On 17 December 2011, the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was announced to the world. As with the death of any major political figure, the world turned to examination of his “legacy”. But the only legacy left in the wake of the demise of the “Dear Leader” was one of a horrifying human rights record, widespread poverty, and what amounts to one of the most (if not the most) repressive political regimes in the world.
A Human Rights Watch report from 2004 described Kim Jong Il as ruling “with an iron fist and a bizarre cult of personality” in which “virtually every aspect of political, social, and economic life is controlled by the government”. Education, healthcare and even food distribution are allocated based on three groupings related to political loyalty to the state – “core”, “wavering”, and “hostile”. Children of the core group – those closest to the party – receive the best education, as opposed to their supposedly dissident peers. There is no free media, and no scope for political opposition. The “governance” provided by Kim Jong Il caused a famine in North Korea which killed an unknown number, but thought to be as many as two million. Hundreds of thousands are detained and tortured to this day in political prisons, and crimes which are punishable include accessing non-state media, or attempting to leave the country without permission. (Source – Human Rights Watch, 2004).
This oppressive oligarchy cuts against everything we believe in as supporters of basic political freedoms, let alone as revolutionary socialists. North Korea, like other Stalinist states, promotes itself as a “communist” state which promotes the rights of workers. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Trade unions and labour organisations in North Korea are controlled exclusively by the state, and strikes and collective bargaining are illegal.
But unfortunately, when events such as this occur, those on the “left” who still see North Korea as somehow progressive or socialist come crawling out of the woodwork. One could have predicted how small Stalinist sects like the CPGB-ML – key players in the “Stalin Society”, a group dedicated to the rehabilitation of Stalin’s reputation and its defence against “capitalist, opportunist, revisionist and Trotskyist propaganda” - would have reacted to this news, but its choice of phrases still turns the stomach: “It is with feelings of deep and profound grief that we have learned the shocking news of the sudden passing away of one of the world’s most respected and beloved anti-imperialist leaders … Comrade Kim Jong Il devoted his entire life to the freedom and happiness of the Korean people, to the building of a thriving and powerful socialist nation, and to the anti-imperialist, socialist and communist cause of mankind.”
But though most would agree that this kind of rabid fan-boy attitude to one of the worst tyrants of the modern era is sickening, the withered, rotten hand of Stalinism is still detectable in what most would consider the “mainstream” of the far-left, and is notable if not for its overt praise of Kim Jong-Il, then certainly for its lack of credible criticism.
The Morning Star, which badges itself as ‘the daily paper of the Left’, and is largely run by the Communist Party of Britain, lacked any critique of the North Korean leader in their scant coverage of his demise. The Morning Star’s initial report of his death was tantamount to coverage of the death of, perhaps, a soap star or the prime minister of a bourgeois democracy. “The state has declared a ban on foreign visits during the mourning period” it told – no mention, then, that this ban has been pretty much permanent for decades. No mention either that the state mourning period was in fact, according to North Korean refugees who managed to get away and recently interviewed on British television, that those crying in the streets all but had a gun to their back to show such collective grief.
In a later analysis, the Star questioned the Western criticism of North Korea, asking whether it did the same for Israel and Pakistan, who also have nuclear weapons. To say that they were playing down the current situation in North Korea would be an understatement, as phrases like, “Nonetheless, there are still major issues of particular concern on the left about North Korean society and its current trajectory” make one wonder whether the article was about the future of a murderous dictatorial regime, or the latest haircut of a minor reality TV star.
But perhaps, with the pro-Stalinist history (and indeed present) of the CPB, and so the Morning Star, this was to be expected. They question whether the state-imposed collective grief was any different to that experienced in the UK, nodding to the death of Princess Diana or other royals; something which is absurd in its lack of context, but which the other largest paper on the left, the Socialist Worker, was far more explicit on; “the same columnists who snigger at North Korea celebrated mass weeping in the streets over Princess Diana and the Queen Mother.” This is no comparison. Yes, UK state funerals have particular traditions and confines (as do most non-state funerals), but the public do not weep with a gun to their back or the threat of the death penalty for treason at not grieving enough for the great “Father”. The collective hysteria surrounding the deaths of British royals is rightly unseemly to socialists, but it is not the same as the enforced-at-gunpoint collective grieving demanded by the Stalinist bureaucracy.
We should make no mistake; these are not real comparisons. By the Morning Star and SWP making excuses, or drawing completely unreasonable comparisons, they are in fact legitimising the existence of the North Korean state, and the oppression of its people. Leftists who go along with the soft-Stalinist apologia for North Korea should ask themselves whether they would prefer to be a trade union militant in Pyongyang or New York. They should draw some conclusions from their answer. It is not to “support” Western capitalism against North Korean Stalinism, and any sabre-rattling by capitalist-imperialist powers should obviously be opposed (although a war against North Korea is unlikely). But it is to remember that, for socialists, freedom for workers to self-organise is a more important measure than an abstract “anti-imperialism”, paid for with starvation and terroristic state oppression.
This nonsensical affection for tyrannical “anti-imperialist” states taints the entire left. We are on the side of the international working class against all enemies. Solidarity with the working class of North Korea against their state oppressors!