Is Juche an ideology, a scam, or a very strange religion?
- North Koreans are known for fanatical dedication to their tyrannical rulers.
- Some have argued that this is because the ideology of Juche is less an ideology than it is a religion.
- Several elements of Juche were clearly influenced not by Marx, but by Confucius.
We've talked before about Juche, the ideology that may, or may not, guide the actions of North Korea. Based around the idea of creating a self-reliant, fully independent, powerful North Korean nation, Juche was supposedly created almost entirely by the Kim family and continues to justify its rule over the people.
One aspect of North Korean life that often shocks outside observers is the fanatic devotion that the people there still seem to have to their country and its leaders despite the conditions they endure as a result of those leaders. This has inspired many to wonder if Juche is more than just an ideology but an entire religion by, of, and for the North Korean state.
The religious elements of Juche
More than a few scholars have pointed out that Juche has more than a few religious parts to it. It includes a national savior with superhuman traits in the nation's long-dead founder Kim Il-sung, an elaborate series of rituals, the promise of immortality through the eternal continuation of the social system you are a part of, an ordained class of officials who carry out the orders of the divine, and a large group of people who seem fanatically dedicated to its teachings.
It is also infallible, or so it tells us.
The regime has also ritualized several aspects of its rule in ways not dissimilar to how major religions create ritual themselves. Major festivals such as the Arirang Mass Games have been compared to religious events filled with symbolism glorifying the regime, complete with elaborate dance numbers, gargantuan images of Kim Il-sung depicted as a savior, and ham-fisted metaphors describing the Korean people as the children of the eternally caring leader.
You can understand why anthropologist Jung Hyang Jin dubbed the festival "The High Mass of Juche."
Where does it get these ideas from? They seem unusual for a political ideology.
While some of these ideas are clearly intended to create a cult of personality around the leaders, the religious influences are apparent to students of Eastern thought.
Dr. Alzo David-West points to several studies that explain how Juche shares many key elements with Confucianism, including its "structures of authority, bureaucracy, hierarchy, familism, filial piety, man-centeredness, mentalism, moral education, patriarchy, and respect for elders." It's no wonder why historian Bruce Cummings referred to the ideology as "Neo-Confucianism in a communist bottle."
Dr. David-West also argues that Kim Il-sung understood Confucius better than he grasped Marx or Hegel and that it would make sense for him to endorse an ideology that was essentially a repackaged version of what the population was already familiar with and turn its tenets and traditions toward the state. Historian Charles K. Armstrong deems this effort successful, as Juche even managed to steal filial piety, a core virtue of Confucianism, and redirect its use towards worship of the state and supreme leader.
Those leaders are also more than just the brains behind the revolution that will lead Korea to greatness.
The sacred tenets of Juche concerning the Great Leaders
North Korea says Kim Jong-il was born on Mount Paektu, an important place in North Korean mythology, but there's evidence to show he was born in Soviet Siberia.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Some of the things that the North Korean state tells people are a little out there but are held to be divine truths. These tend to relate to the greatness of the Kim family, whose rule is justified through Juche's other tenets.
For starters, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean state, is revered as a nearly God-like being. Koreans are taught that he nearly single-handedly drove the Japanese out of Korea during World War Two, and come up with all manner of great ideas for rebuilding the country all by himself. The Georgian calendar was replaced with the Juche era system, which begins on the date of his birth. The cult of his personality is all-pervasive, and he is regarded as the "Eternal President" whose powers are executed through the living.
His son Kim Jong-il is often reported to have invented the hamburger. No, seriously. It is said his birth took place on a sacred mountain accompanied by a double rainbow and the swooping of majestic birds. Perhaps most impressively, he once nailed 11 holes-in-one in a single game of golf. His 17 bodyguards all confirmed it. This would make him one of the greatest golfers of all time.
The current leader, Kim Jong-un has had less time to build up a personality cult. He does enjoy several large signs and monuments dedicated to him and is referred to as a military genius even though he never served. It is said he is able to control the weather. His authority remains absolute and has been codified in law. The veneration of all three Kims, both in life and in death, has been compared to the treatment of imperial Japanese emperors who were regarded as divine beings.
Religion is such a strong word. Is it the right one for a political system?
Many observers are willing to use the word 'religion' to describe Juche. Eun Hee Shin, a South Korean author, has made the best case for this. He famously dubbed the ideology an "indigenous national religion."
While affirming that Juche began as a political philosophy in the 1950s, he points out that by the 1990s it had taken on a distinctly religious tone. In addition to the full implementation of a doctrine, formalized ritual, and priesthood that make it appear somewhat similar to any major organized religion, Shin explains that the worship of Kim Il-sung took on religious elements as a result of the expansion of his personality cult:
"[North Koreans] believe in him as 'Father' in the sense of being the national provider, healer, and even savior."
His ideas are backed up by interviews with North Korean refugees. One of them explained their faith in the leader as such:
"[Kim Il-sung] is the one, the only one who saved our nation. He is just the same as God that I now believe in. Without God, I cannot exist. Even if I have become a Christian, my faith in God is not yet as strong as my love for him…' Why do we love him?' Your question does not really make sense to me…He is the only one we know of."
Others disagree with this interpretation and argue instead that it is a political program with religious elements. They say that while it is true that Juche has more than a few spiritual aspects to it, this is nothing fantastically different than what dictators have done since forever. A rather intense personality cult does not, they claim, a religion make.
Regimes and ideologies of both the left and right, and North Korea shows traits of both, have done things like this before. Bertrand Russell, British philosopher and socialist critic of the USSR, once argued that Marxism could be understood as a religion and often referred to "Bolshevism" as akin to Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. He didn't mean that it was a religion in the standard, theological meaning of the word, instead that it comprised a total system for understanding life, the universe, and everything.If we take this looser definition, then Juche does at least have religious elements and could be fully understood as a religion.
This is neat and all, but do people buy this? You'd have to be half crazy to buy this stuff!
That is a matter of some debate.
On the one hand, it seems evident that some people are fanatically dedicated to the Kim family. In this clip below you can see the reaction of elderly North Koreans to finding out their cataract surgeries (provided by foreigners) were successful is universally to praise and thank the Kim family for giving them their eyesight back.
Documentary: Inside Undercover In North Korea 5 of 5
The highest-ranking defector from the North, Hwang Jang-yop, told the world that the concept of the "Great Leader" completely rules North Korean life and that many people do believe that the Kim family is all they say they are. Christopher Hitchens, who visited North Korea and wrote on it several times, also agreed that a large number of people were sincere in their devotion to the ideology.
Conversely, many observers report getting the idea that people don't think the Kim family is semi-divine or that North Korea is all that great, but go along with the program to stay out of the gulag. Even the creepy clip above with the newly cataract-free seniors can be viewed as overly dramatic signaling. After all, would you like to be the one person in the room who didn't thank the Great Leader for your newly restored eyesight?
Stuff like this isn't all that unusual in totalitarian or authoritarian societies. Members of the communist party in the USSR famously feared being the first person to stop clapping after Stalin spoke. When Papa Doc in Haiti presented himself as a Voodoo priest and hinted at a supernatural origin most people were smart enough to not openly disagree.
It didn't really matter if people thought Stalin made a great speech or if Papa Doc was a supernatural being. What mattered was staying safe and protecting the people you love, sometimes that called for pretending to believe absurdities.
If Juche counts as a religion or not remains to be determined. The ritualization of many of its elements harkens back to Confucianism, and its cult of personality elevates the Kim family to the level of demi-gods worthy of religious reverence. While it is impossible to know precisely how sincere most North Koreans are in their claims to believing in this, that may not be the important thing.
Is it the key to understanding why North Korea acts like it does, or an elaborate sham?
- North Korea is an anomaly among nations, but is there a method to its madness?
- Juche, meaning "self-reliance", is the official ideology of the country which supposedly informs its actions.
- Some observers question the sincerity of the ideology, dismissing it as mere propaganda.
North Korea is a strange country. Known semi-derisively as "The Hermit Kingdom," it famously isolates itself from foreign influence, maintains a command economy little changed since the fall of communism, and wants to engage in diplomacy between threats to nuke people. In many ways, it is a caricature of everything Americans think of communist regimes: poor, militarized, dreary, and obsessed with calling itself glorious and proclaiming that the final victory over the capitalists is scheduled for late next week.
Outsiders are generally baffled as to why the tiny country behaves the way it does. After all, why on earth would a nation try to figure out the atomic bomb before they master the art of growing enough food?
But there may be a method to the madness – the ideology of Juche.
"As the leader said, the Juche idea is based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything... That man is the master of everything means that he is the master of the world and of his own destiny; that man decides everything means that he plays the decisive role in transforming the world and in shaping his destiny."
– On the Juche Idea (1982)
The official ideology of North Korea
This mosaic in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, depicts the triumphant homecoming of Kim Il-sung after he supposedly liberated Korea from Japan.
Juche, which is pronounced joo-chay and most often translated into English as "self-reliance," was first described in 1955 and continues to serve as the official ideology of the North Korean government. It is an eclectic blend of Marxism, Confucianism, Koran Nationalism, and Japanese Fascism. Taken together, they aim for an independent Korean state that can take its place among the great powers of the world without fear of foreign domination.
Three key points support the rest of the ideology. They are:
- Political independence
- Economic self-sustenance
- Self-reliance in defense
These were first mentioned in a speech given by Kim Il-Sung, the first leader of North Korea, in 1965 and have been further elaborated on since then. Many of its tenets fly in the face of other communist ideologies. Juche's strong dedication to nationalism, rather than internationalism, is the most blatant example.
Other, wonkier distinctions include the North Korean rejection of the idea of "historical necessity," the Marxist-Leninist notion that the march of history, driven by changes in economic conditions, will lead humanity to a communist utopia, and its replacement with the idea that humans are fully in charge of the march towards communism. It also mandates a "Great Leader" to help these people who are in charge of their destiny to reach utopia by doing all of the thinking for them.
This helps explain the God-like stature that the Kim dynasty enjoys in North Korea, along with the more religious elements of their rule.
Knowing that the intellectual cornerstone behind North Korea's behavior is the goal of autonomy puts some of its actions in perspective. The rejection of economic liberalization, tight control on what outside information gets into the country, and standoffish attitude towards foreign powers in diplomacy is not only an excellent way to maintain dictatorial authority but also a way to keep North Korea "self-reliant."
A detailed explanation of Juche as (allegedly) written by Kim Jong-il, the second leader of North Korea, can be found here.
"[Man] is the most developed material being, a special product of the evolution of the material world. Man was already outstanding as he emerged from the world of nature. He exists and develops by cognizing and changing the world to make it serve him, whereas all other material lives maintain their existence through their subordination and adaptation to the objective world."
– On the Juche Idea (1982)
Why do they even need an official ideology? Was Marxist-Leninism not good enough for them?
There are two reasons why North Korea saw the need to create a whole ideology for half a country.
The first was the need to remain neutral in the Sino-Soviet split. By devising its own form of communist rule, the North Koreans dodged the issue of needing to choose between Soviet Marxist-Leninism or Chinese Maoism and could continue to enjoy the good graces of both of its neighbors.
The other motivation was the need to legitimize Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea. By creating a Korean form of communism, Sung could claim to be on par with leaders such as Mao, Stalin, or Lenin by having his own ideology. This is partly why Juche includes concepts which are collectively referred to as Kimilsungism.
Is this sincere? Or is Juche just a complicated term for "Whatever the boss wants?"
The official portraits of the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, and his son, the second leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il.
"How the masses are awakened to consciousness and organized in a revolutionary way, and how they perform their revolutionary duties and historical mission, depend on whether or not they are given correct leadership by the party and the leader."
– On the Juche Idea (1982)
Many observers argue that there is no real ideological system to Juche and that it is just a cover for whatever the Great Leader wants to do.
North Korea scholar Brian Reynolds Myers has argued this for years. He claims in his books that the concept of Juche is used primarily in dealing with foreigners and that its real use is in creating legitimacy for the Kim dynasty rather than providing an intellectual framework for what it's doing.
He also proposes that North Korea isn't a communist state at all, but rather a right-wing state that, ironically, derives its socio-political system from the Japanese fascism that once oppressed the Korean people.
In one of his books, Myers quotes from North Korean literature which speaks to the "five-thousand year old, jade-like spirit of the race, imbued with the proudly lonely life-breath of the worlds' cleanest, most civilized people." In another section, he compares the cults of the Kim family and the Japanese emperor during WWII, as both were "associated with white clothing, white horses, the snow-capped peak of the race's sacred mountain, and other symbols of racial purity."
His books caused Christopher Hitchens, who was once a Trotskyist and who had visited North Korea, to reconsider his view of the country. He concluded that his previous understanding of the country as Stalinist was mistaken.
That idea isn't without detractors, however. John Ishiyama, a political scientist at the University of Texas, reminded Vox that "Every ideology is malleable," and some Korean actions that seem to contradict Juche's tenets can be viewed as new interpretations of an enduring ideology.
So, while Juche could be a real ideology created by a new offshoot of communists, it may be that Juche is nothing more than a malleable cover story for the Kim dynasty to maintain its power. While North Korea can be challenging to understand, there may be a method to its madness. While the odds of Juche being able to achieve its own goals seem rather low, it does provide a window for understanding the actions of the world's least understood country.
Unless it's a scam, in which case it is merely another thing to add to the confusing mess that is North Korea.
Eugene Gholz, the associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, posits that President Trump's decision to suspend U.S. military operations on the Korean peninsula negates decades of foreign policy.
Eugene Gholz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, argues that President Trump's decision to suspend the U.S. military's training exercises on the Korean peninsula is a lot more nuanced—and a lot more strategic to foreign policy—than perhaps many people realize. Will South Korea be left in the lurch if the US suspends military exercises? Hardly. Eugene is brought to you today by The Charles Koch Foundation. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.
What's really involved in snuffing out a country’s nuclear capabilities—and is that the right war to be waging?
The United States tries hard to keep nuclear weapons away from countries it considers foes. Given how close the world came to nuclear armageddon during the Cold War, and recent threats from so-called “rogue states" like North Korea, it may seem like an essential goal. But America's strategy for thwarting nuclear proliferation may be reaching a point where the costs outweigh the benefits.
The first nuclear bomb was exploded the same year as the invention of the microwave. Nuclear technology is no longer new, and therefore more difficult to keep from spreading. (Imagine trying to keep microwave technology under wraps all these years.) Developing a nuclear bomb from scratch, however, is much more costly than reverse engineering a microwave.
But snuffing out a country's nuclear capabilities is perhaps even more costly. It requires crippling a country's economy so its government can't invest in nuclear research (of course, its innocent citizens bear the brunt of that burden). It requires destroying factories and laboratories with aggressive bombing or cyber-sabotage campaigns. And it can even require kidnapping or killing scientists and engineers who conduct nuclear research.
Iran, for example, is seeking nuclear technology while coldly aware of the United States' military superiority. Likewise, the rest of the world is aware of America's massive nuclear arsenal—and of the fact that it's capable of annihilating any country on Earth at a moment's notice.
This kind of behavior toward other countries, needless to say, won't engender kindness and cooperation. North Korea knows that developing a small nuclear arsenal has made the U.S. much more hesitant to invade its borders. It's a lesson Pyongyang learned recently from countries without nuclear weapons—Iraq, Libya, Syria—that were subsequently invaded by the U.S. So it makes perfect sense that America's enemies would be scrambling to develop nuclear weapons—not so they can fire them, but so they can also enjoy the benefits of deterrence.
So the question becomes: How often is the U.S. willing to wage preventive wars, and with how many countries does it really want this kind of relationship?
This isn't to suggest that, for instance, a nuclear-capable Iran makes the world safer for the U.S., but it has to be viewed in the context of relative military power. For instance, take a look below at the sheer number of U.S. military bases that surround Iran.
Barry Posen, Director of MIT's Security Studies Program, says the U.S. has its guns pointed at aspiring nuclear weapons states in a way that makes them feel even less secure.
So then, what should be America's main objective when enemy states develop nuclear weapons? Posen told Big Think that the US should make sure those states hold onto them:
“I worry about not nuclear weapons in the hands of states, but nuclear weapons that are not in the hands of states. I worry about nuclear weapons that are lost, nuclear weapons that are stolen, nuclear weapons that are poorly aligned, nuclear weapons that are sold off the back of trucks."
These concerns are valid. In U.S. military history alone, there have been 32 nuclear weapons accidents, referred to as “Broken Arrows." Several are still missing to this today. Outside of the U.S., most of the fear about “loose nukes" has been focused on Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“There have been no confirmed reports of missing or stolen former-Soviet nuclear weapons, but there is ample evidence of a significant black market in nuclear materials," notes an article from the Council on Foreign Relations. “The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reported more than a hundred nuclear smuggling incidents since 1993, eighteen of which involved highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient in an atomic bomb and the most dangerous product on the nuclear black market."
Mark 17 bomb, one of which was accidentally dropped by the U.S. in 1957.
It's rational for countries to want to develop nuclear weapons, and because the technology to do so is rather old and no longer a mystery, it's increasingly difficult to stop nuclear proliferation. It seems inevitable.
This is why Posen argues that the best way for the U.S. to prevent nuclear attacks isn't to wage preventative wars that result in the economic and physical suffering of innocent civilians. Rather, it's to ensure that nuclear weapons stay in the hands of countries and not radical groups. After all, nuclear deterrence loses its power in situations where nukes are wielded by organizations without defined borders.
“...what we want to do is make sure that nuclear weapons that are in the hands of states remain in the hands of states," Posen says. “Any state that has nuclear weapons, we should be talking to them about best practices to ensure that nobody sells, nobody steals, nobody loses, nobody breaks. This requires a lot of application, a lot of organization."
There's a deep psychological reason that America treats nuclear weapons like a spoiled child hogging all the neighborhood candy. Are we too paranoid to see it?
Nuclear weapons are an odd conundrum for the world (and indeed the human species) as of late. Remnants of WW2 and indeed the Cold War, they're mostly used now as a kind of insurance policy for the safety of a country. It's like keeping a loaded gun. And like guns, America (no surprises here) has a whole lot of them and (just like a gun) they don't want anyone they don't like to have them. America is even willing to have preventative wars so that other countries don't develop nuclear weapons; which in turn breeds resentment and even more countries that resent us... who then in turn develop more nukes. It's a vicious cycle. And it may not end well. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.