The Psychology of North Korean Ideology and Its Implications for Policy Analysis
North Korea’s ruling ideology, official historiography, leadership hagiography, and public pronouncements are so outlandish and bombastic that one could be forgiven for believing that the average North Korean on the street must roll his eyes in exasperation everytime he reads that latest rodomontade editorial in the Rodong Shinmun or listens to KCTV announcer Ri Chun-hee’s borderline-hysterical delivery as she extols the Great Leader’s latest on-the-spot guidance visit to a provincial vinylon factory. Surely no one in their right mind could believe this stuff, could they? And certainly not the highly-educated, world-wise elite. Indeed many analysts dismiss these narratives outright in their studies of the country. But, in my opinion, to do so is a mistake.
Let’s say a hypothetical analyst was to ask a random North Korean to recount her understanding of Korean history. The response would probably go something like this:
The great Korean race was founded by Tangun Wanggom in 2333 BC. Racially pure, virtuous, and innocent, the Korean race just wanted to live peacefully on their peninsula, but their racial greatness made them the target of imperial expansion and aggression from the neighbors. The Korean people struggled valiantly against imperialist aggression. Led by General Kim Il Sung, the Korean race cast off the yoke of Japanese imperialism only to be subjugated by the American imperialists. The Great Leader and the people only wanted peace and reunification, but the Americans and their puppets in the south launched a war of aggression. Thanks to the shrewdness of the Great Leader and the will of the people, the imperialists were soundly defeated, but Korea remained divided. Since then, the American imperialists have spared no expense to thwart the greatest desire of the great race: to be reunified in the loving bosom of the General. While usurping the sovereignty and independence of south Korea, the imperialist aggressors and their puppet lackeys constantly whipped up the flames of war and tried in vain to destroy the system and independence of the north under the guise of various schemes like “denuclearization” and “disarmament.”
(See the works of B.R. Myers for a thorough overview of how North Koreans see themselves.)
At this point, our intrepid analyst shrugs uncomfortably and flashes that smirk normally reserved for an eight-year-old child who claims—in all seriousness—to have taken a ride on Santa’s sleigh last Christmas Eve. North Korea’s pseudohistorical, pseudoscientific, and racist historiography is easy to dismiss and even easier to debunk; it’s a collection of outright falsehoods, gross exaggerations, glaring omissions, half-truths, and blatant inaccuracies. Nevertheless, it’s important to know and understand. Now before I continue, I want to make it clear that this is not an argument in favor of a multiplicity of truths, nor for tolerance of different worldviews, nor a defense of the North Korean position, nor any other fashionable nonsense of that type. But again, understanding what North Koreans think is important for our analysis of the North, even though many experts give short shrift to ideological imperatives behind North Korean actions and dismiss such narratives as unimportant to serious policy analysis. The reasoning usually goes something like this (hypothetically):
It’s true that most rank-and-file North Koreans believe in the official state mythology, but the elite and the policymakers probably don’t. How could they seriously believe such outlandish things when they, unlike the commoners, have access to the outside world? How could worldy and cosmopolitan North Koreans like Kim Gye-gwan, Kang Sok-ju, and UN Ambassador Pak Gil-yon—people who have travelled abroad extensively, people who regularly consume foreign media and have regular contact with foreigners—believe this stuff? How could those who have worked extensively in China not take note of the impact of the Gaige Kaifang reforms? How could the North’s diplomats not be impressed with South Korea’s development, and how could they not realize that the thriving South is not an American colony? Even if they express vocal support and admiration for state narratives, deep down they know they are false; deep down they know they are in the wrong about the North’s relations with the outside world.
It’s worth wondering: does anyone question the convictions of the Pope’s cardinals regarding their faith in Christianity? Do we ever wonder if deep-down the Ayatollahs in Iran or the Ulama in Saudi Arabia question their belief in truth of the shahada? Do we ever wonder if political extremists of all stripes, cult members, and believers in New Age anti-science fiddle-faddle act not out of their firmly-held and genuine convictions but out of more earthly concerns like greed, safety, and survival? Of course we don’t. But when it comes to North Korea—especially the elite of North Korea—we tend to eschew stated ideological beliefs and instead ascribe motivations to greed, a desire to see their state survive, pressure to conform to the party-line, and fear for their lives and their family’s lives. Put another way: we generally don’t assume that there are atheists in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, so why would we assume that there are in the North Korean Foreign Ministry and Central Committee? The flaw in our hypothetical analyst’s argument above is a hidden premise: that information plurality and access to information changes firmly-held beliefs. There’s a growing body of empirical evidence that indicates that not only does contradictory evidence not change people’s minds, but even more horrifying is that it can actually reinforce beliefs and this process is not a function of ignorance.
Our cognitions are less malleable than we would like to believe. When evidence that contradicts our beliefs is encountered, we experience a feeling of discomfort called cognitive dissonance and cognitive dissonance tends to lead one to restore consonance either by accepting a revised belief or, more likely, to rationalize away inconvenient thoughts and evidence. This process of rationalizing away that which conflicts with our closely-held beliefs is called motivated reasoning. Perhaps the most famous example of firmly-held convictions trumping reality was Festinger et al.’s classic study, When Prophecy Fails. Festinger et al. inflitrated and studied a UFO cult whose leader claimed the world would end on December 21st 1954 and that believers would be saved from the impending cataclysm. The date came and went and obviously the world did not end. One would think at that point that the cult would disband, but surprisingly the cult members’ faith in the veracity of their religion was strengthened: the members convinced themselves that their faith had spared the world. Jonestown is another example. What’s most shocking about those fateful events in jungles of Guyana is not the horrifying death toll, but rather the fact that so many people willingly went to their deaths.
Political scientists and cognitive psychologists have done much research on political biases, misperceptions, misinformation, and cognitive dissonance as of late. Such research was conducted in the United States, a country with free access to information, a free media, a culture of openness and debate, and a good education system. One would think such solid institutions would mitigate political biases, pushing them to the extremes of the political spectrum, but on the contrary, misinformation is alive and well, quite mainstream, and can actually be worse among the educated. We tend to gravitate towards fact and evidence that supports our beliefs, while rejecting and ignoring facts and evidence that contradict our beliefs (selection bias). When seeking information, we tend to prefer sources and media that reinforce our position (selective exposure theory). Political scientist John Sides found that the persistence of the false belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim tended to increase with education level. Professor Larry Bartels found that knowledgeable people were more likely to develop false beliefs about economic performance that were consistent with their political leanings. Gary Jacobson found that Republicans who believed in a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 were likely to “consciously reject” evidence that contradicted their justification for the Iraq War. Polling has shown that Democrats were more likely to believe that Bush was behind 9/11. (For more of this kind of research, see here and here). If all this is true in the West, what chance do the North Koreans have?
Indeed, part of the reason for why we give so little consideration to the North Korean worldview is its outlandishness and easy debunkability, but as with all non-falsifiable belief systems, no amount of evidence is enough to move believers. The North Korean ideology operates psychologically on a level that’s closer to fundamentalist religion as opposed to the typical Communist ideology of the Cold War era that we’re used to thinking about. The system is unfalsifiable in the sense that no amount of evidence brought to bear against it can disprove the system in the minds of believers. It’s like a typical paranoid conspiracy theory (e.g. 9/11 Truthers, Moonlanding Hoaxers, Anti-vaccinationists, etc.) in the sense that all evidence that proves the conspiracy proves the conspiracy; all evidence that disproves the conspiracy proves the conspiracy. For instance, take Moonlanding Hoaxers. You might want to change their minds, say, by showing them recent satellite photos of the Apollo landing sites. You might think that this would convince them, but no, of course not. The photos were staged or the landers were shipped to the moon after the fact as part of government plot to trick the “sheeple.” The testimony of a NASA scientist or a report from Russia were planted as part of the cover up. Naturally, the astronauts themselves were all in on it as well, so their testimony is not to be trusted. Going back to North Korea, B.R. Myers, in his fantastic and groundbreaking book, The Cleanest Race, posited that the North would face a crisis of legitimacy in 2012 because of the repeated propaganda references to becoming a “Great and Powerful Nation.” Well, 2012 is here and the North is neither great nor powerful, and is not facing a legitimacy crisis. Why? Because the ideology subsumes all. The propaganda makers can come up with all manner of excuses and the people will buy it: imperialist aggression is blocking the aspirations of the people, etc. Kim Jong-il’s death was also fortuitous in this regard. Neither famine, nor the collapse of the food distribution system, nor the rise of the market and the attendent influx of foreign goods and ideas, nor the rampant corruption, nor the all-pervasive oppression and extreme repression have done much to shake North Korean faith in the system.
The North Korean worldview can be summarized as being based on xenophobic ethnonationalism (Korean supremacy, if you will) a sense of victimhood and vulnerability, and a fierce distrust of outside powers (especially the US and Japan). All this is not to argue against survival, greed, etc. as motivations for the actions of the North’s elites and policymakers, but they don’t tell the whole story. Clearly if one operated under the assumption that the North Korean policy set is solely motivated by state survival, then one is unable to explain the repeated failures of various disarmament-for-aid schemes, the North’s distrust of the Sunshine Policy, and their suspicions of foreign aid, foreign NGOs, and foreign visitors. But if one accepts that, like the commoners, the North Korean elite happily drink their own Kool-Aid and let their distorted version of history inform their views, then the root of the repeated failure of bilateral relations with the US, South Korea, and Japan becomes more apparent, and suggest that new policy approaches are required.