The Korean Workers’ Party: A Short History

I do not remember where I obtained The Korean Workers’ Party: A Short History by Chong-Sik Lee. All I can remember is that it is the first book I ever acquired about the DPRK and that I have likely had this book for close to thirty years. Why has it taken me so long to read it? Since I have read dozens of books on the country already, the interest is there, and if this book was my first one of all, why wouldn’t I touch it? The answer I can tell you: I thought this book would be dry-as-dust boring. Sure, it would be about the political party that rules North Korea and that in and of itself interests me, but to read a 160-page book on the subject? Especially a book that looks so crushingly boring? I was surely judging a book from its inside appearance. Nevertheless as I continue my great books purge I assessed even the “boring” books and decided finally to read the ones that have been kicking around for decades.

The author was commissioned by Hoover Institution Press to write a short history of the Korean Communist party as part of their sixteen-volume historical series on the ruling communist parties of the world. And what can I say about The Korean Workers’ Party? It was an exciting page-turner, which surprised me to no end. Lee stated up front that he wanted to make his history accessible, and he succeeded. What had appeared to be uninspiring with chapter titles such as “The Social Basis for an Agrarian Revolution” ended up being a complete history of how communism developed in southeast Asia and how it was transformed by Kim Il Sung into the personality cult and dynasty it still is today. The Great Leader Kim Il Sung is not even a major part of the book until halfway through, so the reader gets a thorough background in Korean history and the situations that developed to allow communism to take hold. 

However to Lee’s credit the book didn’t drag on until Kim rose to power and started purging his enemies and rivals in Stalinist emulation before it got exciting. The author made the entire history an engrossing read. I especially liked the section on Kim’s ever-evolving need to reform his own policies. Once Kim decided to focus on political education, he targeted the teachers who he felt were unskilled and not up to the task. He accused the party of “cramming the teaching material into the heads of Party members in the manner of reading a Talmudic service” where everyone parroted what he had learned but understood none of it. I could not help but laugh at the following quotation from the Great Leader:

“Furthermore, some propaganda workers in charge of Party education fail to give their explanations in plain and simple language…but reel off difficult terms and theses which they themselves do not fully understand. In many cases, our press carries poor and extremely tedious propaganda articles and comments under headings which all sound more or less the same.” 

All North Korean literature sounds and reads more or less the same! I have read plenty of it, and it’s the same story with the same themes of Superman Kim Il Sung and the Boy Wonder Kim Jong Il, book after book after book. 

Lee concludes his book, which was written in 1978, with this harrowing assessment:

“No other communist party in the world appears to have cultivated as strong a faith in its leadership. Unlike the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] or the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], the KWP does not permit self-doubt, self-ridicule, cynicism, or mild dissension even in a humorous vein. President Kim’s words must be followed relentlessly in dead seriousness
To think otherwise is to invite trouble. Any temptation to indulge in private thoughts that are not in line with the commands of the leader must be quickly suppressed, lest such thought have an effect upon one’s behavior and actions.”

In 1978 the DPRK was still doing all right; the disasters caused by the collapse of the USSR and the famine were still ten and twenty years away respectively. For a capsule of North Korean political history while the country was still performing well economically, I would recommend this book. It was free of jargon yet enhanced by descriptive endnotes and a dream of a bibliography.

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