North Korea has reportedly abandoned its long-held plan to foment revolution in the South. Image: AFP

North Korea’s ruling party has deleted from its supreme rulebook language that had committed it to encourage a revolution in South Korea, according to a report from the South’s left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper.

Assuming the report is correct – the paper says it’s seen the revised document and it quotes chapter and verse – one immediate reaction is that this is a welcome sign of practicality. The goal of unifying North and South via a Southern revolution was a stretch when adopted three-quarters of a century ago and it’s vastly less realistic now.

It is clear the North expects a quid pro quo in the form of abolition of South Korea’s anti-communist National Security Act. Thus, another reaction is to ask: What’s the catch? Does the North’s old goal remain in unwritten form? What happens if the Southerners respond in kind and drop their guard?

The Hankyoreh account, available in full in English on the internet, begins:

North Korea deleted a phrase about instigating a revolution in South Korea leading to the unification of the peninsula from the rules of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in the WPK Congress this past January, the Hankyoreh has learned.

A review by the Hankyoreh on Monday found that a section stating that the “WPK’s objective” is “carrying out the task of a democratic revolution for the national liberation of the Korean people” had been deleted from the newest version of the WPK rules.

The report goes on to describe a number of other related changes in phraseology elsewhere in the rulebook, changes it says were made by the party on January 9 during its 8th Congress in Pyongyang.

“This represents the de facto abolition of the North’s advocacy of North Korean-led ‘revolutionary unification’ and a fundamental shift in the North’s perspective on inter-Korean relations,” Hankyoreh argues.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) and other officials during the last day of the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang, January 12, 2021. Photo: KCNA via AFP / South Korea Out

A long history

The deleted policy, the paper notes, dates to “founder Kim Il-sung’s proposal of a ‘democratic base’ on December 17, 1945. Kim argued that North Korea should be a ‘forward base’ for instigating a revolution in the South and bringing the Korean Peninsula under the sway of communism.”

While such an outcome would not have seemed totally out of the question at the time those words were written, the situation in the South even in the near term – during the succeeding four and a half years – changed.

For one thing, a great many of the North’s affluent and educated residents, opposed to the communist program, fled to the South. The total number of migrants has been estimated at one million people.

To keep up with changes below the border, born Northerner Kim Il Sung depended on a fellow communist from the South, Pak Hon Yong. Pak told him that Southerners were primed for revolution and would eagerly welcome Northern troops – indeed, would rise up and help overthrow the Seoul government.

Pak claimed that 200,000 hidden communists in the South were “ready to rebel at the first signal from the North.”

In one of Kim’s biggest mistakes in planning and executing the invasion of June 1950, he believed Pak’s rosy prognosis. Didn’t happen. Capturing the Southern capital, Seoul, the Northerners had some immediate encouragement from convicts released when the invaders threw open the prison gates, and from some local, communist-leaning people.

But then the invaders started rounding up and killing “reactionaries.” It quickly became hard for the Northerners to find allies.

“The people on the streets were expressionless to us,” Lieutenant General Yu Song Chol, one of Kim’s war planners, told a South Korean interviewer decades later. “When we waved our hands to them there were few who cheered for us.”

The Americans swiftly came to the South’s rescue despite Kim’s earlier assurances to his sponsor, Josef Stalin, that they wouldn’t be able to respond in time – another of his major mistakes.

US bombardment of the center of the North Korean east coast city Wonsan, which is now where Kim Jong Un repairs for beach fun. Photo: AFP / Collection Roger-Viollet

After a bloody three-year slog, and US Air Force carpet bombing that did almost incalculable damage to the North, the war ended with the Korean peninsula divided along much the same line as before.

Kim didn’t relinquish his dream of a Southern revolution. While his infiltration agents trained hard to be ready for the next time, his propaganda mill focused on stirring up Southerners – for a time, by comparing his planned economy’s (Soviet-aided) early advances with the South’s then-static economy.

The ideal opportunity to try again to take the South failed to appear and, after a military coup by General Park Chung-hee in 1961, the South got its economic act together.

Eventually, however, Park and his dictatorship overstayed their welcome with South Koreans, who, as the 1970s progressed and they became more prosperous, were getting hungry for democracy.

The closest the South came to a revolution was in May 1980. Park had been assassinated by his intelligence chief on October 26, 1979, and Southerners – during what’s remembered as the “Seoul Spring” – had come to revel in the hope that they could have a new system.

When Major General Chun Doo-hwan dashed their hopes with another coup d’etat, citizens of the southwestern city of Gwangju (then romanized as Kwangju) defied martial law and protested. Chun sent in Vietnam-hardened special forces soldiers, who conducted a massacre.

Citizens, using military vehicles and weapons stolen from local armories, ran the troops out of town and took over the city. We have both a contemporary US intelligence report and subsequent defector testimony showing that the North Korean leadership considered intervening. But while Kim and company chose to wait, in hopes the local uprising would go national, South Korean troops returned and put down the rebellion.

Young protesters make clear their support for protesters in Gwangju in May 1980. Photo: Mar del Este / Wikipedia Commons

Another period when Kim may have considered a push southward started in the late 1980s when post-Gwangju politics led to the glorious outcome of winning the right to vote in free elections – but, in the process, brought forth a generation of Marxist-influenced activists, many of whom admired North Korea for its revolutionary “purity.”

Kim’s minions went all out to woo Southern youngsters who were smitten with what was dubbed “Pyongyang fever.”

But the results of the demise of the Soviet Union and European communism, especially the virtual end to aid shipments, made it impossible for North Korea even to pretend to keep up with the booming, capitalist South.

For Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, and for the heirs who have succeeded him one after the other, even optimistically imagined windows of opportunity to encourage a Southern revolution must have been scarce to nonexistent.

These days, hardly anyone south of the border would wish to exchange life in the still-bustling South for the misery that is known to be the lot of so many poor souls in the North.

So as a practical matter the old Workers’ Party language about revolution in the South ended up amounting to empty words. Deleting them from the rulebook can be seen as facing up to reality.

Is this a trap?

Or, it can be seen as a clever move to disarm the South.

Activists from the “Pyongyang fever” generation are still on the Southern scene, and some of them have served in the current administration of President Moon Jae-in. They tend to be, compared with Southern conservatives, much more sympathetic to the North.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea President Moon Jae-in at their second, surprise summit at Panmunjom. Photo: The Blue House

Critics including myself fear that they place too much trust in the prospect that North and South can agree. We warn that they would endanger South Korea’s hard-won democratic system (I was there; it was an immortal achievement) by placing the goal of national unification on a higher plane.

Hankyoreh is a paper that – with a stiff dose of Korean nationalist, unification-obsessed, progressive ideology – serves that generation. So my concerns are stimulated by passages such as this one in the paper’s story, which agrees with my assessment – but only up to up to a point:

Since the asymmetrical windup of the Cold War in the early 1990s – in which South Korea normalized relations with China and Russia but North Korea’s relations with the US and Japan remained hostile – the gap in national power between South and North Korea has forced Pyongyang to focus on preserving the regime, leaving it little time to think about reuniting the peninsula under its control.

[Italics are mine.]

And by passages like this:

The language in the WPK rules about North Korean-led revolutionary unification has been cited as key grounds for maintaining the National Security Act, which defines North Korea as an “anti-state organization.” Therefore, the deletion of this language could have a major impact on the debate inside South Korea about whether to keep that act in place …

The vision of “two Koreas” on the Korean Peninsula that Kim Jong-un has constantly pursued since taking power in 2012 has begun to be officially reflected in the WPK rules, the North’s supreme legal standard.

Kim’s focus on prioritizing state identity over unification was evident in his attempt to create a separate time zone for North Korea, 30 minutes earlier than in South Korea, between August 15, 2015, to May 4, 2018. Another example was his replacement of the ethno-national narrative of the “two eternal leaders,” Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, with a state narrative expressed in the slogan “the era of putting our state first.”

Wait a minute!

Not a few of us veteran Pyongyang watchers expect that the Kims – although coexistence may suit them for now – will never give up the goal of eventually ruling over the entire peninsula.

The reasoning is simple. Pyongyang’s extreme, self-enforced isolation is designed to prevent Northerners from becoming enamored of things South Korean, including the democratic political system. Kim Jong Un and his colleagues cannot but be aware they’re fighting a losing battle. They can slow the process – and they are currently intensifying that effort – but they cannot halt it or reverse it.

No Kim ruler has proven to be a Deng Xiaoping-style reformer. Sooner or later, as long as a separate South Korea is next door and thriving and as long as the Kims keep sticking to their family playbook, North Koreans will lose patience. Kim Jong Un has to know – and often dwell upon – this. His grandfather’s dream is something he must believe he cannot afford to abandon – except on paper, where it shouldn’t matter.

People prepare to bow before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill, to mark the 72nd anniversary of the founding of Korean People’s Army in Pyongyang, February 8, 2020. Photo: AFP / Kim Won Jin

To achieve that dream he, like his father and grandfather, sees the need for the removal of US troops from the South. It’s highly significant to find that this eternal Kim-family wish is expressed still in the Workers’ Party rulebook, albeit in slightly changed terminology. Says Hankyoreh:

The revised rules replace the phrase “end the domination and interference of foreign powers [and] revoke the re-invasion of Japanese militarism” with “ultimately end the US’s politico-military rule of southern Korea and thoroughly exclude the interference of foreign powers.”

As for abolishing the South’s National Security Act, domestic conservatives warn that this (actually an ongoing process) involves removing the legal basis for defenses against Northern infiltration, subversion and espionage.

Here’s some heartfelt advice to Southerners from an old cheerleader for South Korean democracy: Don’t rely on words. Keep your spies working and don’t even think about letting down your guard before the North dismantles – in reality, not just on paper – its enormous subversion-infiltration-invasion apparatus.

Bradley K. Martin, who has reported on Korea for 44 years, is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, and of “Yun Sang Won: The Knowledge in Those Eyes,” a chapter in The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea’s Tiananmen.