From 1998, North Korean publications often talk about the concept of Songun, which is usually translated as “military first” or “primacy of the army”. Many Pyongyang watchers presented the introduction of Songun as an event of extreme importance. However, the author thinks that Songun had hardly any impact on North Korea at all.
The easiest way to assess the importance of any event, is to compare the state before and after it happened. So, did North Korea really changed in 1998 and become more militaristic? Let us ask a few questions about that year: Was female conscription introduced in the DPRK in 1998? No. Did the state expand the existing officers’ academies? No. Was the term of mandatory military service prolonged? No. Did the training of civilian personnel become more intensive? No.
So, what really changed in 1998? North Korea introduced the new version of its Socialist constitution, which proclaimed that the head of state shall be not the President, but the Chairman of the National Defense Commission. This change does sound militaristic, but was it really? Before 1998, the President was elected – always unanimously – by the Supreme People’s Assembly – the North Korean rubber-stamp parliament. After 1998, the Chairman of the National Defense Commission was also elected by the Supreme People’s Assembly, again unanimously. So, this reform looks more like a change of decorum rather than a real thing.
Another topic vividly discussed in publications about Songun is the relationship between the Party and the Chosun People’s Army [KPA]. Some academics claim the KPA gained more power after Songun was introduced, a dubious statement. First, we should not forget that the group in charge of North Korea is not the Party and not the army, but the Kim family. Second, there is simply not enough information about the DPRK leadership to judge who among the top officials is more influential. However, if we look at the attitudes of average North Koreans, the hierarchy is clear: The Party is more important. People join the military and serve for years, in hopes of gaining the opportunity to become a Party member, not vice versa. Party secretaries, not the military commanders, run North Korean towns and cities.
So, was there any meaningful change related to the military that took place in 1998? In fact, there was one. Prior to 1998, the military was commanded by the Supreme Commander (i.e., Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il), and his second-in-command was the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces. After 1998, two positions formerly subordinate to the Minister – that of Chief of Staff and Chief of the Army Political Department – were made independent. From 1998, they reported directly to the National Defense Commission and its Chairman. However, this reform can hardly be viewed as strengthening the military, rather, it did the opposite. Creating three powerful men instead of one makes them compete – divide et impera is a principle as old as human civilization.
So, in fact, Songun was – and is – nothing. It is merely another propaganda doctrine conceived by the North Korean government, and certainly not the only one. Let us look, for example, at the concept of Juche. What is Juche? North Korea’s state media states, “The Juche idea means, in a nutshell, that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction”. The catch is, however, that a more detailed explanation of Juche does not exist, and when North Korean media covers it in detail, instead of explaining the nature of this allegedly philosophical system, they simply hail the Kims and their unsurpassed greatness.
Why do we outsiders give so much attention to these shallow dogmas? The core of the problem, as the author sees it, is the lack of materials. We cannot even go to North Korea on a tour without being accompanied by a guide, and we can only dream of access to the country’s documents and archives, and therefore have to satisfy our curiosity with defector interviews and official DPRK publications. The latter occupy a disproportionally large place in the minds of North Korean specialists – and therefore they tend to think that Juche, Songun and other oft-mentioned ideas must hold great meaning. However, we all know that state propaganda is very far from reality in North Korea, just like Juche and Songun.