North Korea in the Socialist World: Integration and Divergence, 1945-1972


Wednesday, December 12, 2012, 4:00pm


Thomas Chan-Soo Kang Room (S050), CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

Kim Koo Forum on Korea Current Affairs

Avram Agov, Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, Korea Institute, Harvard University

Avram Agov received a B.A. in philosophy (second major, history) from Sofia University, Bulgaria in 1988. He was a visiting scholar at Columbia University on a Fullbright Fellowship in 1991-1992. He received an M.A. in Regional Studies-East Asia from Harvard University (1992-1994). He studied at the Korean Language Institute of Yonsei University in Seoul and worked in Samsung Electronics (visual media business, export marketing) for six years (1996-2002). In 2001, the Seoul municipal government awarded him the title “Honorary Citizen of Seoul” for his contributions to the ROK-Bulgarian relations. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in 2010; his thesis title was “North Korea and the Socialist World: Integration and Divergence, 1945-1970.” He spent a year and a half in Shanghai studying Mandarin at Jiao Tong University and doing research on Sino-North Korean relations.

Chaired by Carter J. Eckert, Yoon Se Young Professor of Korean History

This paper investigates the background behind the resilience of North Korean system, one which has endured numerous shocks and upheavals in its history. The era from 1945 to 1972 was decisive in the formation of North Korea’s domestic system; it also provides sufficient perspective to examine the major trends in the evolution of North Korea’s political and economic structure. The paper analyzes DPRK history from the perspective of the regime’s internal and external integration into the socialist system, as well as efforts to diverge from that system. The dynamics of integration and divergence relate to the commonalities and distinctiveness of North Korea’s political and economic structure compared to other socialist countries, mainly the Soviet Union and China. There was an intimate relationship between integration and divergence, as developments toward integration sparked efforts at divergence, and vice versa.

This paper studies the formation and evolution of North Korea’s political economy and defines its uniqueness within the socialist system. Socialist aid and trade are one focus of the study. I analyze four realms of relationships – ideology, politics, economy, and security. The northern regime’s ideological positioning was closely linked to North Korea’s nationalist course and to the regime’s divergence from the socialist system; economic considerations and security imperatives, by contrast, tended to push the regime toward the socialist world. The study defines North Korea’s place in the socialist world from the view point of the interaction between politics and economics. I argue that despite North Korea’s ideological and political divergences from the socialist system based on the Chuch’e (self-reliance) paradigm, the regime remained more integrated economically than is usually perceived. This factor is one of the main reasons for the DPRK’s ability to withstand the blow of the Soviet collapse, for it retained considerable economic ties to China. During the 1945-1972 era, North Korea occasionally deviated from one or another of its two major allies, but it never distanced itself from both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China simultaneously. The DPRK also tried to compensate reductions in its interactions with one major ally or camp, including the Eastern bloc, by nurturing more active relations with capitalist states. This trend represents an important consistency in North Korea’s history.

The Korea Institute acknowledges the generous support of the Kim Koo Foundation

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