N. Korea’s ‘organizational life’ in decline

North Korean war veterans sit by the U.S. spy ship "Pueblo" after the opening of Fatherland LIberation war museum , Saturday, July 27, 2013 as part of celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Communist societies loved to educate their subjects. Initially, this penchant for education began with a rather noble aim in mind. Communism itself was the child of the European Enlightenment and therefore early communist ideologues believed that the common people should be immersed in great and uplifting moral thought, as well as to be enlightened in the actual workings of modern society – as discovered in his great wisdom by Karl Marx and his loyal disciples.

However, as time passed, this education system changed rather dramatically. While some moral messages remained, the major emphasis shifted from the idea of liberation of the toiling masses to the greatness of the particular party-state (and its leader) under whose beneficent rule the lucky subjects were living.

This system existed across the entire communist bloc, but North Korea went to extremes. It subjected its citizens to an unusually intense series of morally uplifting activities.

The basic rule of the North Korean education/indoctrination system, known as ‘organizational life’ is simple: ‘no subject left behind’. The similar systems in Eastern Europe and the USSR targeted only members of the Communist Party and Party Youth organizations, while in North Korea the system deals with everybody.

North Korean organizational life starts at age 14, when North Koreans are expected to join their local cell of the Kim Il Sung Youth League.

At the age of 18, North Koreans can apply to join the ruling Korean Worker’s Party, whose membership is much coveted and highly selective. The best way to be accepted into the Party is through doing military service, but there are other ways too.

Party membership is not a real privilege in itself, and most party members live lives very similar to their common non-party compatriots. Be that as it may, in North Korea (like was the case in other communist countries) Party membership is merely a prerequisite for any kind of social advancement. In order to become somebody, you have to join the Party first. It should be stressed though that Party membership is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success (as mathematicians would say).

Those who do not join the Party stay in the Kim Il Sung Youth League until they are 30. They are then transferred to other organizations. Those who are employed go to the Trade Unions, whose functions in North Korea are dramatically different from those in most other countries of the contemporary world. Those who work in agriculture have the privilege of entering the Farmers Union. Married women are also not left without moral guidance and supervision – if a married woman decides to become a housewife, she automatically becomes a member of the Women’s Union.

The Party, the Youth League, the Trade Unions, the Farmers’ Union and the Women’s Union each have their own cells. Therefore, every worker has an organization to which he or she belongs.

What do these people do in these organizations? The routine is surprisingly similar. There is little actual difference between activities of a Trade Union cell and a Party cell.

Two or three times a week, all the members of every cell are herded to take part in an indoctrination session that usually last one to two hours. During such a session they are usually subjected to a lecture on a morally wholesome topic like ‘the Greatness of Great Leaders’, ‘the admirations of the peoples of the world for North Korea’, or ‘the immoral and vile nature of South Korean society’. And in a peculiar twist, people are also expected to learn recently released songs – needless to say, all of these songs have morally uplifting political contents.

Technically, people are supposed to sit exams a couple of times a year where their knowledge of the lecture topics are checked. Only in party cells are such exams actually taken semi-seriously, trade union and Women’s Union officials turn a blind eye to an examinee’s inability to retell the contents of the letter that the Great Leader recently sent to Juche followers in Zimbabwe.

Apart the indoctrination sessions, organizations play host to a very peculiar and unpopular North Korean institution known as ‘life purification meeting’. This fancy euphemism denotes ‘self-criticism’, a part of life in North Korea since the late 1960s. During each self- and mutual criticism session, all members of a particular cell are supposed to alternately stand and deliver a short speech on the mistakes they have made in the last week (it should normally last for about a minute). This self-criticism presentation should start with a quote from the writings of one of the Great Leaders, followed by an admission of a mistake and a promise to do better in future.

It does not end there, though. After each act of moral self-flagellation, another member is required to stand and deliver a short diatribe targeting the penitent sinner.

In most instances, such self-criticism speeches are essentially a performance, since people do not usually admit their actual mistakes. They know better than to admit such things as telling dangerous political jokes or selling spare parts from their factory to the black market. Rather, they confess to being late to work, or feeling sleepy in the indoctrination session. In most cases, people make deals as to who is going to say what in criticism of another. Yet, self-criticism sessions are still a powerful tool that brings pressure to bear and make people follow the party line. And there is always a possibility that a colleague will use a session to openly discuss serious problems. If this happens in public, such an attack is basically impossible to gloss over. The risk, albeit small, is still very serious.

However, over the last few decades the above-described system has eroded considerably. The major reason is the dramatic transformation of North Korean society, which began in the early 1990s. The old society of Juche state socialism (or should we say Nationalist hyper-Stalinism?) is long dead. The state no longer delivers the goods and services it once did, and a significant part of the economy is now in private hands – though, this is never admitted publically.

In this situation many are not enthusiastic about participation in time-consuming and tedious official rituals. In the past they were more willing to do so because real or simulated ideological zeal was important in getting promotion, as well as assorted perks from their supervisors. This is clearly not the case anymore, and therefore North Koreans are beginning to wonder why they should spend some much time on such boring exercises.

As a matter of fact, it is now even possible to officially buy the right to skip indoctrination sessions. One can make an agreement with one’s supervisors to pay the so-called ‘3rd August contribution’ (no time here to explain where this peculiar term comes from). Such a contribution buys the right to be absent from work. This is important because in North Korea, every able-bodied adult male, and every non-married able-bodied adult woman must have a job with a government enterprise and fail to do so is a crime that is punishable by a short prison term. However, the ‘3rd August contribution’ does not just buy the right to be unemployed, but it also buys the right to be absent from the aforementioned organizational activities.

The money required though is often large, well in excess of official salaries. Therefore, only people with a good income from the private economy can afford to pay. The less fortunate still go to official functions, but to spend as little time on it as possible, as well as show as little enthusiasm as they can in the government’s efforts to make them hard working, patriotic and leader-fearing subjects of the benevolent and mighty Juche state.

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