We often hear the word “Juche” associated with North Korea. The country’s official constitution describes itself as “the socialist motherland of Juche” affirming its place as the official ideology of the state. When visiting North Korea, you’ll hear no shortage of the term either, with of course famous sites decorating the landscape of Pyongyang such as Juche tower. But for the tourist, just what is the Juche ideology? what does it mean? where does it come from? and what is it all about? In an objective but honest sense, we set out to answer these questions here. To explain what the Juche ideology is, we draw from North Korea’s own understanding of the philosophy as set out in local works.
What is Juche? An ideology of independence
Juche (주체) roughly translates to “self-reliance” or “self-mastery“. It is a doctrine which teaches that things should be independent and shape their own destiny. Despite the highly controlled and centralized nature of North Korea’s politics, the ideology believes that man is an “agent” with the ability to act. As an agent, he must act to shape and carve out his own destiny and “must not be subject to the world around him“. This of course makes little sense in the context of the DPRK’s collectivized society, however, the teachings are solely intended to function on a national level, than an individual level. Owing to the nature of Japanese colonial rule over Korea, Juche is arguing that a country must never allow itself to be dominated by another and should shape an independent pathway in the world. It is better to resist and force a change that is favourable to North Korea’s terms, than to capitulate and concede.
What form should this independence take? Juche stresses that the nation should be ideologically “exclusive” from the rest of the world and that the inhabitants of a nation should formulate an independent “ideological consciousness” accordingly. What this means is that North Korea should shield itself from the influence of foreign cultures, ideologies and philosophies. To have an “independent ideological consciousness” thus means to think separately from the rest of the world and reject all other ideas, again on the premise that the regime cannot be dominated. As a result, this creates the heavy handed isolation and censorship found in North Korea’s society, as well as the absolutism of the leadership and Juche itself. No other school of thought or ideational influence is allowed to formally exist. Historically, this has also served to place limits on the extent to which North Korea has been willing to reform and open its economy. The regime chose to endure famine and economic catastrophe in the 1990s, than to risk changing the system.
Juche also shapes North Korea’s view and approach to diplomacy and foreign relations. With independence as the guiding principle, the DPRK conducts diplomacy with a cynical view and strategy to prevent other countries from gaining influence over it. This may result in mixed approaches of confrontation, provocation and reconciliation with careful attention paid to the political context around it. Critical to this ideological influence is the establishment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program which is designed to preserve the independence of the state, as well as forcing other countries to take it seriously as an international actor in negotiations (recent efforts show how successful this has been). Because of Juche’s influence, North Korea seeks to push a defacto acceptance of its nuclear weapons capability on its own terms and preferences, than to simply cave in unilaterally to American demands.
The Origin and History of Juche
When the DPRK was created in the late 1940s, it was in practice a Marxist-Leninist regime under the influence of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Juche was an idea which would later evolve in accordance with North Korea’s political needs. Kim Il-Sung oversaw a new state, post-colonial state, which was threatened by the United States, as well as the wider communist influences of China and the USSR. As a small country in a geographically unfavourable position, Kim was vulnerable to all three, not least the latter two who held factional influence within his political system. Consequentially, in the 1950s the idea of Juche emerged as an attempt by Kim to ideologically sever his country from the two Communist giants and prevent the DPRK becoming a vassal/satellite state. He would purge the pro-Soviet and pro-Mao factions within his ranks and establish the Juche ideology as a means of establishing a “new way”. He also aspired to be an exemplar amongst other third world, post-colonial nations, which would largely prove unsuccessful. Kim used Juche theory to take a middle ground and exploit the rivalry between the Soviet Union and China, gaining favourable aid and trade terms from both. Slowly but steadily, the significance of Marxism-Leninism in the country was downplayed. History was rewritten to affirm that Kim Il-Sung had in fact taught Juche from the beginning, airbrushing the role of Stalin’s USSR in creating the country and dismissing the role of “international communism”.
The growing emphasis upon the Juche ideology and its growing association with Korean nationalism allowed the state to survive the collapse of the wider Communist world in 1991, as well as resist reform efforts from China and Vietnam. Although the regime survived, it came at the cost of extreme isolation, economic decline and poverty. Its ideological lifeblood has continued to flow through its emphasis upon antagonism and resistance towards the United States. The new environment of the liberal, American dominated world and the new trend of “humanitarian interventionism” led the DPRK to emphasize the rise of its nuclear program in the effort to preserve the system and avoid capitulating to liberal reforms which would force regime evolution.
The future of Juche
Despite North Korea’s heavy handed resistance to the liberal world, the Juche ideology has not been enough to prevent a gradualistic change in how North Korean people live, understand and perceive the world. The hardships imposed by Juche’s approaches to economics has led to a growing marketisation of North Korean society as individuals sought new means to survive the calamities of the 1990s. This has led to the emergence of consumer goods and new forms of business, with goods trickling in from the unavoidable consequences of China’s boom. Children in North Korea now play with toys and wear clothing from accredited global brands such as Disney, young people have smartphones and play things like Texas Hold’em poker, they obtain copies of television shows from South Korea and see connections with foreign people not as a threat, but a source of opportunity and prosperity. The political apparatus of the DPRK is strong and it is one which can be terrifying if got on the wrong side of, yet for all Juche’s principles it has not been able to completely resist this transition and permeation. It is logically impossible for the ideology to be discarded, but it very well may be adapted in a pragmatic way. The future is likely to see the North Korean state carrying on what it does, but the modes and practices may adapt.