An Open Letter to Kim Jong Un

To The Supreme Leader of The Korean People,

Marshall Kim Jong Un,

Greetings! I can only hope you have come across this letter and are willing to read what I have to say. I am a student of history and a socialist in the United States of America. I have studied your country’s history and the Juche idea with great detail in order to better understand the DPRK. I also have read extensively on the ‘cold war’ era, and on Albanian history in particular, a subject I am writing a book on as we speak. This book is very critical of the Stalinist system, not out of hatred, but out of love for the socialist cause. Until recently I did not see much of a chance for genuinely socialist reforms benevolent to the working people of your country. But the historic DPRK-US summit and the comments of your friend Dennis Rodman have changed my view on the matter. I have spent a lot of time writing this letter, laying out my views. I hope you will take the time to read them, and I only ask that you forgive me if my writings seem too critical or disrespectful, as I can assure you that this is the opposite of what I intend.

I am enthusiastic about a DPRK that is implementing reforms, but my fear is that the DPRK will collapse entirely if it naively implements “shock therapy” or similarly misguided market reforms, abandoning socialism entirely. The result of this in my opinion, would be tragic. When the USSR fell, life expectancy plummeted by decades and the Soviet people endured many hardships. Mr. Gorbachev’s reforms were not, in my view, misguided politically. Only in the economic field were they misguided. Politically, the liberalization of the USSR was fully in line with genuine socialist politics. Gorbachev thought he could either continue flawed Stalinist top-down state planning of the economy, or move towards a market economy (similar to, but more capitalist in nature than Lenin’s ‘New Economic Policy’ that some historians argue Lenin would have continued). But this is a false dichotomy.

Your country, after successfully fighting against Japanese imperialism, was liberated by Kim Il Sung and the Workers’ Party of Korea. However, tragically, the model implemented by Kim Il Sung was not one that emerged organically in the course of struggle and the seizure of power by the working class and peasantry. Nor was it based on the Paris Commune or even on the early democratic principles of the Russian Revolution. Instead, it was based on Stalinist Russia. Leon Trotsky, I think, best explains the nature of a Stalinist state. He wrote in 1938 of Stalinism in the USSR:

“The Soviet Union emerged from the October Revolution as a workers’ state. State ownership of the means of production, a necessary prerequisite to socialist development, opened up the possibility of rapid growth of the productive forces. But the apparatus of the workers’ state underwent a complete degeneration at the same time: it was transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class and more and more a weapon for the sabotage of the country’s economy. The bureaucratization of a backward and isolated workers’ state and the transformation of the bureaucracy into an all-powerful privileged caste constitute the most convincing refutation – not only theoretically, but this time, practically – of the theory of socialism in one country.

The USSR thus embodies terrific contradictions. But it still remains a degenerated workers’ state. Such is the social diagnosis. The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.” (The USSR and Problems of The Transitional Epoch).

Kim Jong Il rightfully pointed out in Our Socialism Centered on The Masses Shall Not Perish, that the systems embodied in the USSR and Eastern Europe represented totalitarian deviations from what socialism was supposed to represent. Kim Jong Il says in this speech, “Our socialist society is a genuinely democratic society which fully provides the people with true political rights and freedom. By nature, socialism cannot be separated from democracy.” The former, I will discuss in detail later on. The latter, is an undeniable fact. Socialism is indispensable to democracy and democracy to socialism. Political democracy without industrial democracy (socialism) amounts to virtual oligarchy in practice (see my country, the United States or any other bourgeois republic). But the reverse can also be said. A country that formally has industrial democracy without any real individual liberty also amounts to virtual oligarchy in practice.

It is my belief that Stalin lied when he declared the USSR had fully constructed a socialist system in the 1930’s. The construction of a socialist system takes enormous time and effort, and cannot be completed in one country alone, not in Korea or even in a country as big as the former Soviet Union. A planned economy alone is not socialist, but is state-capitalist. Only a democratically planned economy that does not exist in isolation can truly be called socialist, where the working people and the whole of society democratically control production and society as a whole. The Bolsheviks fully acknowledged that socialism could not be built in Russia alone. Lenin and the Bolsheviks repeatedly stressed that the success of the Russian revolution depended entirely on international revolution as socialism could not be built in one country alone. But with the failure of the German revolution and Lenin’s untimely death, Stalin and Bukharin invented the “theory” that socialism could be built in one country alone. The first world war was an imperialist war that came about chiefly due to the fact that the internal contradictions of a capitalist economy could no longer be reconciled within the confines of the nation state (certainly not by the mere assassination of a single politician as our bourgeois historians claim). Socialism, a higher stage of historical and social development, would naturally also not be able to exist in one country alone, in isolation. The inevitable result of this would be autarky, and inevitable economic stagnation. With the collapse not only of the USSR but of the Eastern Blog as well, the DPRK has been left virtually isolated by no fault of its own. This poses a serious problem for the people of the DPRK. Your country’s economy cannot be modernized from within. But it is surrounded by hostile capitalist powers who want a “McDonald’s and a Starbucks on every street corner”, who see the workers of the DPRK as nothing more than a potential source of “cheap labor”. This contradiction must be addressed.

It is clear that Marx and Lenin underestimated the resilience of the capitalist system, it’s ability to utilize the state to artificially prolong it’s lifespan. As such, I believe it is crucial to implement some market reforms and to open your country’s economy up to the rest of the world. At this point, market reforms alone can rapidly modernize the DPRK. But without political reforms, this would shatter your country. I would like to quote from Communist Revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg’s best work, The Russian Revolution (1918), as I think it best illustrates my views on a genuinely socialist system, which is miles away from the Stalinist system, and sadly, from the reality of the DPRK today:

“On the other hand, it is a well-known and indisputable fact that without a free and untrammeled press, without the unlimited right of association and assemblage, the rule of the broad masses of the people is entirely unthinkable…

Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege…

The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – not the case. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that. Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party program or textbook. That is not a shortcoming but rather the very thing that makes scientific socialism superior to the utopian varieties.

The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, an historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realization, as a result of the developments of living history, which – just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part – has the fine habit of always producing along with any real social need the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution. However, if such is the case, then it is clear that socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced by ukase. It has as its prerequisite a number of measures of force – against property, etc. The negative, the tearing down, can be decreed; the building up, the positive, cannot. New Territory. A thousand problems. Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative new force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts. The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress. (Proof: the year 1905 and the months from February to October 1917.) There it was political in character; the same thing applies to economic and social life also. The whole mass of the people must take part in it. Otherwise, socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals.

Public control is indispensably necessary. Otherwise the exchange of experiences remains only with the closed circle of the officials of the new regime. Corruption becomes inevitable. (Lenin’s words, Bulletin No.29) Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois rule. Social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc. No one knows this better, describes it more penetratingly; repeats it more stubbornly than Lenin. But he is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconian penalties, rule by terror – all these things are but palliatives. The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralizes.

When all this is eliminated, what really remains? In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins (the postponement of the Soviet Congress from three-month periods to six-month periods!) Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc. (Lenin’s speech on discipline and corruption.)”

Unfortunately Rosa Luxemburg here is correct, and her writings are prophetic in describing what I regard as the Stalinist tragedy of the 20th century. I believe that political reforms are crucial to your country’s survival. Currently the DPRK is the envy of the developing world in regards to positive liberty (healthcare, education, housing, the right to employment, etc.) But sadly the DPRK lacks almost entirely negative liberty (freedom of speech, protest, religion, assembly, information, internet, press, etc.) which is as fundamental to socialism as positive liberty. This inherent lack of real individual liberty is why many working people do not look onto your country favorably. This lack of liberty will inevitably lead to the total collapse of the DPRK without serious political reforms. This is the lesson of 1989. And the opposite is also true, if you implement too many reforms too quickly, in a reckless way, it will also inevitably lead to the collapse of the DPRK. Hence the motto, if you recklessly and in an unplanned way “give the people an inch, they will take a yard”. You want them to have the yard, but in a way that does not plunge them into extreme poverty.

One of the key aspects of a Stalinist country is that it denies the actually existing material conditions of political and social life. Officially, the DPRK or any other historic Stalinist country is full of “free and happy” people who wholeheartedly support the government. But unofficially, and in actuality, this is not the case. And often times, no one really takes the “official” ideology seriously, except perhaps children and the country’s leader and central committee, which in a Stalinist country serves as “the only thinking element”, as Luxemburg claimed. These conditions are a result of an unfree society that (unofficially) utilizes post-revolutionary state terror, a hallmark of the Stalinist system. I do not blame you personally, Kim Jong Un, for the conditions of the country who’s leadership you inherited. I do not even blame your father or grandfather. I place the blame onto Stalin himself and on the backward conditions from which the world’s first Workers republic emerged. The tragedy of the Russian revolution is a genuine one.

Recall in 1967 when Lin Biao arrogantly proclaimed, “The ever-victorious thought of Mao Tse-tung is Marxism-Leninism in the era in which imperialism is heading for total collapse and socialism is advancing toward worldwide victory.” In reality the opposite was true. It was Lin Biao’s Stalinism that was heading for total collapse and imperialism that was heading for worldwide victory, precisely because of the contradictions I have laid out.. Naturally I believe socialism will return, but it will be miles away from the Stalinism of the 20th century. Such slogans of the “inevitable” victory of a Stalinist political system or of the “invincibility” of a political party, can be made only in total denial of the actually existing material conditions of a country. In East Germany there was a song called “The Party is Always Right”. A true Marxist must acknowledge that the party is not always right. In your country for instance, eventually you will grow old and like your father and grandfather you will pass away. The person who takes your place could stand opposed to everything you stand for. He or she could be the devil himself and still the party would proclaim this person to be a “dear leader” and a “comrade” who’s words are “followed faithfully” by the people who “love and admire” them regardless of if the people even approve of that persons leadership. In a day the people could go from officially having “total love and admiration” of the leader to executing him in a way similar to how Ceausescu was overthrown. The masses would have no right to dissent or speak out as they actually exist in society. “The rule of the masses” would be, and is, only a theoretical abstraction totally divorced from the real social conditions of the country. And that is the problem, the same problem that led to the total collapse of the Eastern Bloc. In our country and in the West, we socialists have a website we often go to called This website says correctly of freedom and socialism:

“In hitherto existing Socialist states, like the Soviet Union and China, ‘negative freedoms’ were severely restricted, while ‘positive freedoms’ were advanced. All people had universal access to health care, full university education, etc, but people could only use those things they had in a particular way – in support of the government. In the most advanced capitalist governments, this relationship is the other way around: ‘positive freedoms’ are restricted or do not exist all together, while ‘negative freedoms’ are more advanced than ever before. A worker in capitalist society has the freedom to say whatever she believes, but she does not have the freedom to live if crippled by a disease regardless of how much money she has. A socialist society that has been established from a capitalist society will strengthen ‘negative freedoms’, while ushering in real ‘positive freedoms’ across the board, ensuring equal and free access to social services by all.”

In 1968 Czechoslovakia during the ‘Prague Spring’, the key contradiction I pointed out in the Stalinist universe (between public and private opinions) was directly addressed. Everyone before 1968 had a “public opinion” that supported the “leader and the party”, and a “private opinion” which while often in support of socialism, was usually fervently opposed to Stalinism and the dictatorship of the central committee. The Prague Spring tried to abolish this contradiction. It tried to make the “rule of the popular masses” a reality by allowing the masses to voice their opinions as they actually existed without fear of repression or individuals “disappearing” because of the opinions they hold. They said in their actions, “The proletariat is not some mythical people that will exist under communism for which all brutal measures that the state takes are justified. No, we are the proletariat, the common people who actually exist today and we demand political freedom, the same freedoms that have actually materialized to a large degree in the capitalist countries, and no longer ‘merely on paper’. Listen to us, and not the Central Committee”. The result as I am sure you know, was an onslaught of Soviet tanks and an armed invasion from the armies of the USSR and Eastern Blog, the publishing of the dreaded “Brezhnev Doctrine”. In your country too, there is a vast contradiction between people’s “public” and “private” opinion. And the more repressive the DPRK state apparatus is, the stronger this contradiction will become.

If you recall, a single speech from someone in your position can change a nation, can change the world. In 1956 Khrushchev delivered a speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He denounced Stalin and Stalinism. He openly pointed out the terrible abuses, murders, and political repression that existed under Stalin’s rule. While these terrible crimes were primarily the sins of the Stalinist bureaucracy of which Khrushchev was a part, and while he incorrectly blamed Stalin the individual only, it was nonetheless a revolutionary speech that sent shock-waves throughout the world. It heralded in the “De-Stalinization” of the Soviet Union. While it remained a totalitarian society, it nonetheless made significant reforms. Gorbachev too, made serious reforms in his country. And it should be noted that the collapse of the Soviet Union was caused primarily by the hard-line conservative Stalinist bureaucracy that created the 1991 August Coup in an effort to undo Gorbachev’s reforms and to destroy the newly emerged, genuine dictatorship of the proletariat. Boris Yeltsin managed to take advantage of the situation to illegally abolish the Soviet Union and establish a “Commonwealth of Independent States”. Thus it can be said that it was not Gorbachev who destroyed the Soviet Union. Perestroika did not fail. Glasnost did not fail. The Stalinists who tried to retake power failed. The fall of the USSR is on them alone.

In light of all this, I can only ask: Who else can change the conditions of your country but yourself? Reforms are inevitable and the Korean people are starving for real individual liberty and modernization. If you do not act, the people will inevitably rise up and overthrow you, and the chaos that ensues will destroy the DPRK and in all likelihood, will plunge the nation into the same extreme poverty and misery that the Soviet people endured in the 1990’s. You are the supreme leader of the Korean people. They look up to you. They listen to you. I do think your grandfather, President Kim Il Sung, made many mistakes. I think the cult of personality that surrounded him is as tragic as the one that surrounds you today. But I do not doubt the sincerity of his belief that a better world is possible. In fact, I share this belief, even if I fervently disagree with his Stalinist methods.

I will not pretend that the problems your country and people face are easy. In fact, they are in many ways more difficult than those faced by the early Soviet Union. But if you lead your people on a road that brings them real political freedom, modernization through cautious market reforms, and truly socialist democratic control and planning of the economy (similar to the People’s Republic of China) and the state, I think the respect and reverence the Korean people have of you will truly have been earned, and not the natural result of an unfree Stalinist society and a censored press that only praises you. I would call on you, respected Marshall Kim Jong Un, to implement real reforms for the Korean people. I would call on you to implement a more cautious but nonetheless revolutionary Glasnost and a truly socialist Perestroika, learning from the mistakes of Gorbachev, and applying it’s key principles to the material conditions of the DPRK. I would call on you to implement a ‘Korean Spring’, similar to the Prague Spring of 1968. There are no Soviet tanks that could roll into Pyongyang today and I think China would approve of cautious, revolutionary reforms as they would guarantee the long-term stability of the DPRK.

If you succeed, your country will not only be like China in regards to economic success, but also it will be country with real human rights and socialist democracy, a country where the working class is truly in power and not merely a handful of politicians. In fact, in time there would probably even be popular demand in the South for a unification with the DPRK’s reformed government and economic system. In several decades the DPRK could be the envy not only of the developing world, but of the developed world as well. You constantly stress in your speeches the importance of ideological work. You alone can say to the masses, for instance, “We have fallen behind decades economically due to the imperialist blockade. In the years when my father and grandfather ruled, somewhere along the way we became a totalitarian society. We have made many mistakes. The state has suppressed real workers democracy and human rights. It has silently imprisoned and repressed political dissidents and falsely claimed we were a free society. But I believe in socialism, and I believe real individual liberty and genuine democracy are fundamental prerequisites to socialism. I believe that the rule of the masses is impossible without a free and untrampled press. So we will found a congress of people’s deputies like the one Gorbachev founded. We will invite freely elected representatives of the people, some of whom are not even in the Workers’ Party of Korea, to an assembly where they can debate, speak freely, air old grudges, ask questions, propose measures, and cast votes. It will be an assembly where there is real power. There was a time when I decided what questions were allowed, where I alone made the decisions. But now I will have the help of ~3,000 elected representatives of the common people. Now there will be a congress of people’s deputies held in Pyongyang that will be aired on live television to the tens of millions of fellow countrymen and women, and to the world where we can say to our people and to the world ‘We are learning democracy. We are working to build real socialism.’ We will make the dictatorship of the proletariat a reality. In time we will become the envy not only of the developing world, but of the developed world. We will accept cautious market reforms while maintaining independence and building workers power. We will become a country so free and democratic that the people of the West will become envious of us. That is what we will do.”

A socialist in my country named Eugene V. Debs once said to our people, “If it had not been for the discontent of a few fellows who had not been satisfied with their conditions, you would still be living in caves. Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization. Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.” If you want socialism sir, if you want a prosperous and free nation, you have to let the Korean people air their grievances without fear. You have to let them speak freely. A Korean Congress of People’s Deputies would be the perfect platform for such a change. It would be a platform for the people to implement real changes without endangering the political stability of the nation. Like the Chinese people, the Korean people are fond of socialism. While they are repressed by the state, they nonetheless understand the importance of positive socialist liberty, of a country in the hands of the majority and not the minority. So while the DPRK today is not as Kim Jong Il claimed, a “genuine democracy with real freedom”, it certainly can be if you implement reforms.

Marxism is based on criticism, and I make my criticisms in that spirit alone. Marx described this as being “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” Understand that I write to you in defense of socialism, not against it. I write only against the Stalinist despotism that has poisoned the words ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ in my country, that has subjected the emancipatory struggle for freedom and socialism to a despotism far worse that the tyranny of the market.

Kim Jong Un, perhaps I have too high hopes for you. But perhaps I do not. If you agree with what I have said even a little bit, or have any questions at all, please write back to me. Please investigate what I have said for yourself. I know you are a very busy man, and I am extremely grateful to you for taking the time to read this letter. I am only a young intellectual and writer but I speak on behalf of many who hold similar views. I implore you, sir, change your country, change the world.


Thought Foundry Blog

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