Events

Offsite Event: The 2009 'New DPRK Revolutionary Upsurge'--A Blast from the Past or a New Path?

February 10, 2009 // 1:00pm4:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
History and Public Policy Program
Asia Program

North Korea's 2009 New Year's editorial outlined plans for a "New Revolutionary Upsurge" to build "a great, prosperous and powerful nation" (kangsong taeguk). Drawing a direct parallel to Kim Il-sung's Chollima Movement of the late 1950s, Kim Jong-il is reported to have launched his new revolutionary upsurge in Kangson--the birthplace of the Chollima Movement--on December 24, 2008. It was heralded as a turning point in the development of the Korean Workers' Party and revolution much like when Kim Il-sung set the Chollima Movement in motion in December 1956. While the Chollima upsurge was credited for building on the post-war debris "a strong country independent in politics, self-supporting in the economy and self-reliant in national defense," it remains to be seen where the Kim Jong-il regime will be able to draw on the resources required to "open the gate to a thriving nation in 2012."

NKIDP Document Reader No. 1, "New Evidence on North Korea's First Five-Year Plan and the Chollima Movement, 1956-1963" informed the discussions and is available for download from www.wilsoncenter.org/NKIDP.

James Person, coordinator of the North Korea International Documentation Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars explained that the primary goal of the Chollima Movement when it was launched in 1956 was to combine the programs of cultural and technological revolution to succeed in socialist industrialization. Through moralistic fervor and ideological appeal, the movement aimed to essentially remold man into a good communist who would sacrifice himself for the sake of the collective interest.

While North Korea's industrial production did show tremendous growth during the period of the Chollima Movement, by the 1970s, just a decade after the campaign, the rate of expansion of the North Korean economy significantly declined. One notable success that can be attributed to the Chollima Movement was Kim Il Sung's cultural revolution, which succeeded in subordinating individual thoughts and actions to the needs of the collective, with Kim Il Sung successfully couching it in terms that made the North Korean people feel patriotic. The most visible example of this today is the mass games. Organization, discipline, and collectivism are key elements of the mass games, and of the work teams which were spawned from the Chollima Movement and remain the primary method of incentives for promoting economic growth. As a result of the Chollima Movement, the mentality of teamwork and collective effort runs throughout North Korean society.

By reviving the Chollima Movement now, Pyongyang seems to be attempting to reinforce this notion of harmonious participation for the greater good of society, particularly as the government seeks to re-establish control over systems of distribution following the breakdown in the 1990s, and to quell the individualism that emerged with the spread of black markets for over a decade.

Bernd Schaefer, senior scholar with the Cold War International History Project referred to specific documents in the collection prepared for the event to explain that despite initial successes, especially during the period of the Chollima Movement, North Korea to this day has not solved the three fundamental problems that have plagued the government and people since the post Korean War era: food, clothing, and housing. As late as October 1986, Kim Il Sung explained to East German leader Eric Honecker that "With our 3rd Seven-Year-Plan we want to finally solve these three main tasks [food, clothing, and housing]. This is the foundation for all our efforts. We have to accomplish this first."

John Park, senior research associate for Northeast Asia with the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute of Peace explained that in the 1950s, Kim Il-sung drew on the massive sympathy in the communist world following the devastation of the Korean War and was able to turn that sympathy into reconstruction funds. North Korea thus had a diversified set of bilateral relationships that were turned into a portfolio of donors that served as the key enabler of economic reconstruction activity during the first Five-Year Plan (1956-1961). In contrast, today, North Korea's only ally of note is China. According to Park, North Korea's current isolation indicates a high likelihood of closer interactions with China. While China is politically willing to assist North Korea's economic reconstruction, the question is how economically constrained China will be by its own economic difficulties.

Invoking the Chollima Movement is both symbolically and practically important—it fosters a group approach to shouldering burdens as North Korea works towards building a strong and prosperous country by 2012. The goals of the recently announced "New Revolutionary Upsurge" remain the same as the Chollima Movement; economic reconstruction and regime solidification. Yet, North Korea has a new tool that did not exist in the 1950s: "North Korea, Inc." As Park explained, every branch of the North Korean government has a trading house that is responsible for generating its own operating expenses and for supporting the lavish lifestyle of Kim Jong Il. This state company system serves as an effective engagement mechanism, especially with China.

Discussant Charles Armstrong, director of Columbia University's Center for Korean Studies explained that unlike China, which in the 1960s and 1970s vacillated from one extreme to the other, North Korea has been remarkably stable since the 1940s, much to its detriment. Had North Korea experienced something as obviously as disastrous as the Great Leap Forward, it might have changed directions and moved more radically toward a liberalization program as China did in the 1970s.

Like in the post-Korean War period, North Korea appears to be emerging from a near fatal catastrophe, and this is one way in which the current period can be seen as analogous to the late 1950s when the Chollima Movement was launched. While North Korea did not really succeed in the 1950s and 1960s, it remains to be seen if the DPRK will succeed at grafting 21st century technology to a mid-20th century social mobilization and state-directed development strategy. According to Armstrong, the revival of the Chollima Movement today seems to be a message to the North Korean people to be prepared because "changes are afoot, a major experiment is going to happen and everyone has to be united in a collective will in order to meet these challenges."

Armstrong urged caution when looking at the relationship between China and North Korea. China's influence and leverage over North Korea should not be overemphasized. At the same time, if not more importantly, one should not underemphasize the degree to which North Korea fears and wants to do whatever is possible to avoid dependence on China. The New Year's editorial and the "New Revolutionary Upsurge" can thus be read partly as an articulation of a hope for new and expanded trade and economic partnerships, particularly with the United States, Japan, and other Western countries.

Drafted by James F. Person, coordinator, North Korea International Documentation Project
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program


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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • James Person // Senior Program Associate
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant