North Korea's 'organizational life'
in decline By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - In the early 1980s, when the
present author was a student at the Soviet
University, my teacher often described North Korea
as a "country where meetings never end". Having
grown up in Stalin's Russia, he knew a thing or
two about meetings and indoctrination, but the
North Korean standards appeared excessive even to
The more I interact with North
Koreans, the more skeptical I become about how
outsiders understand the working of a repressive
For outsiders, regime
repressiveness is usually associated with an
omnipresent political police, but it appears that
other, less sinister-looking, institutions have
played a major role in shaping
the consent of the North
Since its foundation in
the late 1940s, the North Korean state has
followed a zero tolerance approach in its dealings
with dissent. The authorities strive to discover
and punish/correct even minor deviations from the
prescribed way of thinking.
political police only get involved in rare and
extreme cases. In most cases, the real and alleged
offenders are disciplined by their own peers and
immediate supervisors within their "organization".
Indeed, so-called "organizational life"
has been a peculiar and omnipresent feature of
North Korean life since the 1960s, even though it
has declined in the past two decades.
Every single North Korean must belong to a
cell of one (and only one!) organization, and this
cell, usually consisting of one or two dozen
people, has multiple opportunities to control and
correct his/her behavior. There are five such
organizations in the North, with each having
easily definable and mutually exclusive membership
- the Korean Workers' Party (KWP), the Youth
Union, the Trade Union, the Farmers Union and the
Once a North Korean turns
14, he or she is expected and, indeed, required to
join the Kim Il-sung Youth Union and stay there
until the age of 30 (unless he or she is lucky
enough to be admitted into the KWP at young age).
After 30, the lucky and socially ambitious
can still theoretically join the party (not an
easy undertaking), while the rest become members
of the Trade Union or Farmers Union, depending on
whether they work in the fields or on a production
line. Even housewives, without a job, are not left
out, since they are required to be members of the
The rules are simple and
unambiguous. An industrial worker in his late 20s
will attend meetings and other activities of the
Youth Union in his work place. Once he turns 30,
he is required to switch membership to the Trade
Union. He might marry a woman from the same
factory, but if she decides to become a housewife
(a very common occurrence), she would switch
membership to the Women's Union.
Typically, every organization holds three
meetings every week, each one lasting between one
and two hours. Two of the three weekly meetings
are indoctrination sessions. Their participants
are lectured about the greatness of the Kim
family, the glories of the socialist economy and
the depraved nature of the pro-American South
Korean puppet regime, as well as about other
similarly lofty, ideologically useful topics.
The content of the lectures is supposed to
be memorized and tests are occasionally held, but
examiners are not excessively strict.
system makes sure that propaganda messages are
delivered to every Korean. It is possible that
people do not read newspapers (because North
Korean newspapers are seriously boring) or do not
listen to official radio, so the major ideas of
propaganda are delivered straight to their
But it is another weekly
function that seems to constitute the true core of
North Korea's organizational life - the so-called
"self- and mutual criticism sessions". In most
cases, such sessions are usually held on a weekly
During a criticism session, every
member of an organization - in other words, every
adult North Korean - is supposed to deliver
something akin to public penitence and confession.
He or she must admit some improper acts that he or
she committed in the previous week.
Serious deviations are seldom admitted and
discussed; people usually limit themselves to
relatively trivial matters like, say, being a few
minutes late for a job or not taking proper care
when cleaning the shop floor.
Every act of
public confession should be accompanied by a
proper quote from Kim Il-sung (leader from 1948 to
1994) or his son Kim Jong-ll (leader from 1994
until his death in 2011).
Then a repentant
sinner must be criticized by another member of the
same organization. Usually both confession and
criticism are kept short, taking hardly more than
a minute or two per person.
In most cases,
these sessions are essentially performances where
people admit the sins they know to be relatively
minor and hence harmless.
It is also known
that future participants of the Saturday
performance ("self- and mutual criticism sessions"
tend to be scheduled for Saturdays) sometimes make
preliminary deals and agree on who should
criticize whom and for what.
there is always the small but real risk of a
public denunciation, a situation getting out of
control, and therefore the sessions do exercise
significant pressure over organization members.
If something more improper has taken
place, a more specialized session can be conducted
within the organization (often called "the
ideological struggle session").
is to be done, the offender is subjected to one or
two hours of a verbal harangue, often of a quite
offensive and rude nature. Usually, this is the
way in which an organization deals with offenses
that are too trivial to be dealt with by the
police, but are nonetheless seen as relatively
serious - like, say, frequent absence from work
without sufficient reason, or traveling to another
part of the country without obtaining a proper
permit (and being caught there).
organizational life, the state ensures that every
single North Korean is exposed to the official
ideology and also gets regular training in the
politically correct ways of conduct.
slow but unstoppable disintegration of Kim
Il-sung's "national Stalinism" in the past two
decades seriously undermined the foundations of
organizational life. Nowadays, a majority of North
Koreans make a living outside the official state
economy and they have now become much less
dependent on their workplaces and supervisors.
Increasingly, they see organizational life
as a troublesome and time-consuming formality.
They can nowadays negotiate a deal with their
supervisors, getting permission to be absent from
the workplace, if they pay a contribution to the
factory's budget - this is known as an "August 3
contribution" (after the date of a government
decree that allowed such practice).
Tellingly, this contribution frees the
payer not only from attending his/her workplace
but also from time-consuming indoctrination and
mutual criticism sessions - after all, the average
adult North Korean is supposed to spend three to
five hours a week attending these functions.
When the functions are conducted, they are
much easier than was the case in the 1970s and
1980s. The meetings are shorter nowadays, and
absenteeism - once almost unthinkable - came to be
ignored if it remained relatively infrequent (or
if the "August 3 contribution" had been paid).
This relaxation seems to be especially
pronounced in the Women's Union, since most North
Korean housewives are much involved with the black
market economy and hence, if compared to workers
of state factories, have less time for the boring
activities of their local Women's Union cells.
Like many institutions of the "old North
Korea", organizational life is seemingly on the
decline. But this decline is by no means complete,
and a majority of North Koreans are still taken
care of by their organizational supervisors. And
these people make sure that even minor deviations
from what is considered to be correct are likely
to be discovered and censured.
Andrei Lankov is an associate
professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, and
adjunct research fellow at the Research School of
Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National
University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and
China, with emphasis on Korea. He has published
books and articles on Korea and North Asia.
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