Does North Korea have a religion? While North Korea does not have an official religion, some claim ‘Juche’ to be the state’s unofficial religion. What exactly is Juche? Is it a religion? an ideology? How influential is it?
By Christine Lee | English Columnist
Tensions continue to escalate between North Korea and the United States with North Korea’s continued missile tests. United States president Donald Trump announced that he would “totally destroy” North Korea, and such statements have apparently not been intimidating. North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador has said “nuclear war may break out at ‘any moment’.” The hermit kingdom resting between two economic powerhouses—China and South Korea—is concerning the international community with its consecutive nuclear tests and the North Korean government’s apparent disregard for the interests of other nations.
While concern is growing in the global community, there is a lack of information available on North Korea due to tight national borders and an isolationist regime. Post Korean War, North Korea has gradually developed into a totalitarian regime shut from the outside world. And for the outside world, the government seems to have a bizarre and often dangerous way of maintaining its power. The North Korean government holds qualities in common with other totalitarian regimes:central control of information and communication systems, a single party rule, and most importantly, an overarching ideology or philosophy that forces the population to cooperate toward a greater goal. North Korea’s enormous military that regularly marches down the streets of the capital, its Soviet-style propaganda posters, and the highly dramatic newswomen are all manifestations of the nation’s philosophy, Juche. .
So, what is Juche?
Juche is described as a creative application of Marxism-Leninism to the specific realities of the country. The supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and founder of Juche, Kim Il-Sung, described Juche in his own words in 1955:
“What is Juche in our Party’s ideological work? What are we doing? We are not engaged in any other country’s revolution but precisely in the Korean revolution. This, the Korean revolution, constitutes Juche in the ideological work of the Party. Therefore, all ideological work must be subordinate to the interests of the Korean revolution”.
Since Marxism-Leninism is an imported, foreign philosophy, Kim Il-Sung advocates for a more nationalistic ideology he coined Juche. By proposing this uniquely Korean ideology, he appears to distance foreign powers and prioritize the North Korean people. This is effective to the people, who believe they have been suppressed by foreign powers and exploited throughout history. Through the proposal of Juche, Kim Il-Sung maintains the Communist movement while appearing to care first for the interests of his own people. Thus Juche is presented as a way of self-reliance and an opportunity for North Korea to create its own narrative.
This popular concept of self-reliance is constantly emphasized in explanations of Juche. An announcement at the First Session of the Fourth Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK on December 16, 1967 stated, “Let us embody more thoroughly the revolutionary spirit of independence, self-sustenance, and self-defense in all fields of state activity”. However, besides the constant emphasis on the Korean struggle or self-reliance, Juche lacks substance. It is nowhere as comprehensive or goal-oriented as Marxism-Leninism, and fails to be a meaningful ideology with complex philosophical tenets or viewpoints. To this vagueness, South Korean scholars respond by claiming that Juche is simply a justification for all the government’s actions, which are often problematic or unexplainable, or exploitative of its citizens. A passage from a South Korean written work, North Korea's Philosophy of our Time (우리 시대의 북한철학) explains,
“…the Juche idea has been promoted by North Korean authorities in various expressions ranging from ‘a firm guiding ideology of the Joseon revolution’ to ‘a new philosophical thought based on the people’. The reason the Juche idea is expressed diversely is not only because the scope of the Juche idea is wide, but also because the role and function [of Juche] have changed from time to time according to the situation and context of the time in North Korea. It suggests that the Juche idea did not come from the beginning with a complete theoretical system. Indeed, the Juche idea has been in the process of solving the problems faced in postwar reconstruction and socialist construction process, and it has been structured in theory”.
The term ‘Juche ideology’ does not even appear until the end of the 1950s, and even then it is unclear if the word ‘Juche’ happened to be used as the word itself, or if the term was used to label an actual ideology. Hence it is certainly true that the Juche philosophy took shape over time, was proposed gradually, and still functions as a solution to many of the government’s problems. Juche can be seen as a useful mechanism used to legitimize the authoritarian government and its actions, rather than a truly altruistic philosophy for the people.
Juche seems to further aid the North Korean authoritarian government by diverging from Soviet philosophy, and thus lessens its power in North Korea. Juche grants the Kim family full control with little foreign interference. It is possible that Kim Il-Sung was a shrewd leader who was given power by the Soviets as a presumed puppet government, but was able to take full control of the state by the end of the Korean War.
Juche was one way of shifting away from Soviet dependence and ultimately a way in which he gained support from the people and consolidated his own power. Kim Il-Sung takes charge of a foreign political ideology in his state and manipulated Marxism-Leninism in order to take more control, and gain personal power.
The fundamental foundation of Juche rests upon an “us versus them” theory.
It is easy to understand the rise of Juche if we observe its main principle of self-reliance. North Korea still distances itself from other nations and hardly engages in international diplomacy due in part to its hostility towards other nations. This hostility has roots dating back to historical times—Korea has undergone constant subjugation from surrounding nations, in particular Japan. Kim Il-Sung states,
“Owing to [Japan’s] protracted colonial rule and colonial slave education, our children and youths have many survivals of Japanese imperialist ideology. Unless these ideologies implanted by Japanese imperialism are erased from the minds of children and youths, it is impossible to bring them up to be competent workers”.
While this view seems rather black and white, and extreme, it is also effective because according to Kim Il-Sung, Juche is a means for the Korean people to break free from all traces of foreign domination and become fully independent for once in history. However, this view is backwards in a time when Japanese imperialism has ended and sovereignties in East Asia are generally being protected and being developed through globalization. The greatest function of this ideology is to prevent the people from learning about nations other than North Korea and its motives. This causes the people to be ignorant to global matters and forces the people to depend solely on their leader. This is precisely where the authoritarian ruler can centralize massive control.
The Juche ideology, essentially unique North Korean indoctrination, has been incorporated into all aspects of life for its people. There are Juche-type schools in which the education is designed around the Juche philosophy. In these schools, students are taught “the nature of the Korean revolution and who were the allies and enemies of the Revolution”. The education curriculum teaches who the allies and enemies are as opposed to explaining the conflict or historical struggle and letting students think for themselves. For example, in the written work Juche!, Kim Il-Sung states,
“In recent years the U.S. imperialists have embarked upon further intensifying war preparations in South Korea…They have set up the system of wartime mobilization to drive the innocent South Korean people into an aggressive war”.
Here the enemy is seen as the Americans and the ally is seen as the “innocent” South Korea, despite the former and latter countries having diplomatic, mutually beneficial relations during and in the aftermath of the Korean War. This type of black and white, or “us vs them” education prevents critical thinking or empirical learning. The Juche curriculum, while highly nationalistic, is too simple, one-sided, and ultimately detrimental to the North Korean peoples’ understanding of the world.
Almost all other aspects of society and cultural expression: through literature, cinema, arts, labor, etc. are all tied to Juche as part of the North Korean propaganda efforts. In each category, self-reliance of the state is emphasized and as a result the massive independence struggle is prioritized before individualistic self-expression or any type of expression that strays from the nationalist narrative. For example in the arts,
“[North] Korean painting is no longer confined to drawing of beautiful birds, flowers, rivers, mountains…Painting now embraces a whole range of subjects from the Party’s arduous struggle during the anti-Japanese guerilla war; the heroic struggles of the Peoples Army during the Fatherland Liberation War as well as life under the socialist system”.
Rather than drawing depictions of nature or drawing for the purpose of aesthetic or metaphoric value, people are encouraged to draw on specific nationalist themes. Juche puts limitations on individualistic expression and recognizes different outlets for expression solely as an opportunity to further in the North Korean narrative. All individualistic efforts benefit the authoritarian rule under the name of Juche. Juche allows the central government to interfere in all aspects of society under the claim that it will ultimately benefit the North Korean people.
The most troubling attribute to Juche has to do with its portrayal of the man in the center of the very ideology. Through Juche, Kim Il-Sung has created in image of himself as the Father of North Korea, the one that only has the nation and its peoples’ best interests at heart, the one that cares for the people above all else. He is seen as the leader of the North Korean revolution based on self-reliance. And it is this careful cultivation of a cult of personality that manipulates the people into performing radical actions demanded by the government. In the case of North Korea, even when the authoritarian government rules with unreasonable ideas, the people follow due to their loyalty to the worshipped leader.
While there are various reasons for Juche and its emergence, such as historical trauma and anti-Japanese sentiments, Juche from the beginning, was not proposed as a comprehensive philosophy with a substantial, philosophical goal. It continues to stir national pride and glorifies and empowers its authoritarian leaders and is used in times when justification is needed for the actions of the government, a government that chooses to suppress its citizens with scant information of the outside world. The government takes advantage of its people through a haphazardly fabricated philosophy. This philosophy, which benefits the authoritarian rulers more than anyone, is incorporated into all aspects of the North Korean society as a method in which the dictatorship maintains its power.
 Essack, Karrim. Juche Korea. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: Thakers, 1982. Pg 18. Print.
 Sung, Kim Il. Juche! Speeches and Writings of Kim Il Sung. New York: Grossman, 1972. Pg 149. Print.
 선, 우현. 우리 시대의 북한철학. 서울특별시: 책세상, 2000. Pg 44-45. Print.
 손, 광주. 주체사상과 인간중심철학. 서울시: 예문서원, 2003. Pg 26. Print.
 손, 광주. 주체사상과 인간중심철학. 서울시: 예문서원, 2003. Pg 25. Print.
 Essack, Karrim. Juche Korea. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: Thakers, 1982. 38. Print.
 Essack, Karrim. Juche Korea. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: Thakers, 1982. 35. Print.
 Sung, Kim Il. Juche! Speeches and Writings of Kim Il Sung. New York: Grossman, 1972. 192. Print.
 Essack, Karrim. Juche Korea. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: Thakers, 1982. 109. Print.
 Essack, Karrim. Juche Korea. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: Thakers, 1982. 124. Print.