North Korea and the 21st Century State of Communism


When Charles Armstrong ‘84 was working on his dissertation on Korea in the early nineties, few shared his enthusiasm for exploring the cryptic state of North Korean affairs. “People told me I was wasting my time, that in a few years you’ll be able to go to Pyongyang yourself to look at the archives,” he said. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution and the international shift away from communism, many were convinced that the state’s days of dictatorship and isolation were numbered.

Almost two decades later, however, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains, and Charles Armstrong, now the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences at Columbia University, continues to study the region. On November 11 he came to Yale and discussed the state’s nature, its past, and its possible future in a talk entitled “’Everlasting Fraternal Friendship’: North Korea and the End of Communism.”

North Korea’s uniqueness was a theme throughout the talk, and Armstrong proposed that understanding North Korea, down to its labeling, was not the straightforward task some might believe. He pointed to the varied labels academics have given to its structure, from a Stalinist holdover to a modern totalitarian state, even to a fascist regime modeled on imperial Japan. In any case, he affirmed, North Korea was not a cut-and-dry case.

Armstrong described the North Korean system as a “creative application of Marxism-Leninism” to regional needs. This individuality was marked in the 1970s, when the state made efforts to expand trade with capitalist countries and associated itself with the non-aligned movement.

The 1980s brought poor fortunes to the country.  On the economic front North Korea struggled – it became the first communist state to default on loans, and the economic focus in Asia shifted from communist states towards the “Asian Tigers” Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. A diplomatic realignment towards the USSR, marked by leader Kim Il Sung’s “Everlasting Fraternal Friendship” tour of Eastern Europe, came just as the European communist establishment seemed to be crumbling and the People’s Republic of China increasingly opened itself up to market-based reform. By 1991 North Korea was, in a sense, quite alone.

Nevertheless the state endured through to the 21st century. Armstrong proposed a variety of possible explanations for the survival of it twenty-two years past the collapse of the USSR, including nationalism, militarism, fairly consistent Chinese support, nuclear deterrence; and continued diversification of economic partners.

Performers at North Korea's Mass Games (Courtesy of Creative Commons).
Performers at North Korea’s Mass Games (Courtesy of Creative Commons).

The state continues to follow “a specifically North Korean path,” he says. “The Chinese have been telling them for 20 year to be just like them,” and reform, but so far it has maintained a unique level of “ideological isolation.”

However, the future may come to North Korea sometime soon, if not too soon. Agricultural reforms, urban Special Economic Zones modeled on Chinese examples, and even the opening of the country to outside information through a restricted internet connection are all on the table according to Armstrong. Change in the system is not an impossibility.

Armstrong is doubtful of complete collapse of the system, however, and does not expect regime change in the near future, though he does not rule it out. “A decisive move toward reform from the very top” is in his view most likely, as the state’s leaders have so far resolutely held on to its power over the people. “The problem” he says “is not that it is a failed state, but that it still works very well.”

One potential impetus for change, perhaps, is greater cultural interaction between the state and the outside world. “A clever and above all sustained engagement with North Korea is what I think is needed,” Armstrong says. “I think [the North Koreans] are ready to engage the world in a more extensive way,” he said, though qualifying that the extent of this engagement is far from certain.

Perhaps ironically, the US itself is proving resistant to engagement with North Korea. In the US, Armstrong says, “you have nothing to gain by reaching out to North Korea, but you could lose something as a politician.” Greater demands by the Korean-American community is one potential solution to this hesitance.

Slow as its start may be, a greater opening of North Korea to outside influences is likely, and for those concerned about American interests or hopeful for the spread of democracy, the only realistic hope for change in the system. “The question,” Armstrong says, “is how soon and how fast.”

Mitchell Hightower is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at