North Korean leader Kim Jong Un lays a wreath at the grave of Mao Anying, son of Mao Zedong, on July 13, 2013, as he visits the cemetery of fallen fighters of the Chinese People's Volunteers in Hoechang County of North Korea's South Pyongan province to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Photo: AFP / KCNA / KNS

I’ve often observed that for his countrymen it was a stroke of luck that Mao Anying died young, fighting in the Korean War. Today, I was amused to learn while googling Anying’s name that some Chinese even celebrate the anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong’s favorite son as an annual Thanksgiving-type holiday.

The Chinese are fortunate to have been spared dynastic rule, with its inevitable accretions of shibboleth and taboo. Would or could a Deng Xiaoping have arisen under a Mao dynasty and taught the people that to be rich is glorious? I doubt it.

More likely, they’d be enduring a Groundhog Day-style, endlessly repeating track taking them back to Mao’s disastrous and deadly Great Leap Forward and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

That’s the way things have turned out next door in North Korea under the Kim dynasty, as we’ve seen once again this week: Current ruler Kim Jong Un instructed his subjects to return to the socialist orthodoxy that was strictly enforced by his grandfather and father – until the 1990s when the people were starving and the regime had to acquiesce temporarily in a creeping marketization, privatization and capitalization of the economy.

Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as proclaiming, in a letter to representatives of labor organizations who had gathered for a meeting, an “uncompromising struggle” against anti-socialist and non-socialist practices.

Kim’s letter reads like a mummified relic from his grandfather’s time. Before I decided I could read no farther I counted seven favorable mentions of communism.

“The first task facing the trade unions is to firmly prepare the working class and all other trade union members as possessors of the communist faith who fight with a conviction in the bright future of our style of socialism,” he wrote.

The symbols of the North Korean Workers’ (communist) Party at Pyongyang’s Monument to the Party Founding are a hammer, a sickle and a writing brush – the latter to symbolize the party’s intellectuals. Photo: AFP / Ed Jones

Kim praised “the communist traits and virtues of all the people sharing pleasure and sorrow while helping and leading one another forward.” He assured the meeting attendants that “all the activities of our party are oriented and subordinated to bringing this happy society into reality at an earlier date.”

After all, socialism with a goal of communism was the ideology bequeathed to Kim Il Sung by the Soviet generals who put him in power in the northern zone of Korea in 1946. It was good enough for Grandpa and it’s good enough for Un.

The current Kim ruler in his letter praised proletarian throwbacks (if any such people really exist) “who loyally support the Party’s cause by invariably carrying forward their glorious fighting traditions and revolutionary spirit though the era has changed and one generation is being replaced by another continuously with the passage of time.”

If we can trust the KCNA English translation, Kim actually employed Maoist terminology: “We must not only create solid foundations for reactivating the overall national economy and improving the people’s standard of living during this five-year plan period, but make a great leap forward every five years.” (Italics are mine.)

Mao’s Great Leap inspired Kim Il Sung’s 1950s Chollima movement, named for a legendary winged (and therefore great-leaping-forward) horse. During the course of the movement Kim intensified the collectivization of agriculture. He went too far with that, as he came to realize, and in 1959 reversed some of the changes, restoring to farm families individual kitchen garden plots and the right to use them to raise chickens, pigs, ducks and rabbits for sale.

Chollima’s memory inspired one of Kim Jong Un’s favorable mentions of communism.

Kim wrote that it’s necessary to persuade the people “to give play to the communist traits and noble virtues of unhesitatingly sacrificing themselves for the sake of society, the collective and fellow people in today’s advance, holding higher the slogan ‘One for all, all for one!’ which was held in the Chollima era, and find the value and worth of genuine life in contributing to the country’s prosperity and people’s happiness with their creative work.”

On paper, of course, despite the changes that Deng and his successors wrought, the Chinese Communist Party is still officially committed to communism. So Kim Jong Un’s use of the term won’t turn off Xi Jinping at a time when Kim appears to have been preparing a new push for aid from and trade with China, after having closed off his borders to try to keep the coronavirus out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on October 14, 2020, laid a basket of flowers at the statue of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping at Lianhuashan Park in Shenzhen, south China’s Guangdong Province. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

But the letter is not just rhetoric. Reports say the Pyongyang regime – as it periodically does until pushback from citizens predictably blunts such efforts – has recently adopted policies with teeth in them to combat social and economic changes that were making people more affluent and less dependent on the state.

In the minds of the Kims, such progress, which has included the development of a middle class, clearly translates into a threat to the longevity of the family regime.

“Since mid-April,” reports Osaka-based AsiaPress/Rimjingang, “the North Korean authorities have begun to strongly interfere with and control individual economic activities.”

AsiaPress, which notes that it “contacts its reporting partners in North Korea through smuggled Chinese mobile phones,” quotes one of those undercover journalists in Ryanggang Province on details of the crackdown as enforced in the border city of Hyesan:

“The strong measures began after April 15 (Kim Il Sung’s birthday) and are aimed at eradicating private business outside the public market. From selling bread or buckwheat on the street to running a private restaurant in your own home, selling products on the street is completely banned and the goods will be confiscated without mercy if found. Any business that has not been approved by the authorities is strictly prohibited.”

“The violent crackdown was like something out of a movie,” the AsiaPress account added. “The merchants resisted by crying and screaming. Even an old lady sitting near the market selling sunflower seeds was chased away. I really feel sorry for her. Since the government does not provide rations, the people have been earning for food on their own, but now they can’t even do that. There are people who want to defect, too.”

Women with their backpacks of goods for sale outside a North Korean market. Photo: Wikipedia

In addition, according to another AsiaPress article, “The North Korean authorities have ordered the abolition of all private cultivated land in mountainous areas, known as sotoji or small land, causing widespread anxiety among farmers.”

The regime casts this element of its crackdown as necessary to combat mountainside erosion, which has indeed been a serious problem ever since Kim Il Sung foolishly made agricultural conquest of the heights national policy. (I’ve written elsewhere about this problem.)

But in fact, says the Asia Press article, “the main purpose of the ban is to control individual economic activities rather than to protect forests. In other words, it is a part of the policy to label ‘private farming’ as anti-socialist phenomenon.”

According to an undercover AsiaPress reporter in North Hamkyung Province, “Farmers work hard when it’s their sotoji. If it were to belong to the [collective] farm, production would surely drop by an order of magnitude.” Nevertheless, “the authorities have even given a lecture on ‘the mistaken idea that you should do better in your personal farm than in your collective farm work.'”

The author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, Bradley K. Martin has watched the Kim family regime for 44 years.