Recently journalists from The Guardian newspaper reported an important change during stays in Pyongyang: two large portraits of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin – long a prominent feature of Pyongyang’s central Kim Il-sung square – were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the images have been replaced by a more dominating portrait of Kim Il-sung.
This news was repeated by countless outlets worldwide, but the reports were slightly outdated. In fact, the portraits were removed almost half a year ago, in early April 2012.
In a sense, the disappearance of the portraits is yet another sign of the ongoing ideological transformation in North Korea. Even though it is routinely described as a ‘communist country’ by outsider observers, North Korea has long ceased to label itself as a Marxist-Leninist state.
For someone on whom Marxism has made a significant impact, this is a jolt.
In fact, this has been the pattern of “Marxist-Leninist” states in Asia. Kim Il-Sung, like Mao Zedong, was a peasant fighting for national independence and self-determination (well, determination by its leader). Unlike the ideologically obsessed Europeans, for the Chinese and Koreans Marxism was a means to an end. The Soviets recognised this in the Chinese Communist Party from the start, which is why for so many years Stalin and his minions supported the Kuomintang. It was only the Kuomintang’s serious flaws and corruption (which lead to its decline) that forced the Soviets to finally back the CCP, a backing that ended in the early 1960’s when Mao excelled the Soviet “experts” from China and Communism became plural in the world.
The difference between China and Vietnam on the one hand and North Korea on the other is that, over time, the Chinese and Vietnamese have used their nonchalant attitude towards ideological purity to incorporate capitalist features in their economies and thus improve the material prosperity of people and country alike, with the North Koreans have gone the other way: tightening the rigidity of their system to make state control of everything and everyone all-pervasive.
One aspect of Marxist-Leninist thought that the North Koreans were glad to dispatch was its denunciation of religion. The religious nature of North Korea’s regime’s hold on its people (one which also has a parallel in Chinese Communism, especially when Mao was alive) is simply a given; denunciations of religions in Marxist literature only undermine the main program. That’s a warning to atheists in our own society who are debating “Atheism 2.0”: atheism with religious trappings to milk its benefits while denying its theism. After years of promising to abolish religion, the reality is that atheists on both sides of the Pacific were only gunning to change it, which in part explains why Asia has been fertile ground for Christianity. They’re not going to abolish religion, why should we?