Comparison of Chinese and North Korean Communism up to the 1980s

by James Graham

China's and North Korea's communist parties came to power at similar times, in nations though distinct with a great deal of shared history and culture. While their specific paths to power were very different the form of communism they implemented during their first two decades of rule bared great resemblances to each other. Both also conducted political experiments and developed personality cults around their leaders in this time. Only in the 1970s did the versions of communism the two practised begin to diverge dramatically.


China and Korea share long and deep rooted histories of Oriental Despotism, Confucianism and Buddhism. This history of centralised rule by an emperor lasted up to the late nineteenth century. It was destroyed in Korea and weakened in China only by foreign conquest. The resultant Japanese domination was complete in Korea and widespread in China and created lasting influences on the countries. Both combined these historical legacies with Marxism-Leninism to develop unique versions of communism. China's health system was often a mix of western medical procedures and ancient Chinese medicines. The two nations shared history of centralised rule and collective effort not only made them susceptible to communism but ensured that when they tailored it to local conditions the resulting regimes and societies were similar in nature.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Korean Workers Party (KWP) had very different though linked paths to power. The origins of both parties can be traced back to the First World War. The CCP was however able to grow much faster and was a significant force in Chinese politics from the mid 1920s. Through a long internal struggle and the allied defeat of the Japanese in World War Two the communists were able to triumph over both the Japanese and their domestic opponents the Chinese nationalists. Conversely the already communist Soviet Union occupied North Korea in the final days of the war and immediately set about developing an indigenous communist regime. Though significant numbers of Korean communists, many fighting in China during the war did exist the North Korean regime initially relied heavily on the Soviet Union and on large numbers of communist Chinese-Koreans and Soviet-Koreans. In comparison the People's Republic of China was not founded until 1949 when their internal victory was almost complete. To achieve this victory the Chinese needed to ally themselves in a united front with many non-communist elements, the petty bourgeoisie and some of the richer peasants. From this start the PRC gradually nationalised industries and collectivised agriculture. Private firms were turned into joint state and private enterprises, taxed heavily and finally bought off by paying fixed interest at increasingly nominal rates to the original owners. This gradualism allowed the Chinese economy to recover rapidly as vital people and methods of work were phased out rather than simply eliminated. Under Soviet military protection North Korea had no such restraints and acted quickly to implement core socialist policies. Due to the extensive Soviet presence these closely resembled the Stalinist practices dominant in the Soviet Union at the time.

Until the 1970s the CCP and the KWP in general espoused a similar general ideology, that of Marxism-Leninism. The communist principle of democratic centralism was applied in the two counties. Economically this meant that the state not only owned the means of production but also centralised economic planning, investment and distribution. Power was concentrated in the hands of the respective parties with all party members and party organisations expected to unconditionally support and carry out the party line. Comparable political structures were also erected in the two countries. The highest organs of state the North Korean People's Assembly and the Chinese National People's Congress were run along the same lines. In principle membership of these organs and almost all party positions were elected. In reality they were anything but as there was usually only one candidate to vote for on the ballot paper. Therefore far from representing the proletariat and peasants the parties became totalitarian regimes run by select groups of people. These groups did not allow other political ideas or ideologies to circulate except for the government line. The struggle for power within the ruling cliché was intense in both parties, resulting in factions developing and clashing. Factionalism died down only when one man in each country held absolute power, Mao Zedong in China and Kim Il Sung in North Korea.

They used this power to implement their own versions of Marxism-Leninism rationalising them as adaptations to suit local conditions. Mao developed his theories collectively termed Maoism largely before the CCP came to power. This meant they were more pragmatic than orthodox Marxism-Leninism. Once securely in power Mao felt free to attempt a number of political experiments with the aim of advancing China closer to communism. These included the Great Leap Forward in agriculture and the Cultural Revolution both extensive attacks on the last bastions of bourgeoisie society in China. Neither policy achieved positive results with economic disaster the most common outcome. Likewise once his power was consolidated Kim too set about putting into practice his theory of Juche or self-reliance. He reasoned that being surrounded by so many major powers each with histories of invading North Korea the country had little choice but to become as internally self sufficient as possible. The logical conclusion of Juche was the almost complete closing of North Korea both economically, political and culturally from the rest of the world.

Chinese and North Korean Communism up to the 1980s

Chinese and North Korean Communism (Part 2)
Chinese and North Korean Communism (Bibliography)