This is the second posting – thus exception to the norm – in English on this blog, dedicated to Japanese history for readers of Swedish. It primarily addresses Western journalists interested in coverage of North Korea. Common verbiage in your coverage are terms like ”the last Stalinist outpost” or ”communist holdout”. I believe this is because your first source in reporting is your news organization’s archive. And this is how North Korea was commonly depicted as a result of the Korean War dividing the world along Cold War scrimmage lines. So the terminology lingers on, without really being questioned. Is this an appropriate depiction today?
In this piece I will outline why it isn’t, and actually hasn’t been for a long while. When Kim Il-sung grabbed power he couldn’t hold on to it without external support. The Soviet Union placed him in power and he adopted marxist rhetoric, next to his picture adorning official buildings hung Marx and Lenin. Those are all gone. The same goes for the statues. This was replaced by juche an ideology of self-reliance and is essentially a hoax since North Korea isn’t and never can be self-sufficient. Instead it ought to be thought of as a kind of Kimism deeply rooted in Confucianism. Of the three eastern Asian nations of China, Japan and Korea, the latter has always been the most diligent adherent to Confucian ideals.
And so was Japan during the Edo period, between 1600 and 1868 when the Tokugawa dynasty controlled the central government from its position of shogun, a Supreme and Glorified Leader (although skill and competence varied considerably between the 15 men who held the post) who ruled through fatherly fulmination or motherly benevolence depending on the case. Gift giving was a crucial part of establishing loyalty and social cohesion. As it is today in Pyongyang, hence the strong desire and need for hard currency. To keep his servants faithful and efficient Kim Jong-un needs to distribute valuable gifts among his most senior civil and military servants. Just like the shogun did in his day.
Shifting your focus from comparisons to the fallen Soviet Union and Stalinism to feudal Tokugawa is no easy task. Especially since your knowledge of Stalin and his cronies is way better than it is about Tokugawa Iesada or Tsunayoshi. But if you want your readers, viewers or listeners to have a better comprehension of how North Korea functions internally they at least deserve the opportunity to be exposed to an alternative theory so they can make an educated choice. So allow me to point out some of the other similarities with Tokugawa Japan, and how they differ from the Soviet Union.
Sakoku is the term Japanese historians apply on Japan’s isolation from around 1635 to Perry’s arrival in 1858. It was actually first introduced by Engelbert Kaempfer through his stay in Nagasaki 1691/92 and to be honest, Japan was a little more open to the world than North Korea. Western discourse focus way too much on Nagasaki and the Dutch trade, but Japan had more intense trade with both Korea and China from Tsushima, Nagasaki and Ryukyu (Okinawa) than they did with East Indian Compagnie of Holland. But the reason Japan closed itself off from the West was that it wanted an end to political meddling in its internal affairs from the Jesuit priests from Portugal and Spain. Just as North Korea today views any external critique as outside meddling and molds their responses in warlike demagoguery, the Tokugawas did the same when Western ships sought harbor anywhere else but Nagasaki. And if they weren’t Dutch and on the arrival schedule they were chased away, with canons if necessary. While the Soviet Union might not have been the most open of societies it was never as closed to the world as this.
North Korea has the songbun caste system that shows remarkable similarities to the shi-no-ko-sho class distinction established by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century and then maintained by Tokugawa during the whole Edo period. And just like the Japanese system it is rigid and unquestioned. In both countries there was never any opposition to the system and the question of structured and transparent upward mobility has never been on the table. Instead both countries successfully persuaded their population that social stability depended on quiescence. This may also very well explain why neither Tokugawa Japan nor Kim’s Korea faced a national uprising by the suppressed classes or organized large scale underground opposition. This too in contrast to development in the Soviet Union.
Cities and villages in Tokugawa Japan was organized in something named gonin-gumi, meaning ”five man union” and was a system of nominally five households being collectively responsible for each other’s behavior. If one person strayed it was incumbent on the members to report that person or they ran the risk of collective punishment. North Korea has a similar system in its inminban neighborhood groups and just as in Tokugawa Japan every citizen has to be a member in one of these units. The main difference is that in Tokugawa Japan the gonin-gumi was run by men, the inminban are almost exclusively run by women. Like the Tokugawa organization kept in close contact with shogunate official the ladies of the inminban are in contact with and managed by officials from the Korean Workers party. The closest thing in the Soviet Union was the Druzhina a voluntary style militia more concerned with public order in cities, particularly offensive drunkenness rather than functioning as an information gathering service.
Another distinct likeness between North Korea and Tokugawa Japan is the songun or ”military first” principle. This is reminiscent of samurai status under Tokugawa, their needs were primary even if, as in North Korea of today, they couldn’t always be fully met. Just as the Kim family is often portrayed together with military, enlisted as well as medal-sparkling generals and admirals, Tokugawa shogun was often surrounded by daimyo, the feudal provincial lords that also functioned as supreme commander of their own army. Their strategic and martial skills highly valued in combination with a loyalty that comes natural to a military man. Tokugawa would take the opportunity to shuffle them around if they lacked an heir apparent, thus making it difficult for them to build anti-Tokugawa alliances. Kim seems to follow this pattern and even purge and execute high ranking generals if they are suspected of planning any sort of coup. Tokugawa simply ordered them to perform seppuku, or ritual suicide. That method, maintaining personal honor through self-emolument, of purging someone has never been part of the Korean tradition though. Stalin’s purges were a result of his personal paranoia and went far beyond the military, whereas Tokugawa and Kim established it as part of a continuous policy to secure their own personal position and maintain loyalty among the military leadership.
Hopefully this has shown that there are distinct similarities between the Kim dynasty and the Tokugawa dynasty, and that those aren’t necessarily shared with Stalinist Soviet Union. Granted, for most Western news consumers the association to Stalin is the broad well paved highway while the path to Tokugawa Japan may be a gravel trail with potholes. But no one ever promised that facts were easy. Actually, once they became perceived as ubiquitous and obvious, they came under attack. Hard earned knowledge is something your audience will cling harder too because of its recognized value.