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  • Writer's pictureLaura Austin

Piercing North Korea’s totalitarian fog

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

Ever since the year 1949, when all parties and mass organizations merged into the Democratic Front of the Reunification of the Fatherland, many have argued that the political system in North Korea can be defined as totalitarian. In this article the political system of North Korea will be analyzed through the lens of totalitarianism as it was created by German born American political theorist Hannah Arendt.

Obedience and loyalty through ideological indoctrination

The political system in North Korea is called a Suryong system (which means leader) that began with the ruling of Kim Il-Sung at the center of political power in 1948. The purpose of the Suryong is to maintain political rule through complete control over the population. The Suryong can do this, because the decisions the Suryong makes and execution of policies that were created by the Suryong are by definition never wrong (Sakai, 2013). Furthermore, the political system is based on the Juche ideology. This Juche ideology holds that human beings are social animals capable of being independent and creative. However, only through proper social action can people express these capabilities and only through unconditional and complete obedience to the Suryong can this expression occur. Moreover, this ideology states that the ultimate goal of every individual should be to become a socio-political organism. Again, this goal can only be achieved by complete obedience to the Suryong (Sakai, 2013).

Already, there is a clear link to how Hannah Arendt has defined totalitarianism many years ago. In one of her most famous works “The origins of totalitarianism” (Arendt, 1958), she writes that totalitarianism starts as a mass political movement that eventually brings terror to the place of origin and tries to create universal laws of nature and/or history by creating an ideology that all people of the population follow and adhere to. These laws are presented as consistent universal patterns of some kind of almighty logic that is at the root of every occurrence. These laws formed by the singular ideology are so different from any other law, pattern of explanation that trying to make sense of them is almost impossible, which leads to the people that are being subjugated by this ideology not being able to make any sort of judgement about them. She therefore argued that totalitarianism would be able to enforce its terror wherever there is mass political organization by isolated individuals who have unconditional and unrestricted loyalty to the ideology (Arendt, 1958).

It is therefore through the Juche ideology and enforced obedience of the population to the Suryong, that the first connection to totalitarianism can be made.

Complete control

Complete control of the population in North Korea is still apparent today. Be it through the latest Suryong Kim Jong-Un or because most of the people who live in North Korea are part of an organization and is through organizations and institutions like education and occupation that the North Korean Workers’ Party can indoctrinate, educate and mobilize people on the basis of the Juche ideology. This party formulates the private and public life of its subjects on top of overseeing certain organs of the state (Sakai, 2013).

Another way the government exercises complete control is by censoring political opposition and dominating its subject’s behavior through what is according to Hannah Arendt one of the most important institutions used by a totalitarian regime: annihilation camps (Arendt, 1958). The North Korean government does this by isolating its citizens from the rest of the world and by sentencing individuals, who either form a possible threat to the regime or who are possible defectors of the system, to prison camps. Arendt argues that camps like these not only infiltrate and indoctrinate every realm, public or private, with fear and ideology, but also inspire totalitarianism’s sympathizers with an infatuation of the endless possibilities of what man could achieve when attaining such complete control (Arendt, 1958).

Satellite imagery from 2011 revealed that the prison camps are still active and are being reopened and expanded, holding an estimate of 80,000 prisoners (Enos & Hwang, 2016). Although the North Korean government denies the allegations, a report posted by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry of Human Rights, the situation in these prison or labor camps are violating human rights. The alleged violations include: denial of proper food and healthcare, torture, rape, forced abortion, executions and heavy labor.

The people sentenced to reside in these camps, without having a trial, are labeled as political prisoners for having committed a crime against the state and are usually imprisoned together with three generations of their family due to a concept called “guilt by association” (Enos & Hwang, 2016; Tong-Hyung, 2018). The prisoners are not allowed to know why they are in the camp or where the camp is located. The only thing they do is know is their great leader, which if they wouldn’t know, would result in punishment (Sang-ho, 2012).

Even though Hannah Arendt wrote her work a little over 60 years ago, as this article has tried to outline, it is still relevant to this day. One thing that has changed tremendously since she published her work is the impact that modern technology can have. Former Suryong Kim Jong-Il once said in a rare public occasion that “When enemies look into our republic, they only see a fog”. However, be it satellite images, live streamed speeches or journals on the internet, the distribution and circulation of information has exceedingly increased and has become easier over the years. This could mean that it has also become increasingly harder for totalitarian regimes to maintain their absolute control. Arendt carefully described the criteria such a regime needs to meet and what a totalitarian regime looks like when it has realized the power it strives for in The origins of totalitarianism (Arendt, 1958). Although North Korea remains an isolated country, when piercing the totalitarian fog, all of these things outlined by Arendt can still be observed when carefully looking.

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