In the last 10-15 years special attention is paid to Korean events, the internal- and foreign political developments in the two Korean states, their relationships.

Economic success, democratic development in South Korea; economic collapse, mass starvation, dictatorial system, forced nuclear and missile programs in North Korea. All of these are headlines in world press, not to mention the regular international-diplomatic conflicts. So it is understandable that interest in the history, culture, social and political roots of development of the far-east country keeps growing. Where did they start from, where have they got by the beginning of the 21st century and particularly how? And how is it possible that half of a nation – which was ethnically homogenous and historically united for 1300 years – has become the 10th – 11th economic power of the world, while the other half has become the ‘last on the list’ according to every economic, social and political measures. In other words, a previously underdeveloped, half-feudal,-colonial nation ‘produced’ a very successful and a failed model of modernization paralelly at the same time.

It can be the result of the above mentioned interest that three basic comprehensive monographs were published about the history of Korea in Russia in 2003, within a single year. These books introduce and analyze the longstanding history of the Korean people, the roots of – and reasons for their success and difficulties without the ideological – political commitment which was typical of the earlier approach. These studies help us to clear up several misunderstandings and exaggerations in connection with today’s Korea, especially North Korea and the so called ‘Korean question’. Among their authors and editors we can find both internationally recognized ‘great old men” of Korean studies, and even more their followers, the well prepared representatives of today’s middle-generation. (1) We must mention Yu V. Vanin’s work published recently, titled: ‘The Korean War (1950-53) and the UN.’ (2) (Yu.V. Vanin is the head of the Korean-Mongolian section of Orientalistic Institute of the Russian Academy of Science).In this work the author can reveal new facts and connections even after the really rich publications and literature of the topic.

The scientific publications analyzing the DPRK’s history and the North-Korean situation are going to raise special interest. On the one hand because the Soviet/Russian researches have more resources, much more material and a lot more thorough local knowledge than others. On the other hand international press paints quite a misshaped picture of the DPRK. (Unfortunately the Hungarian media and some politicians also advance in this activity.)

Now I would like to give a short account of two studies dealing with the North Korean situation, written by well-known Russian Korea experts/researches and published recently.

In 2006 the Far-East Institute of the Russian Academy published a book by its Korean Research Centre’s head, A.Z. Zsebin titled: ‘The Development of the political system of the DPRK within Global Changes’.(:“Evolyutia polititseskoy systemi DPRK v usloviyach globalnich peremen”, Russkaya Panorama, Moscow,2006).

A similar topic is disputed in professor L.V. Zabrovskaya’s study (University of Vladivostok) titled : ‘The DPRK in the Age of Globalization. From Closedness towards Openness.’ It also appeared in 2006. (“Koreyskaya Narodno-Demokratitseskaya Respublika v epochu globalizatii.Ot zatvornitsestva k otkritosty”, TCSzR, Vladivostok,2006).

Even in the title of his study A. Zsebin wants to question the deep-rooted view of politicians and the public that in the DPRK, in the North-Korean social and political system nothing changed over decades during ‘Stalinist dictatorship’.Professor L.V. Zabrovskaya goes even further when – in the subtitle of her work she characterizes the present North-Korean political and economic situation as a procedure ‘from closedness towards openness’.

A. Zsebin points out that “the governing elite of the DPRK has transformed the state ideology, political system and economy gradually and without any useless fuss – first of all in order to consolidate its own power and ensure the survival of the system while competing with South-Korea and confronting the USA.” (p. 156)

A. Zsebin illustrates and analyzes this process in a chronological sequence of three chapters built on each other. In the first chapter – ‘Revolution and continuity in the policy of the DPRK’ – the author describes the relationship between traditions and modernity in the history of North Korea after 1945. He emphasizes ‘the development of ideology – from marxism to traditionalism’ and then summarizes the characteristics of the transformation of the North Korean political system. We can agree with the author saying: ‘…in the country the main purpose of the political process for 30 years (from the middle of the 60’s to the middle of the 90’s) was the creation of conditions of transferring power to Kim Ir Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il.’(pp.6-7). And although the exterior attributes of the Soviet type republic were preserved, the contents and forms of the political process in the DPRK were more and more defined by the traditional Korean (Confucian) political culture. The final purposes and ‘result’ of this was the hereditary, monarchical (feudal) transfer of power in a formally, namely socialist country.(3) The transformation and functions of the North-Korean political, ideological and institute-systems were subordinated to this same purpose. (4)

“We can say that the Soviet and East-European type of democratic reforms in 1945-47, following the collapse of the Japanese colonial system and following liberation proved to be only means to restore historical tradition and continuity when international-political reality and 20th century scientific and technical development would have required a reaction completely different from any previous one” – underlined A.Zsebin.

From the historical – methodological point of view, today we can say that fundamentally ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ types of modernization faced each other, as it was later on convincingly demonstrated by the development of North and South Korea within one nation.

The author keeps returning to the topic: how important traditions and their impact are on the structure and functions of the present political systems in Eastern countries, particularly in the special case of North Korea. Although North Korean party- and state leaders never referred openly to Confucianism, its spirit and practice could strongly be felt in the ideological-propaganda, it penetrated social and political life. A. Zsebin points out that after 1945 it was exactly Confucianist traditions that created the basis, the background for the formation of a – seemingly – soviet type of system (society is a big family with the father as the leader). This system, in spite of the first exterior similarities to ‘people’s democratic’ or ‘socialist’ systems soon became quite different from East-European ‘brother-countries’ in its contents (especially from the second half of the 50’s). Then, when the ‘Soviet example’ became a burden both on internal and foreign political reasons, Confucianism – often in a simplified, primitive form – served as the basis for the revival and development of the strong Korean nationalism and some specially interpreted traditionalism got the upperhand. (the so-called ‘Juche’ idea, their ‘own way’ etc. ) Without going into details, we can agree with the author in that the Korean Labour Party, which was established in 1945 with Soviet cooperation, became ‘the leader’s party’, which served as the mechanism and means of dictatorship of one person.

With this Kim Ir Sung, and after his death (1994) his son, Kim Jong Il became the embodiment of personal dictatorship, ‘Korean type of socialism’. (as the leader, father of society, the big family.) (p.38).

The only possessor of power is the Kim Ir Sung-clan (but we must mention that even within the clan there have been tensions and conflicts.). More and more members of the clan have leading positions in the government, in the army and in several fields of political, social, economic and cultural life.

In the second chapter of the monograph – ‘The political system of the Kim Jong Il period’ – A. Z. Zsebin gives a detailed description and analysis of the several decade long political, institutional and personal preparation and built up of the inheritance of power. Kim Junior has been among the highest leaders since the 70’s. In 1974 his father initiated that Kim Junior should be a member of the Party’s Political Committee and secretary of the Central Committee. Leaders of the party even officially recognised him as the ‘heir of the leader’ (p.54). In his speech given on his 80th birthday (15th April 1992), Kim Ir Sung declared that the most important result of his life was the fact that he ensured the power for his son. He made his son the commander-in-chief of the Korean Army in December 1991. (until then – according to the then Constitution – he – as the head of state – had this position.) Then his son became a marshal and then in April 1993 the Chairman of the National Defense Commission (which later became the highest institution practicing power.) (p.95).

However the transfer of power by hereditary means (even when Kim Ir Sung was alive) was accompanied by serious economic crisis, critically bad supply and natural disasters (flood, drought, famine) for years. (5) Under such circumstances, Kim Jong Il’s official inauguration in the highest party-, state- and military positions after his father’s death (08 July 1994) would have been doubtful even according to the Confucianist traditions (‘Heaven sent some ill omen’). That is why the Confucianist three-year mourning period was kept before the inauguration. (p. 56)

The author reveals the balance of forces and inner tensions within the Kim-clan in details but he also points out that the governing elite saves its unity in order to keep power and avoid the fate top politicians met in East-European countries such as GDR and Rumania. (p. 62)

All these – already in Kim Ir Sung’s last years – put the army into the limelight. It was the supporter and guarantee of succession and gradually pushed the Korean Labour Party into the background. Finally in 1995 ‘Songun’ policy (“Military first”) was officially declared by Kim Jong Il, which meant the absolute priority of the army and the complete militarization of the social, political, economic, cultural and public life of the country.

As a result of the above mentioned process, the internal situation of the DPRK and the personal power of ‘Kim Jong Il, as the Chairman of the National Defense Commission and the general secretary of the Korean Labour Party stabilized.

The modification of the Constitution in 1998 meant the same thing. As far as the ‘Songun’ policy and the complete militarization of the society are concerned, A.Z. Zsebin says that ‘this is ruling with the help of military forces, relying on military forces.’ (p. 90).

Pyongyang’s political propaganda kept on spreading openly for years that ‘the Army is the Party, the people and the state in one.’(This reminds us of Mao Tsetung’s slogan and practice ‘power grows out of the gun-barrel.’).

The author raises the readers’ attention to the fact that the ‘songun’ policy has several negative consequences in the North Korean society. The army – as such – is conservative, what is more, it appears as a reactional force which is an obstacle in fighting the present social and economic crisis. (p. 96) (6) This – among other things – appears in the growing apathy of the society against the political – propaganda campaigns of the party and the power. (7).

In the third chapter of the monograph the author looks over ‘The mechanisms of mass mobilization and social control’ in North Korea. He gives a detailed description of the ideological – political productivity campaigns in the last decades, Kim Jong Il’s contribution “to his father’s inheritance” in this field.

However we still need Zsebin’s reply to the important question ‘HOW’ asked at the beginning of the article. Through the introduction and analysis of the historical, social, administrative public security and mass mobilization role of ‘inminbans’ (i.e. neighbourhood communities.) (pp.117-138)

Inminban (the system of mutual guarantee) was established in China in 6th-3rd century B.C. by the legists and became a major means of non-economic force of the population… complete control not only over their activity but their thinking, too.’ – says A. Zsebin.

The system was imported by the states belonging to the circle of the Chinese civilisation and culture, among them the Korea of the early Middle Ages. Besides its several administrative, registrational functions, it had an important role in creating patriotic act. (Under mutual guarantee the members were responsible for each other’s taxing, robots and moral behaviour etc.) ‘Inminban’ got a special role in Korea from the the 19th century, when foreigners (“barbarians”) mainly missionaries appeared. In the last years of the Japanese colonization (1910-1945) Japanese authorities also used the ‘inminban’ for their own purposes, against patriotic organizations against Japan, and against Korean and Manchurian partisan movements.

In 1945, following the liberation of Korea, paralelly with the establishing organizations of people’s power, ‘inminbans’ were reorganized in the North (and in the South, too) and presently they involve all the population of the DPRK. They also mean ‘the lowest cell of authorities’. (p. 119). Kim Ir Sung and Kim Jong Il, the highest state- and party leaders constantly keep an eye on the activities of ‘inminbans’, often give them ‘instructions on the spot’, annually organize ‘the meeting of the representatives’ of the countries best ‘inminbans’.

North Korean inminbans consist of 20-30 families living in one building or staircase in towns, or 5-10 families in villages. As it seems from the things described above, they have a wide range of tasks: educating the members in the ‘spirit of Juche”, faithfulness to the party and the leader, following his instructions, controlling the ‘theoretical purity’ of the members, unmasking those who break moral community norms, mobilizing for different social work, taking part in several responsibilities: keeping a record of the tenants, registering events in the families, keeping a record of their visitors, distributing food-tickets and receiving the mail of the members. (8).

A. Zsebin is right when he says that the role of ‘inminbans’ expands particularly during economic difficulties, which have become permanent in the DPRK since the 90’s. For example: those using electric heaters, boilers or electric cookers without permission are arrested, deported and/or sentenced to penal servitude by the Ministry of Public Security. (p. 134) According to the author, in the present situation ‘inminbans’ – as one important mechanism of organizing the population in order to preserve social stability – practically hinder social and economic changes in the country. In my view that is a debatable point since this longstanding (thousands of years) institution or ‘reshaping’ could even move transformation forward. The number of North-Korean dissidents had never been as high as in recent years, which also proves the loosening of control and the spreading of corruption.

Finally A. Zsebin – under the subtitle ‘On the way of changes’ – gives an account of the cautious half-steps that Pyongyang leaders have taken in the field of economic direction. (In North Korea the expression ‘reform’ is not used!) However introducing (permitting) limited market mechanisms has not yet led to any significant result because the key-positions of economic life still remained under strict state control. As A.Zsebin thinks North Korean leaders seem to have decided – after long hesitation – to try some slowed down, cautious Chinese-Vietnamese type of reform-experiment, preserving its conservative political system and political decision-making mechanism (‘more popes than the Pope’, as there have been examples in Korean history.) It cannot be denied that they study and pay careful attention to the experience of South-Korean modernization, too. (p. 157) Economic and commercial relations between the two Koreas – as unavoidable prerequisites of modernization – are becoming wider. (p. 159) (Commercial turnover has already exceeded US$ one billion) As far as the future is concerned, the author’s point is quite interesting: ‘the experience of post-communist development in the ex-soviet republics – Caucasian and in Central-Asia can really serve as a “rescue recipe’ for the DPRK. (including ‘handing over power by inheritance’, which practice started there, too.) (p. 160)

‘The point of the task in front of the present leaders of the DPRK is that they should create the economic conditions and political guarantee necessary for the present governing elite of North Korea under the new circumstances…’ – A. Z. Zsebin closes his study, but ‘one of the essential problems is that the DPRK started the reforms obviously late. ‘ (p. 162). The thorough and edifying monograph is completed with an addendum containing the present Constitution of the DPRK, the rules of the Korean Labour Party and a list and review of the central organs of the party and the state.

While A. Z. Zsebin deals mainly with the operation and perspectives of the present North Korean social and political system, L. V. Zabrovskaya approaches basically the same topic from the economic, eco-political point of view. She emphasizes: ‘…the present life of the DPRK must be studied, we must make a wide range of workers understand the reasons for the consolidation of the Korean Labour Party, the solidarity of the people with leading circles in every question of home- and foreign policy. ‘ So in the first chapter of the monograph she gives a detailed description of the internal economic situation of the DPRK, its economic-direction-, and distribution system, its demographic problems, the everyday life of the society. She quotes a statement of the Pyonyang press: ‘because of the breaking up of the socialist market and the economic chain-sanctions of western powers and unforeseen elemental calamity the country got into a critical situation.’ Mass starvation hitting North Korea was extremely serious in 1997. According to foreign, especially American calculations – as we have mentioned it already – the number of victims of famine was between 800 thousand and 3 million. At the same time authorities of the DPRK officially mentioned 200 thousand deaths within 5 years, people who were said to be the victims of ‘health difficulties’. (p. 11) Because of the crisis in food-supply the leaders of the country were compelled to apply for foreign humanitarian subvention and they had to make some changes in the cooperative system of villages. So they agreed to permit ‘family ventures’ and the 5-6 member agricultural private brigades, which worked on pieces of lands rent from cooperations. Soon it became obvious that the productivity of these half-independent groups was much higher than that of cooperatives. Members can sell the surplus produced by them in the peasant markets. (The number of these ventures is over 300 in the country, 40 of which are in the capital). The maximum size of household plots allowed was 200 m2 , which used to be 30 m2 previously.

However, L. Zabrovskaya points out: ‘there is no question of basic changes in the organization of agricultural production or the formation of family peasant farms, which would be much more effective. All these root in the ideological theory that only collective farming has reason for existence in a socialist country.’…

The author pays careful attention to the first, careful – we can say – often dissimilar reform-experiments called “Government instructions of July 2002”. They made partial decentralization possible (e.g.: the calculation of their own prices, entering into a contract with their suppliers and users, introducing economic self-accounts, etc.). There was another significant step, after several decades the interference of company – and institutional party committees with the economic activities of the company was limited to a certain extent.

All these could have serious economic impacts and consequences if the country and its budget were not loaded with super-militarization, particularly the nuclear-missile-developping race. According to L. Zabrovskaya’s data one third of the country’s annual budget is spent on maintaining the fourth biggest army. Partly based on her own experience, the author gives a detailed account of the price-and wage systems introduced in the frames of the “government measures of July 2002”. She also writes about their negative consequences (e. g. unemployment, inflation). She points out that the cautious, uncertain economic reform-experiment is not going on smoothly, but it makes the population, particularly elderly party workers discontent. Behind the scenes a fight seems to be going on between the latter and young ‘technocrats’ but Kim Jong Il seems – for the present - to control it. He can rely on China’s support (humanitarian and economic), ‘which minimizes the negative impacts of reforms and assists DPRK in joining the modern international life of the region in a relatively less painful way. ‘ – the author says. It seems that North Korea is going to follow the Chinese socialist market economy in some way, but the author makes it clear that ‘authorities are not planning the reforms of the political system’, and even now they pursue a quite inconsistent policy of economic liberalization.

In her final conclusion Professor L.V. Zabrovskaya rightly points out that increasing globalization ‘was unexpected in the DPRK: the country’s economy is unable to meet the population’s everyday needs’ (p. 147). The internal and international situation of the country demand more and more clearly that fatal supermilitarization should be stopped. Instead, the country should introduce realistic economic reforms based on the role of the market. Self-isolation, which is totally outdated in the 21st century, should be given up.

The monograph comprehensively deals with the economic relations of the DPRK and its neighbours, mainly China and Russia (with detailed data), and the possibilities and perspectives of Russian (far Eastern) and North-Korean relations in particular.

We can conclude that both authors have thorough local knowledge, professional grounding and objectivity when they analyze the North Korean situation, the system’s objectives, aspirations in home – and foreign policy, and their motives. Eventually Alexander Z. Zsebin’s and Larissa V.Zabrovskaya’s conclusions are the same but with different approaches: the constrained, dissimilar steps taken were late, served only the survival of the political system and the clan and have neither (yet) helped the economic rise of the country, nor fastened its joining to the international economic processes. The indisputable value of both monographs is that they provide researchers, politicians and those interested with detailed information about the DPRK, today’s ‘hermit dictatorship.’

(1) Kourbanov,S.O.: Kurs lekcii po istorii Korei s drevnosti do konca XX veka. Sankt-Peterbourg, 2002., Tichonov,Vl.M.: Istoria Korei, Vol.1.S drevneysih vremyon do 1876 goda,Moscow,2003., Torkunov,A.N.(red.): Istoria Korei (novoye protsteniya, Moscow,2003.

(2) Vanin, Yu.V.: Koreyskaya voyna (1950 – 1953) i OON, Moscow, 2006.

(3) Kim Il Sung said that the crises of East European socialist countries were caused by the fact that „the transfer of power was not solved”. He emphasized that this problem was „successfully solved” int he DPRK and int he Korean Labor Party.

(4) Let me remark that the DPRK denied marxism-leninism, proletar-dictatorship and the Leading role of the proletariate even though they refer to them as the historical antecendents of „Juche”, „Songun”, etc.

(5) The reports about 1,5 – 2 millions victims of starvation are not only aggregations - but in my view - impossible, too (F.K.)

(6) Let us add that it disturbs the relationship between the two Koreas and the international activity of the DPRK

(7) According to the writer of these lines, in recent months (2007-2008) it seems that military leaders have got a little in the background compared to Kim Jong Il, although propaganda keeps ‘pushing’ the ‘songun’, but now as the ‘policy of the Party’ and not as an independent defining force. In Nodong Sinmun, which is the central press-organ different, ‘arguing’ evaluations, statements appear in the competent, decisive editorials and leading articles. Several articles in March 2008 underlined economic buildings”s importance “in era of Songun” (i.e.March 10).

(8) In 1961 the head of department int he Pyongyang”s People’s Council said to the writer of these lines that with the help of „inminbans” they can organize a meeting of several hundred thousand people in a few hours. He declared: with the help of inminban it is also easier the unmask the enemy, because they nust live somewhere,too”.