All right. This may be changing gears from most of the topical stories on North Korea, but I thought it'd be an interesting note to make. Heavy dose of political science to follow. Namely: North Korea and fascism. Does the label fit?
TLDR: no, though it can come rather close. Imperial Japan is a better metric.
I've seen multiple comparisons between North Korea and the different fascist movements of the 1930s, and with late Imperial Japan as well where race-based nationalism was involved. One of the issues, though, is that fascism is so poorly defined. It's become a generic term of abuse these days. Definitions are notoriously slippery, but it helps to have some qualitative line in the sand. The widely-agreed textbook cases of fascism are Nazism in Germany and Mussolini's movement in Italy (for cases where they came to power), plus influential movements in interwar Austria (where it came to power before being displaced by the Germans), Hungary, Romania (both cases where they didn't manage to come into power until too late, but pushed the existing authoritarian governments toward their direction), and Spain (where the Falangists were on the winning side but found themselves sidelined by Franco.) In other words, fascism is more than authoritarianism—even racial authoritarianism.
I'm using Michael Mann's case study, Fascists
. (Hurrah for class readings!) His definition involved several key factors, all of which Fascist movements fulfilled:
- Nation-statism. We're familiar with nationalism, of course, but nation-statism takes a little more definition. This means that the will of the nation—which in turn is usually defined in ethnic or racial terms—is manifested in the state. This would put them at odds with a lot of nationalist movements today, which is a key distinguishing mark: one of fascism's key tenets is the seizing of power at the state level. This also played into authoritarian tendencies: the will of the people is expressed in the state, the will of the state is expressed in the leader. Thus the leader embodies the will of the people.
- Totalitarianism was the usual goal of such movements: since the will of the people was embodied in the state, the state aimed to use its power in all aspects of life. As should be obvious given the sheer inefficiency and factionalism of historical totalitarian states, prevalent from the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany to North Korea, this is more of an ideal than an actual achievement.
- Transcendence of class. Despite endless barrages decrying fascism as simply a form of capitalism, it's worth noting that fascism had, depending on the movement, fairly broad inter-class support. This was because one of the most attractive tenets of fascism in the interwar years was its claim of transcending class: no matter that you were proletarian or bourgeois, aristocrat or peasant; your racial/national identity was supposed to be above all that, and fascists promised a country where rich and poor would work together for the sake of the nation, regardless of your wealth. This made them especially attractive vis-a-vis the socialist movements. Of course, this worked out less well in practice than in theory, and different fascist movements found themselves taking sides, usually against their socialist rivals, which were seen as the most dangerous opponents due to also being mass movements. (However, one fascist movement, the Romanian Iron Guard, actually had fairly broad working-class support, gained by denouncing "international Jewish capitalists".)
- National cleansing. Related to the above, fascist movements all blamed society's evils on the presence of some foreign intruder in the body politic. Remove them, went their theory, and society would be perfect. Most fascist movements, which aligned themselves with the existing power structures that managed to strike deals with them, focused on the racial/ethnic component, though class struggle did play into things. This often but not always involved racial nationalism; the original fascists, the Italians, allowed for assimilation into the nation, as their definition was more cultural than racial. Similarly, the most murderous campaigns carried out by Franco's Spain in the name of national cleansing were targeted on working-class militants, not on ethnicities.
- Paramilitarism. This may be the distinguishing mark of fascist movements: they were extensively paramilitary. By drawing on mass support and then organization and arming their supporters, especially drawing on the millions of young men who were either back from the war, out of work, and recalling the camaraderie of the trenches, and the generation of students after them who grew up on their experiences, fascist movements had armed paramilitary organizations—the SA, the Legions of Archangel Michael, the Falange, and the like. This gave them a key advantage in street battles against the socialists, who were distinctly poorly organized and badly armed, even if at times they could match the fascists in numbers; this also meant that if they tried to challenge the military head-on—as the Romanian fascists did, and the Hungarian fascists didn't for fear of defeat—instead of subverting it from within, they were flattened. Paramilitaries are no match for actual militaries.
Given those definitions, it should be easier to make sense of Mann's admittedly-unwieldy definition, the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism.
(Real life is so inconvenient in how it sometimes refuses to be boiled down into a pithy, memorable phrase.) It should be noted that by that definition, Franco's Spain and Imperial Japan were not fascist. Authoritarian, certainly; murderous, definitely. But although the Franco regime was allied with the fascist Falange movement, it was top-down military by nature, as opposed to bottom-up paramilitary, and it was more conservative—i.e., wanting to preserve the existing order—than transcendent—i.e., wanting to form a whole new order. Imperial Japan was transcendent in the way that it wanted to create a new, modernized Japanese state, one where class differences were regarded as unimportant, although one with the trappings of the old regime. However, it too was military instead of paramilitary, being top-down in nature, and it did not rely upon mass movements to seize power. (The actual nature of the Imperial Japanese regime in the 1930s is difficult to describe: "military-industrial anarchy" seems as good a phrase as any other, given the interservice wars of assassination between the different factions in the armed forces. One can argue about how top-down it was given the power of junior officers to provoke entire wars, as they did in 1931 against China, but there is still a massive gap between that and the fascists' mass movements.)
So, to the meat of the issue. How does the North Korean regime stack up?
- Nation-statism, check. North Korean rhetoric is aggressively nationalistic, subtype racial/ethnic. Plus, the whole "state as the embodiment of the nation, Kim as the embodiment of the state" angle gets a lot of play. B. R. Myers explores this in closer detail.
- Transcendence, no. In theory, the North Korean regime had its roots in class conflict, instead of wishing to transcend class differences. But, a key variable here is that the fascist movements tended to aim toward, rather than achieve, transcendence; the fascist movements all took sides one way or another instead of standing above the conflict. Most chose to take the side of the big capitalists out of convenience, but, again, there were proletarian-leaning fascist movements too, with an emphasis on class warfare. Besides, class conflict faded as a goal for North Korea; there are fewer and fewer references to the place as a workers' paradise. So, a better answer might be "no, it's not transcendent, but neither were the Iron Guard in practice."
- Cleansing. Absolutely yes. Since the Korean Peninsula was, unlike Europe, not diverse ethnically, the racial purges associated with European fascism were generally not a factor here. But Kim il-Sung proved just as murderous toward those whom he deemed threatened his power, which meant threatening the state, which meant threatening the Korean nation. Plus there were the purges of the landlords and landlords' families as parasites on the Korean body politic, carried out on Stalinist lines as Kim consolidated his power.
- Paramilitarism. No, and this is the disqualifier. Fascist movements built up mass support, used them to create paramilitaries, and used the paramilitaries to hearten supporters, intimidate rivals, and win the respect or the fear of bystanders; using the power gained with such methods, they would then attempt to take over the state, normally by the ballot box. However else you might qualify the North Korean regime, it does not and never did involve a mass movement. There's a massive difference between popular support for the regime, which it generally had back in the 1960s, versus grassroots mass movements, which never featured, since Kim and company were installed by the Soviets. Likewise, state-backed paramilitaries are different from mass-movement paramilitaries. One can call upon the resources of the state to back it up; the other cannot.
So, like Imperial Japan, the North Korean regime is not fascist by that definition, mainly due to its lack of a mass popular component. This is key: it may be a murderous, intolerant, authoritarian regime, but it was never a movement
, as the fascists were. If one wanted to split hairs, one might be able to draw comparisons between the NK regime and the authoritarian governments that the fascist movements eventually led to, but that's still different from calling the NK regime "fascists". Remember, the fascists were a genuine set of movements, with real ideological goals; it'd be inaccurate to simply dismiss them or to accuse them of using those goals as rhetoric just to get into office. Although it's hard to escape that conclusion for the North Korean regime's "Juche" ideology, the difference is that nobody takes Juche seriously, while fascism was deadly serious and very promising back in its heyday. People did believe in fascism, whereas the ordinary North Korean had no real ideology aside from possibly a vague anticolonialism back when Kim took power.
Hence, North Korea: murderous, yes. Nationalist, yes. Nasty and ugly, yes. But fascist, no.