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Reviewed by:
  • The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950
  • Kristine Dennehy (bio)
The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, by Charles K. Armstrong. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2003. 206 pp. Map, illustrations, tables. $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Charles Armstrong's The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 is an exciting, original contribution to the field of Korean studies for several reasons. In this meticulously researched, highly readable study, Armstrong forces his readers to confront many of the myths that have developed since 1945 regarding the revolutionary developments of North Korea. His main argument is that "the dprk was more than a 'revolution from abroad,' imposed by fiat of the Soviet occupation, but was shaped by local circumstances and recent historical legacies" (p. 11). He proves his thesis by highlighting four areas: the indigenous elements of North Korean state socialism, the legacies of Japanese imperialism, the totalizing nature of change north of the 38th parallel, and finally, the creation of new collective identities for North Koreans, specifically, poor peasants, workers, women, youth, and intellectuals.

The evidence to support Armstrong's claims comes in large part from North Korean documents seized by the American military during the Korean War. This is a welcome contribution to the paucity of studies on North Korean communism and nationalism, particularly because of the way the author has framed several of the important themes mentioned above. For example, he has transcended the historiography of the Cold War, which tended to exaggerate the dominance of the Soviet Union and oversimplify the dynamics of North Korean state control. He also prods his reader to look at North Korean communism in comparison with other communist states in Asia, such as the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Vietnam. For instance, he points out [End Page 138] the common emphasis on ideology and self-criticism in the PRC and the inclusion of intellectuals and bureaucrats with "the standard Leninist worker-peasant alliance" in Vietnam (p. 220). He also notes significant points of contrast such the dprk's greater emphasis on centralized control, compared to the "spontaneous, even anarchistic overtones of Mao's Chinese communism" (p. 65).

Throughout the book, Armstrong convincingly argues that North Korea's historical trajectory is the result of a complex interplay of three main factors: indigenous aspects of North Korean rule (including features related to its Confucian heritage), the mass mobilization of the Japanese imperial state, and the Stalinist model of the Soviet Union. He illuminates unique points of continuity before and after 1945, such as the enduring emphasis on hereditary social stratification and hierarchy in North Korea. Whereas the landed elite were privileged in the Chosŏn period, after 1945, lower classes such as revolutionary-minded peasants were now at the top of the social hierarchy. Armstrong shows how such a system "was made possible by the careful categorization of all North Korean citizens by social strata beginning in 1946 . . ." (p. 73). He also points to the more "ambiguous . . . less tangible" (pp. 242-3) vestiges of the colonial period such as the continuity of popular mobilization, redirected under state socialism toward an agenda of national unity (rather than class struggle) and political independence.

This study provides a wealth of empirical evidence to illustrate the specific developments that took place in North Korea between 1945 and 1950, including a number of interesting photographs, such as one showing a Korean patient being examined by a Russian female doctor (p. 138). So, while it is recommended for readers specifically interested in North Korea during this particular time period, the broader questions posed by the author also make it recommended reading for students and scholars interested in comparative issues of modern world history. For example, how does North Korea's "modernization without modernity" (p. 7) compare with the modern project of other nations? How can we evaluate the visions of leaders of other postcolonial societies without resorting to characterizing these countries as backward and disempowered? How do borderland regions (such as Manchuria in the case of the DPRK) play a unique role in shaping revolutionary activity and other acts of social and political resistance? And finally, and perhaps particularly relevant for our post-9/11 world, how should...


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pp. 138-139
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