The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (i.e., North Korea) accused the United States Wednesday of intruding on its airspace with surveillance planes—the latest tension between the two countries. Though nominally Socialist, the DPRK is a totalitarian regime, rather like other states that include the words Democratic or People’s Republic as part of their official names. Like the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and don’t forget former East Germany—the German Democratic Republic. Why is it that the least democratic countries always brandish democratic-sounding names?
Soviet influence. After the 1917 October Revolution, the newly established Soviet regime couldn’t very well keep the moniker “Russian Empire,” which connoted czarist rule. But “Russia” plain and simple wouldn’t get at the seismic shift envisioned by the Bolsheviks. So, like the French in 1792—who tagged on the word Republic to mark the end of monarchic rule—the Bolsheviks called their new nation the “Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic.” It was a fairly accurate title at the time: Soviet means council—like the councils of workers and soldiers who’d been organizing their communities as the government fell apart; socialist highlighted the difference between the new Russia and the bourgeois nations of Europe. A few years later, the RSFSR unified with other SSRs—including the Ukrainian SSR and the Belarusian SSR—to form the USSR, which became less “soviet” as time went on.
After World War II, countries influenced by the Soviets or forcibly occupied by the Red Army started adopting the “People’s Republic” tag line instead of the SSR ending—like the People’s Republic of Macedonia, the Hungarian People’s Republic, and the Romanian People’s Republic. This change partly reflects a shift away from the concept of grass-roots governance toward a unitary state structure and reinforces the idea that the state and its people are synonymous. (The phrase People’s Republic actually dates back to the founding of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1917 and the Tuvinian People’s Republic in 1921, but it didn’t become widespread until after the war.)
Just as Soviet political models would filter into the Far East, so would Soviet naming practices. To signal solidarity with pro-Soviet states, the Supreme People’s Assembly in Pyongyang established the new Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948. The word Democratic, in this case, was used to distinguish North Korea from the (very short-lived) “People’s Republic of Korea” to the south. In 1949, Mao officially declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Similar to the North Korean case, the word People was used to distinguish the name from Chiang Kai-shek’s “Republic of China.”
Although the North Koreans used the modifier democratic to claim a unique local identity, other countries—like Laos (1975) and East Germany (1949) —had a more specific intention. These weren’t bourgeois republics, like those found in Western Europe, but countries organized to serve the demos or common people. So “democratic” was really just another way of saying “socialist republic.” Like many other socialist states, they went the way of totalitarianism. Thus we get the seemingly inverse relationship between the use of the word democratic and the actual democratic structure of the country in question.
In the African context, the use of populist words in state names is a way to emphasize freedom from colonial rule. (Since many anti-colonial uprisings had a Communist tinge, the state names also reflect a leftist inclination.) Thus, post-independence from Belgium, the Belgian Congo became the Republic of the Congo and later the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And after liberation from France, Algeria became, officially, the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria.
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Explainer thanks Charles K. Armstrong of Columbia University, David Bell of Johns Hopkins University, Yanni Kotsonis of New York University, and Jonathan Spence of Yale University.