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How is North Korea, which is officially called the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea", democratic, if there's only one party with one ideology? Is this a moving box in a non-movable box?

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    See also: States calling themselves a dictatorship (such as the Centrocaspian Dictatorship). – gerrit Nov 16 '20 at 13:12
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    A quote from an old polisci prof: "If a state has both the words 'democratic' and 'republic' in its name, it is likely neither" – Gramatik Nov 16 '20 at 16:12
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    This is a loaded question :) – Inertial Ignorance Nov 16 '20 at 22:16
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    It's a democratic dictatorship. One man, one vote and Kim is the man..... (Discworld reference) – Thorne Nov 17 '20 at 0:27
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    "Is this a moving box in a non-movable box?" Not a familiar phrase. What do you mean? – ohwilleke Nov 17 '20 at 3:12

12 Answers 12

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North Korea is far from the only example. Wikipedia lists a couple of other countries which claim to be democratic but are not, according to 'Western' standards:

Many countries that use the term "democratic republic" in their official names (such as Algeria, Congo-Kinshasa, Ethiopia, North Korea, Laos, and Nepal) are considered undemocratic "hybrid regimes" or "authoritarian regimes" by the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index and "not free" by the U.S.-based, U.S.-government-funded non-governmental organization Freedom House.

Countries are allowed their own interpretation of the word 'democratic', and nobody outside of North Korea thinks it's a democracy, even if they do claim to hold elections. The party's candidate is always chosen with almost 100% of the votes. In my native language (Dutch) this has led to the phrase Noord-Koreaanse uitslag, lit. North-Korean results, which means an election with such an overwhelming result that it must have been rigged.

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    Some of my friends and I have jokingly called this the inverse law of democracy: the more often the term "People" appears in a country's name, the less the country cares about its people. In the case of the DPRK, the word "people" appears thrice, once in Greek, once in Latin, once in English. – Jörg W Mittag Nov 14 '20 at 21:18
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    This doesn't really answer the question, or at most it's a partial answer. What is their interpretation of the word 'democratic' to justify them claiming to be that? – NotThatGuy Nov 15 '20 at 8:04
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    @JörgWMittag You keep claiming that certain countries "don't care about their people". I'd recommend caution over such extremely bold and sweeping claims. Just because a system of governance has a different view of the best way to run a nation than you do, perhaps one that doesn't prioritise the individual quite as much as you would, doesn't mean the country "doesn't care about its people". – Asteroids With Wings Nov 15 '20 at 16:09
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    @AsteroidsWithWings On the other hand we don't have to be so 'careful' to pretend North Korea is something it isn't. – suchiuomizu Nov 15 '20 at 16:29
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    @Jörg: it may amuse you that the satirical British TV series Yes Prime Minister made a similar observation. The episode "A Victory for Democracy" features the following exchange about the fictional country East Yemen. Sir Humphrey Appleby: "East Yemen, isn't that a democracy?". Sir Richard Wharton: "Its full name is the People's Democratic Republic of East Yemen.". H.A.: "Ah I see, so it's a communist dictatorship." – Alex Selby Nov 16 '20 at 4:27
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Just because a country calls itself something doesn't mean it's true.

Point of fact, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is said to have four false statements in its name:

  1. It's not democratic, as nobody gets to vote on anything; (EDIT: As CGCampbell points out, everyone does get to vote; it's just that there's only ever one candidate on the ballot and not voting for that candidate is illegal)
  2. It's not in any way shape or form "of the People"; only the Chairman's wishes matter and his word is law.
  3. It's not a republic -- it's a textbook example of a hereditary dictatorship.
  4. It only covers North Korea, not the entirety.

As the other answers point out, this isn't uncommon behavior, especially among oppressive regimes that see propaganda value in asserting the claims -- back when Germany was still split up, the communist-ruled eastern part named itself the "German Democratic Republic" despite again being none of those three.

More generally speaking, as a rule of thumb if a country or organization uses any of the phrases "for the People", "freedom", or "Patriotic" in their title, I recommend you get away from them as fast as prudent.

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    "It only covers North Korea, not the entirety." Did you know that South Korea does the same thing? They call themselves the Republic of Korea. Without specifying it's just the south part. Both Koreas want reunification. They have an odd way of going about it, sure, but both countries eventually want reunification. – Mast Nov 14 '20 at 19:41
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    IMO "of Korea" doesn't imply it's referring to all of Korea, just that it's in Korea. – Kat Nov 14 '20 at 21:14
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    @Kat Yeah, just like the United States of America do not mean to imply that their long-term goal is to annex Canada and all the rest of the two continents. (Or at least, I hope so.) – TooTea Nov 14 '20 at 22:11
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    @TooTea maybe it is their secret long-term goal, but the founding fathers required that after Alaska the next state to annex be Greenland, so as long as Denmark refuses to sell it the rest of the Americas is safe... – leftaroundabout Nov 14 '20 at 22:48
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    @TooTea Maybe not a great example. From 13 colonies the USA took over Spanish land, French land, coined "manifest destiny", invaded Canada, took native land, took Texas from Mexico. The name of the country pretty much telegraphed their plans of domination. – Owen Reynolds Nov 15 '20 at 3:02
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The term 'democratic' comes from the Greek roots dēmos (people, populace) and kratia (power, rule). It implies a system in which political power is ultimately vested in the citizenry as a whole.

Many deeply authoritarian regimes call themselves 'democratic' on the grounds that:

  1. They assert authoritarian control in the name of the citizens, or...
  2. They define the term 'citizen' to exclude large segments of the resident population, and exert authoritarian control against those excluded groups.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea falls in the first category: see the concept of Juche, which outlines how the DPRK ostensibly ennobles its citizens. Nazism is (perhaps) the epitome of the second category. The general idea behind all forms of 'democratic' authoritarianism is that a strong, overbearing, oppressive government (in the sense of Hobbes' Leviathan) is needed to keep the citizenry from falling prey to their own ignorance, venality, and innate brutality, or the ignorance, venality, and innate brutality of outside groups. Democratic authoritarianism has (for lack of a better word) flavors: socialist (Leftist) forms that use draconian tactics to break the capitalist 'habits' of the citizenry and bring about a paradise of equality; fascist (Rightist) forms that try to band one group together against all others, and punish disloyalty almost as severely as they punish difference; religious (dogmatic) forms that single-mindedly force adherence to 'the faith' for the ostensive benefit of every soul.

True (non-authoritarian) democracy rests on the exacting principle that every citizen is capable of making decisions for themselves, and that the populace as a whole (through one mechanism or another) can come together to reach reasonable agreement on matters of collective need and interest. It has an inherent trust in its citizens and its institutions, and an openness to difference and disagreement that is not seen in authoritarian regimes. It's easy for an authoritarian to use the language of democracy: to talk about freedom, justice, and the rights of the people, all in abstract, reified, boilerplate terms. But authoritarianism movements are inherently jaded and cynical, and betray themselves in their insistence that they and only they can bring those democratic principles to fruition through the harsh application of political power.

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    Good answer! I would like to quibble about your last sentence, though. Plenty of revolutionaries have been far from jaded and cynical, believing that with the right people in charge (there's the authoritarianism) Utopia was within reach. Of course, historically things tend to to work out well in the long run. And "the long run" is often just a few years. – Jon of All Trades Nov 16 '20 at 14:56
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    @JonofAllTrades: I see your point. Maybe it's better to say that the authoritarian turn comes when these revolutionary leaders stop believing that people will 'naturally' or 'rationally' embrace the ideal, and decide people must be forced to embrace it for their own good. That's the jadedness I was pointing at. There's a lot of that in philosophy: wise people becoming angry and disaffected because other people don't seem to appreciate wisdom. I'll think a bit on revisions that might be clearer. – Ted Wrigley Nov 16 '20 at 16:51
  • This is the correct answer. Democracy (in its original meaning) exists in a lot of forms different from the western representatives-in-a-parliament standard. – Hobbamok Nov 17 '20 at 11:57
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In layman's terms, it's simply a "Big Fat Lie". Some would call it "marketing". Since there are no "down votes" that restrain countries when it comes to naming themselves, they can choose not to call themselves the "Oppressive Hell Hole that You Really Don't Want to Visit", and instead choose something like "Unicorn Land". In politics, country names are not the most offensive lies being told.

Edit: Other examples to ponder: Greenland and Iceland. Not exactly examples of "truth in advertising". But just like North Korea, people worldwide know what's to be found in each of those places. While some country/territory names may be a bit ironic, they are still preferable to "Location 317" and "Location 1462".

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    But sometimes there are international complaints about how a country chooses its name, viz. (North) Macedonia – Hagen von Eitzen Nov 15 '20 at 16:27
  • @HagenvonEitzen True, good example. – Richard Nov 15 '20 at 18:16
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Countries are allowed to call themselves democratic if they chose to. They can even hold elections where the people get no real choice in the election. However just because they call themselves a democratic country it doesn't mean that they actually are one. For that matter any country can claim to have any type of governing system but that doesn't mean it is correct. The best judge of what governing system a country has is what the rest of the world thinks it has. I would guess that very few countries say that North Korea is a democracy.

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Every country has the right to call itself a democracy without democratic institutions and a folks-based leading. But that every country calls itself a democracy doesn't really mean they are a democracy. Take for example the Hitler totalitarian regime, which called itself a real democracy...

"Wir Deutschen leben in einer wahren Demokratie" or in English, "We Germans live in a true democracy". von Josef Goebbels (Propaganda Minister of NSDAP)

This Statement by Goebbels saying it's a democracy is theoretically wrong as there was no free democratic basic order as a totalitarian regime and no separation of powers in Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary. So in the end everyone can call itself a democracy based on their beliefs but that doesn't really make a democracy true and right because it goes from the people which is not the case in North Korea and in my example (Hitler Regime)

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In theory, even a one-party state could have elements of democracy if the electoral candidates are decided democratically. This is unironically claimed by the Cuba Support Group (which is based in Ireland):

An element that makes the Cuban electoral system unique is the way candidates are nominated, a process in which individuals nominate those who they think should be candidates.

The process is not done in the name of Communist Party of Cuba or of any other political, mass or social organization, and takes place at urban and rural community meetings where residents select the nominees by raising their hands.

During these meetings, participants propose candidates for the city councils based on their merits as citizens of the community, and their capacity to act as government representatives.

If genuinely true, that would suggest that the system can be democratic in the sense that primary elections in the US are. US general elections have (de facto) two choices, but potentially many more in the primary elections. In theory, you could imagine a single party dominating US politics with all the actual campaigning occurring during the primary elections.

Now, most people would argue that Cuba and certainly North Korea (there are significant differences between the two) are not actually democratic, and the other answers have pointed out that this name is a lie. In the best tradition of Whataboutism, if you point out that opponents to the communist system will not find representation in Cuba (or North Korea), Cuba supporters may well reply that supporters of communism don't find representation in most capitalist countries either. Whether this may be considered a valid reply is left as an exercise to the reader.

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It is called democratic because people can 'technically' vote if you are 17 years old or older. These elections are just for show and are single-candidate races only. This makes North Korea even more authoritarian than the Soviet Union, which (while obviously not a democracy and, as I previously stated, followed the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' model of socialism described by Karl Marx in Critique of the Gotha Program) allowed people to have limited say in their government by allowing them to move local members of the Communist Party from office if they got less than 50% of the vote instead of having completely fake elections. Basically, North Korea's 'democracy' is a sham - such a sham that even some intentionally authoritarian governments could be said to be more 'democratic' by comparison. Some have even gone as far as to call North Korea under Juche (its current political system) an absolute monarchy or a "hereditary dictatorship" pretending to be a democracy or Marxist socialist nation.

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  • Also "marxist socialist nation" means dictatorship in the practice. – Gray Sheep Nov 17 '20 at 13:14
  • @GraySheep that is true if you go with the dictatorship of the proletariat model. My point is the hereditary part: in the USSR and other authoritarian communist states, anybody in theory could be the next head of the state or part of the worker's council who aren't necessarily related to the past leader. In Juche, only those directly related to the Jong family can be in charge (& again, even the USSR gave some say on the local level. In North Korea, even those elections may be rigged) – Tyler Mc Nov 17 '20 at 14:32
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To clarify how democracy can fit in with North Korean policy, allow me to give two other examples of interpretations of democracy that each for themselves function well, but are nevertheless by no means interchangeable.

The US operates a two party system that allows for changes in tendency, without creating room for revolutionary changes of general policy. For the US this works. Some may see this as some sort of multiple choice dictatorship, but systems that allow for a multitude in parties might be very dangerous in the US. To illustrate how dangerous that can get, one only needs to take a look at the second example, the Netherlands.

The Netherlands does operate a system that allows for an unlimited number of parties. As a consequence it still suffers from the damage caused by a previous election that went absolutely disastrous, in which a mind boggling 25% of the population voted for a dead guy (!!!)

Though this was primarily meant as a protest against his assassination just days before the election, what these voters didn't realize was, that by a law that provides in situations like this, their votes would automatically be added to the votes of other candidates of the party the dead man had belonged to, who just so happened to be a bunch of right wing radicalists, candidates the voters would otherwise have never ever voted for. Due to the multiple party system these candidates now suddenly had the biggest party in the country and found themselves in the ridiculous position of having to form a government without having enough electable candidates to fill the ministry posts. The damage they caused in the years of their rule completely changed the bias of national policy, which can be felt to this very day.

If anything remotely resembling that would ever happen in the US, it would be very hard if not impossible to keep it from escalating into a global crisis, with all the damage that does. Fortunately, the limitations of the two party system don't allow for that.

The sad truth is, the election disaster after the murder on Pim Fortuin is the product of one of the most celebrated democracies on the planet, which goes to show that democracy itself, even when all its merits are being addressed, holds no guarantees of its own. It is primarily a way to make policies digestible for the public, allowing as much public influence as that policy and country is able and willing to handle. And even when used in the best possible way, democracy may backfire very badly.

North Korean policy doesn't allow for much public influence at all, but still calls itself a democracy. There is a catch to that. When the Berlin wall finally actually fell, it was the doing of hordes of eastern Germans, who stood at the border posts, looking up the barrels of automatic riffles, holding their government to its claim on democracy by shouting one thing in unison over and over again: "Wir sind das Volk!" We are the people. No accusations, no riots, no weapons, no violence, no force, no threats, just that one claim. That's what eventually opened the borders. I suspect you can't call yourself a rabbit all the time without somewhere down the line growing a taste for carrots.

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The theory is this:

That is a workers' state. That means that all the power is in the hands of the working people:

"In the democratic republic of ..., all power belongs to the working people..."

Everybody has a job, there is no unemployment (the state assigns everybody to a workplace. Not working anywhere is a crime punishable by prison).

All the companies are owned by the State, a company in private hands is judicially impossible (and also forbidden). And the State is governed by the Party.

Thus, everybody has a workplace, by a state-governed company, and the Party has a local cell in all workplaces. The leaders of the party cells are elected by the local workers. They elect, regularly, the highest levels of the party hierarchy, and they elect the leader of the party.

Thus, in theory, the North Korean workers decide if Kim Jong Un remains the party boss or not.

They elect Kim Jong Un, always and forever, because he is a unique genius in the world history, who freed them from the Japanese/USA suppressors and got them the freedom. The freedom and well-being of the whole country depends on him, no one in the government is even close to Him.

This was the theory. You can see the reality in the news.

About the side-topic: the country does not consider itself as "North Korea". They consider themselves as the whole Korea, whose southern part is not yet freed from the USA influence (but they are working on it).

Homework: Now think a little bit about, what topics should you ever ignore, if you are aware on your well-being, in this very democratic western world.

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  • In theory, North Korea is not even single-party. There are also other parties, although they work effectively as the child organizations of the main Party. Communist states like to create fake parties to show, how democratic they are. – Gray Sheep Nov 16 '20 at 18:04
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    What message the photo is supposed to convey? Could it be another photo — like happy people marching with red flags or so? – bytebuster Mar 28 at 18:17
  • @bytebuster It is because you were not commanded as a children to march before such sculptures. These are not only that happily marching people. See their facial expression, and their body language. These are not only "happy people", these are idealist people fighting for the Better Future. On the Front Of the Socialist Work. – Gray Sheep Mar 29 at 18:50
  • @bytebuster Check this. It is communist music (this is the anthem of the Soviet Union, but there were a lot of similar songs). Communist music and communist sculptures, all forms of the communist arts, these tried to give the same feeling of life: workers fighting with work for the glorious future: the communism. – Gray Sheep Mar 29 at 18:53
  • @bytebuster Btw, do not believe them for a moment. The System was like you can see in North Korea, but it governed a third of the humanity, and it had a stronger army than of the NATO. That your children do not need to march before such sculptures on every 1th May and 7th Nov, do you live anywhere on the world... that looks surreal today, but it was a very possible future at the time. If you believe in any God, give a prayer for Him, that this system collapsed. At the time, the people who you can see on the videos, could not ever imagine that the System is not eternal. – Gray Sheep Mar 29 at 19:49
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It isn't democratic. NK is a monarchy by inheritance, since its inception in 1945.

This is known as very bad advertising.

The former East Germany billed itself as the 'German Democratic Republic', even though they never held a general election open to all residents. Like most communist nations, one had to join the Party to get any sort of vote at all, and Party membership wasn't open to everyone.

Don't take everything you read at face value.

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Regardless of any opinion on what is or is not democratic or a democracy, there is literally a world of things presented as a democracy, North Korea being just one of them. So if you ask how North Korea is democratic, if there's only one party with one ideology, in finding an answer you start by acknowledging that North Korea actually is a democracy. Your question doesn't deny that. It merely seeks the reasons for compatibility.

So rather than exploring how North Korea can be understood as democratic, one could wonder what it is in democracy that makes it (potentially) North Korean. One answer hides in the fact that democracy is not an active component of politics or of anything else for that matter. Democracy in itself doesn't do or produce anything. It is merely a tool that can be picked up and used for a wide range of objectives, one of them being acquiring status. In this respect, using democracy to justify the choices of a one party system is only twice as hard as using it to justify the choices of a two party system. There is nothing inherently undemocratic about having no more than one choice in the same sense that it is quite possible to walk a street that only turns straight ahead.

Thus the notion that democracy would be incompatible with North Korean politics is based on misinterpretation of the (limitations of the) merits of democracy, rather than on being misinformed about the nature of North Korean politics.

Or even worse, the reason why North Korea is a democracy is the same reason as the one that makes you wonder why. Democracy is widely regarded for bringing way more 'good' than it actually does. North Korea giving evidence to the fact that it doesn't necessarily bring any good. This is by far democracy's worst characteristic. Specifically in democratically ruled environments, democracy tends to be heavily overrated.

On the bottom line, democracy is a tool, like a pen. Some use it to write elaborate stories, while others just use it to draw a line which, as primitive as it may seem compared to writing a story, is in and by itself a perfectly sound use for a pen.

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