traditional Confucian Korea was to take good care of people’s basic subsistence and this is reflected also by the contemporary right to subsistence, including the right to food, housing and health. The primary concern with people’s economic conditions is not just a similarity between Sirhak and Tonghak, on the one hand and Marxist ideas, on the other. Rather, North Korean human rights thinking is better understood as a relapse of the state of mind in the history of Korea, which can be traced further back before the arrival of Marxism. Bruce Cumings would support this judgement: he insists that the DPRK’s reigning ideology is closer to the country’s ‘neo-Confucian’ forbears than to Marxism or communism.

Welfare Rights in the 1972 Socialist Constitution of the DPRK

Each of the four DPRK constitutions contains a wide range of welfare rights, including the rights to work, rest, free medical care and education, as well as certain welfare benefits enjoyed by mothers, although it is extremely questionable whether such rights are provided in practice. The 1972 Constitution in particular focuses on the ‘happy material and cultural lives’ of citizens of the DPRK as well as their true democratic rights and freedoms (Article 50), which were newly added to the ‘Socialist’ Constitution. This provision remains in the amended 1992 and 1998 constitutions (both in Article 64). The 1972 Constitution lists five general welfare rights:

  • The right to work (Article 56);
  • The right to rest (Article 57);
  • The right to free medical services (Article 58);
  • The right to education (Article 59);
  • And freedom to engage in scientific and artistic pursuits (Article 60).

The Constitution pays particular attention to revolutionaries and the families of revolutionary soldiers and bestows special protection upon them (Article 61). It also guarantees the equal rights of women and men (Article 62) and protection of marriage and of the family (Article 63). Notably, the Constitution contains a provision of legal protection for overseas Koreans (Article 65), which seemed to cover Koreans with DPRK passports living in Japan.

Human Rights in the 1971 Three Revolutions

The Three Revolutions in Ideology, Technology and Culture (sasang, kisul, munhwa, samdae hyongmyong) contained Marxist features of promoting the labour rights of the working class. On 24 June 1971, at the Sixth Party Convention, Kim Il Sung (1984, 207-208) announced that the Three Revolutions in Ideology, Technology and Culture were not merely to pursue economic development but were to provide decent lives for the people and to realize the ‘sovereignty’ of the working people in North Korea. The Korean word for ‘sovereignty’ is chugwon, but a better English translation might be the right to ‘self-determination’ (chagyolgwon). Kim explained that:

The Three Revolutions in Ideology, Technology, and Culture are to make every person in North Korea a Juche-style communist, to renovate the entire society into a working-class society, demolishing differences in class, and to increase production levels in order to realise ‘distribution according to his demand’. The Three Revolutions are … the fundamental method of realising Jucheisation [Juche sasang hwa] in society. (Kim Il Sung/1984, 207-208)

The Three Revolutions are important in that they established North Korean rights concepts in terms of the right to self-determination, labour rights and the right to education. First, the Revolution in Ideology, according to the DPRK, was to realize the right to self-determination. The DPRK believed that the ideology would make society revolutionary and class conscious while the culture provided a higher level of knowledge and skill (Kim Il Sung-1989/1995, 203). Secondly, the government said that the Revolution in Technology was launched in particular to ‘abolish the fundamental differences in labour conditions, permanently release people from hard labour and increase productivity’, that is, it was designed to reduce the gap between hard labour and light labour and between agricultural and industrial labour and to release women from the heavy burdens of house chores (Kim Il Sung-1989/1995, 204-205). Thirdly, the Revolution in Culture was to end the cultural backwardness of North Korean workers, to provide university-level education in culture and technology and to increase the level of productive culture among North Koreans so that they could be independent and creative social beings in society.

For the implementation of the Three Revolutions, the government launched the Three Revolutions Team Movement (samdae hyongmyong socho’undong), inaugurated in February 1973. Under this movement, which Kim Jong Il actively led, the Three Revolutions teams were sent to factories, enterprises and rural and fishing villages to implement Kim Il Sung’s ‘on-the-spot’ guidance in close consultation with local personnel. Kim Jong Il was able to use this opportunity to show his leadership in looking after the country’s economy as well as people’s material conditions.

National Economic Plans and ‘Happy Material Lives’

The DPRK has produced several national economic plans along with other national programmes. Since 1956, the DPRK has pursued several national campaigns for rapid economic advancement: the first five-year national economic plan in 1957-1961; the Ch’ollima movement in 1958; the Ch’ongsanni spirit and the Ch’ongsanni method in 1960; the first seven-year national economic plan in 1961-1967; and the Tae’an Work System in 1961.

According to Kim Il Sung, these were to fulfil people’s needs for subsistence by ‘creatively applying Marxism-Leninism’ (Kim Il Sung/1980a, 42). Although the organizing principle for national economic plans was, officially, Marxism, it was a continuum of ideas for caring for people’s material conditions more than anything else, deriving from Confucian rulers’ fundamental duties, Sirhak’s reform-minded practical thinking, Tonghak’s radical rebellions, to post-colonial efforts to rebuild the nation after the end of Japanese colonization.

Endless government rhetoric and propaganda have been put out along with national economic plans for the improvement of people’s material conditions, all employing a language of rights. This government propaganda includes:

The struggle for socialism is to make the People in the DPRK work fewer hours and produce more output so that they can live prosperous and happy lives. (Kim Il Sung/1981b, 38)

We have very strong foundations to live well and this is the inalienable right of all. (Kim Il Sung/1982, 513)

All political rights, freedom and happy material cultural lives are guaranteed in the DPRK. Equal rights are protected to the People, including workers and peasants. Rights to food and clothes are guaranteed by the state and society, as well as eleven years of free education and free medical treatment. (Kim Il Sung-1984/1992, 155)

Our socialist system is the most supreme form of socialism that guarantees political freedom, democratic rights, and happy material and cultural lives for all. (Kim Il Sung-1987/1994, 215)

As briefly demonstrated earlier, government’s primary concern with people’s material well-being and the nation’s economic development pre-existed in indigenous Korean philosophy. Korean Confucianism focused on the role of a benevolent ruler to protect the people’s welfare and security. Reform-minded Sirhak scholars stressed the importance of commerce and the development of technology to enhance people’s lives. This practical thinking cannot be found in conventional Marxism. The DPRK government, for example, has allowed limited market activities since July 2002 and made ‘tactical concessions’ from a total ‘denial stage’, to cooperate with the international society, to borrow terms from the five-spiral theory of Risse et al. The government has submitted periodic state-party reports to the United Nations (UN), invited international humanitarian NGOs and UN officials to work inside the country, amended the Criminal Law and enacted new laws in accordance with human rights norms. The idea of self-defence and independence from China was a core part of Sirhak philosophy as well.

Tonghak was born out of fundamental concerns for poor and lower-class people in pre-modern Korea. Tonghak peasants’ movements, in particular, had the ultimate goals of achieving social justice, gender equality, land reform and total abolition of slavery. Their method for realizing these aims was revolution. Tonghak also had very strong anti-foreign and especially anti-Japanese sentiments, which continued through the anti-Japanese militant guerrilla movements during the colonial period. Marxist materialism and its revolutionary means to achieve the dictatorship of the proletariat were nothing new to Koreans as the DPRK government has translated Marxism within the Tonghak ideas.

Citizens’ Duties

The fifth and final Marxist characteristic of the DPRK’s rights concepts is the primacy of citizens’ duties in return for the guaranteeing of rights by the government. The DPRK emphasized the duties of different groups of people far more than their rights. The duty of youth, for example, is to learn new skills and technology (Kim Il Sung/1981a, 194), rather than speaking in terms of a right of youth to education. The primacy of duties is one of the most significant features in Marxist states. Both the 1936/1977 USSR Constitutions and the 1975/1982 PRC Constitutions list a number of citizens’ duties, the fulfilment of which is invariably seen as a precondition for the entitlement of rights.

Duties as the offspring of rights are not a uniquely Marxist characteristic. The idea of citizens’ duties existed within the framework of Hobbes’ and Locke’s social contract theories and within the contemporary legal requirement for citizenship. Citizens’ duties had long been emphasized in Confucian culture. Confucian ethics, a role-based normative system, stresses everyone’s duties and responsibilities towards one another in their complex web of social relations. Marxist states’ emphasis on citizens’ duties came, therefore, very naturally to Korean people. North Korea’s stress on citizens’, women’s or children’s’ duties under Kim Il Sung’s Juche is better understood in this long historical and cultural Confucian context rather than just in terms of Marxist influence. Kim Jong Il’s formation of the duty-based language of rights is more intriguing. Kim Jong Il (Ryom, 56-59) prefers duty-related language both as an offspring of human rights and a correlative term of rights.

Duties in the 1972 Socialist Constitution of the DPRK

As the constitutional basis for the primacy of duties, the DPRK set out the provisions on rights and duties of citizens which are distinctively pronounced in the constitutions. The purpose of imposing the duties of citizens, stated in the 1972 Socialist Constitution, ‘is to reinforce socialism and make the country richer and stronger’ (Kim Il Sung/1984, 608). Eighteen articles are allocated to rights (Articles 49-66) and six to duties (Articles 67-72). Details of the duties are as follows:

  • Abiding by the Constitution and socialist principles (Article 67);
  • Respect for collective spirit, sacrifice for the interests of the People, the Fatherland and revolution (Article 68);
  • Labour as the divine duty (Article 69);
  • The preservation of public assets (Article 70);
  • A revolutionary spirit and protection of national secrets (Article 71);
  • And defence of the Fatherland and duty to do military service/punishment for treason against the Fatherland and the People (Article 72).

Article 72 particularly emphasizes that citizens should defend the Fatherland and serve in the army and that betrayal of the country is the biggest crime.

Chapter V of the 1992 amended Constitution of the DPRK also allocates a section to the rights and duties of citizens. Again, 18 articles are allocated to rights (Articles 62-79) and seven to duties (Articles 80-86). The duty to protect the unity and solidarity of the People (Article 80) was newly added and the duty for national security (Article 85) replaced the duty to keep national secrets, which was Article 71 of the 1972 Constitution.

Duties of ‘Communist Mothers’

Duties of women are particularly emphasized in the DPRK’s public discourse. The stress on duties of ‘communist mothers’ (there are no specific father’s duties) is an interesting example of the mixture of Marxist and Confucian notions of citizens’ duties. No other socialist states particularly focused on the special roles of ‘communist mothers’. The role of ‘communist mothers’ is described as teaching children to have collective identities and not to pursue individual interests: ‘whoever abandons selfishness and follows the party line can be a communist mother or father’ (Kim Il Sung/1981c, 344-345). In 1961, Kim Il Sung named Mun Jong Suk a role model for selfless communist mothers. Mun was a single mother and also member of the KWP who lost her husband during the Korean War but refused financial help from her rich siblings who wanted her life to be easier. One day, at a local party meeting, she publicly criticized the local school principal’s wife. Mun called the principal’s wife ‘a human parasite’ because she was not working and just stayed at home as a housewife. Kim Il Sung praised Mun’s courage and stubbornness, abandoning selfishness and following the party line, and gave Mun an honorary title as a true communist mother.

Criticizing a school principal’s wife publicly is notably unconventional in Confucian ethics because, first of all, she is the respected headmaster’s wife and, second, public condemnation is not appreciated no matter how wrong the accused person’s misbehaviour is. What Kim Il Sung was trying to do was to impose what he believed were communist ethics onto North Korean society. This was certainly not the preferred measure that North Koreans would usually take. Public condemnation or even in some cases public execution is still a working method implemented by the DPRK regime. It is one of the regime’s most vicious policies, violating fundamental and universal human rights and human dignity. Criticizing respected elders, speaking of a ‘human parasite’, would not be acceptable to Confucians either.

On women’s duties, Kim Il Sung (1981e, 543) explicitly said that women should work so that society could have a larger female labour force. Women should learn the socialist ideology that emphasizes labour being a ‘divine duty’. The right to work is indeed one of the most important rights of all in the history of the evolution of international human rights. Kim Il Sung described labour as women’s duty and not a right, just as education was children’s duty not their right, as seen above.

North Korean women have multiple duties at home and at work. At home, women are encouraged to be communist mothers who do take care of domestic chores and childcare (men are never given this official and public duty to raise children). Furthermore, all women who finish university education have a ‘legal’ duty to work for at least five years (Kim Il Sung/1981c, 351-353). In reality, women from rich family backgrounds do not work normally after college graduation. Until 1961, North Korea had not produced any woman who held a doctoral degree. Kim once publicly condemned women who thought staying at home as a full-time housewife was better than becoming a full-time worker (Kim Il Sung/1981c, 351-353). For him, a woman who holds a university degree only wishing to be a full-time housewife of a rich and powerful man was utterly ‘bad’.

Emphasizing citizens’ duties had several purposes, as we have seen. Children’s duties were aimed at imposing a collective mentality and selfless behaviour among the younger generation. Women’s duties were used to mobilize the female labour force. Both groups are internationally recognized as the neediest and most vulnerable people, who need to have their rights protected by their respective governments. In the DPRK, the government loads even more duties onto their shoulders. Rights to education and work are translated into duties. Other Marxist states had a similar conception about citizens’ duties before human rights, which consequently provided a modern concept of citizen’s duties. However, what made this conception acceptable in the DPRK was Korea’s deeply embedded Confucianism, which focused extensively on the respective duties of each individual.


One element of North Korea’s multi-faceted rights thinking has been its Marxist facade. The government has deliberately taken what it needed from Marx and other Marxist states in forming the ideational constitution of human rights in North Korea since 1945. As examined in this paper, the hostility to the capitalist notion of human rights and the importance of the socio-economic structure for the protection of human rights derive conventionally from Marx’s original views and the DPRK government has borrowed class-based terms to repress the enemies of the proletariat in North Korea. Other rights features, shared with Marxists states, include the entitlement of rights contingent upon a person’s class status, the prioritization of collective interests over individual rights, the primacy of subsistence rights over other rights, and the priority of citizens’ duties over their rights. All of these Marxist characteristics of human rights in the DPRK serve to provide the ideological ground to mobilize national unity, the labour power for economic development, and loyalty to the party’s leadership. More importantly, all these Marxist features in human rights already existed in indigenous Korean philosophies, including Choson Confucianism, that fed the growth of Korean-style Marxism in North Korea.