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Mao’s Great Leap, Kim’s Flying Horse

Similarities between Chinese and North Korea economic and political developments in the 1950s, and subtle but important differences.
It’s probably not surprising, given their shared origins in the Soviet system and Soviet backing, that China and North Korea practised, in many ways, parallel approaches to national reconstruction. For China, this is coming after the end of the Civil War in 1949. And for North Korea, this came after the end of the Korean War in 1953. And as you’re learning, the initial period of national reconstruction actually went relatively well. The Soviet-style model of a centrally planned command and control economy was good at rapid reallocation of resources, at massive infrastructure projects, and that kind of shock redevelopment of the economy. But Mao was not a typical Soviet planner. He was ultimately a romantic.
He was a romantic in his cultural definition of politics as permanent revolution. And he was, unfortunately, a romantic when it came to defying the laws of economic development, such as they were understood. Finally, in 1958, Mao launched a kind of romantic movement to radically change the Chinese economy. Something called the Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap Forward, in its propaganda, promised the Chinese people that they would miraculously and suddenly transform what was largely an agrarian economy into a first-world industrial power. In 5, 10, 15 years, China would outstrip Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviets themselves, and become the first world economic power that, of course, China had long aspired to be.
And as you know from our course, once was centuries before. How did Mao propose to achieve this, particularly in such short order? His solution was combining two basic ideas, collectivism and voluntarism. Mao’s notion was that if the Chinese people collectively committed themselves, their will, all of their energy, all of their focus, if they committed all of their energy to this kind of radical and rapid industrialisation, then they could achieve it. They could break the laws of economic development. And so that, in a nutshell, was the Great Leap Forward. Launched in 1958, within a year it became apparent to some in the leadership, and to many peasants around the country, that they have been hurled into an economic catastrophe.
Over the next few years, a famine would emerge that claimed the lives of, historians now estimate and, of course, it’s very difficult to get an absolute number on something like this, especially because the information was suppressed at the time but historians estimate on the order of 30 to 40 million Chinese people died from famine or famine-related disease and other causes in those years as a result of the economic policies of the Great Leap Forward. These were compounded by natural disasters. But this was a man-made disaster and very much a Mao-made disaster.
Ironically, in a kind of tragic irony, the failure of the Great Leap Forward gave rise to an alternate approach within in the highest levels of the CCP, of the Communist Party leadership, gave rise to an alternate approach to the economy and a different model for what the Chinese economy should look like, which was essentially a much more moderate approach to development, still very focused on the economy, but combining elements of central planning with certain restricted market forces.
A new group of leaders emerged in the early 1960s, who sort of spearheaded this effort. Liu Shaoqi was the most prominent. He actually became president of the country. He was president of China, was the leader of this movement. But maybe the names you know better would be Zhou Enlai and also Deng Xiaoping. So the early 1960s marked a gentle reversal of the Great Leap Forward policies and eventually set the groundwork for Deng’s really dramatic change in the Chinese model, when he came to power after Mao’s death in the late 1970s.
In the same year, 1958, Kim Il-sung launched a kind of mini-Great Leap Forward of his own, called the Chollima Movement, after a legendary horse that could fly 1,000 li or a 1,000 miles in one bounding leap. Chollima couldn’t be compared with the Great Leap in terms of the scale and intensity, even though the basic idea behind it was the same, to achieve rapid industrialisation and growth of the North Korean economy. Ironically, precisely for this reason, Chollima was less of a disaster. It didn’t lead to the catastrophic results of the famine that hit China and gave rise to that alternate moderate pragmatic leadership, ultimately setting the stage for Deng Xiaoping.
We don’t find that sequence of events on the North Korean side. Instead, Chollima remained a kind of low grade, economic philosophy of Kim Il-sung and the North Korean regime on and off, even into recent times. That radical approach to centralised economics was not discredited in North Korea in the way that it had been discredited to many Chinese Communist Party leaders because of the famine after the Great Leap. Now, simultaneous with these developments on the economic front, there were important political development that’s where we see another kind of a convergence between Mao’s China and Kim’s North Korea. And that’s with the tightening dictatorship of Mao and of Kim, respectively, in their two countries in the latter 1950s.
One of the critics within the leadership, who dared, although he did it quite gently, but dared to contradict Mao, to challenge Mao, about the failures of the Great Leap Forward earlier on was none other than the Korean war hero, Peng Dehuai. Peng gave a private letter to Mao at a famous meeting of the senior leadership at the Lushan Conference in 1959. And told Mao what he had seen in his hometown in Hunan Province, the signs of famine and economic sufferings of the people as a result of these policies. Well, Mao responded by making the letter public and having the rest of the senior leadership essentially eat Peng Dehuai alive.
He was purged of his political role and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. So even though a group of moderates ended up getting control over policy, Mao’s dictatorship was strengthened coming out of the 1950s. In North Korea, the story was even more one of Kim Il-sung’s centralising and strengthening his dictatorial powers. He moved to purge, to remove, challengers. One of the critical groups that he removed was a group known as the Yan’an faction. Yan’an, you’ll recall, being the early Chinese communist base, where Mao build up his power after the Long March. The Yan’an faction were North Koreans, with links that went all the way back to the Yan’an period.
Although Kim Il-sung maintained the alliance with China in terms of domestic politics, he moved to eliminate rivals from the Yan’an faction, from the faction of those who came out of a Soviet background, as well as the fraction of those who had gotten their starts as communists in South Korea. So by the end of the 1950s, Kim Il-sung had created a tightly disciplined dictatorship in the north, just like Mao had done in China.
The radical and totalistic approach to communist revolution in Mao’s China and Kim’s North Korea also contained seeds of fundamental differences that later would lead the two countries down differing paths.
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Lips and Teeth: Korea and China in Modern Times

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