Juche: A Primer
It is a common misconception that the Sino-Korean word “Juche (주체, 主體)” means “self-reliance.” “Juche” literally means “the main subject.” This is because the Juche ideological system (sometimes called Kimilsungism) focuses on man as the dominant actor, or main subject, in the world. Man dominates nature and the revolution and not the other way around. Man is the master of everything and decides everything. Although this might sound liberating, Juche is actually a justificatory ideology in that its main purpose is to justify the primacy of the Korean Worker’s Party over politics. The futileness of Juche’s quest is aptly demonstrated in the opening passage of James Church’s A Corpse in the Koryo (see my review here):
“…nothing to see but crumbling highway cutting straight through empty countryside. Laid out straight on a map thirty years ago straight was how it was to be built. The engineers would have preferred to skirt the small hills, that oddly unconnected, sail like boats across the landscape. Straight, rigorously straight, literally straight, meant blasting a dozen tunnels. This meant an extra year of dangerous, unnecessary work for construction troops, but there was no serious thought of deviating from the line of the map, pointing like Truth from the capital down to the border and drawn by a Hand none would challenge. Alas, to their regret, the engineers could not replace the rebellious contours of the land; in places the road curved. For that, the general in change, a morose man of impeccable loyalty, caught hell.
Kim Il Sung first mentioned Juche in 1955, but it wasn’t until the Sino-Soviet split in 1962 that the Juche ideology set off on its path to formalization, as the Kim regime looked for a way to tow a line independent of Moscow and Beijing. Kim Il Sung’s works were systematically changed to “prove” that Kim mentioned Juche-esque ideas as early as his guerrilla days in Manchuria (see: Kang 2001). Kim Jong Il and his mentor Hwang Jeong Yop (who later defected to the South) are often credited with formulating the system as it stands now.
Juche begins with the Marxist-Leninist premise of capitalist exploitation of the masses and the need to end exploitation and oppression. In their attempt to carve out a completely new and unique niche for themselves, Juche-ists adapted this principle to claim that capitalist exploitation prevents the working classes from fulfilling their role as the masters of society and the revolution. According to Kim Jong Il:
The revolution is the struggle to meet the masses’ desire for independence. It is a struggle for the masses’ to free themselves. When they are armed with the revolutionary idea and organized into a unified political force, the masses can emerge victorious in the revolution (see Kim Jong Il “On the Origin of the Juche Idea” Note: if you’re in South Korea, you’ll need to visit that site from behind a proxy).
The next premise of Juche ideology is man as a social being. Juche theorists claim that man must live and develop in the presence of social relationships. Social relationships imbue man with his essential “human-ness.” Although man can survive physically without social relationships, he will never be able to do those things that are peculiar to man, such as thinking, speaking, etc without existing in a social collective.
Man, as a social being, has independence. Juche theorists define this word to mean the ability to dominate nature and destiny. Independent man doesn’t just adapt to new environments, he makes new environments adapt to him.
Next, man has the attribute of creativity. Creativity is the ability to create things from scratch and to consciously and purposely change the world.
The final aspect of man is consciousness. Consciousness is man’s awareness of his ability to dominate the world. Consciousness is divided into two parts: knowledge and ideological consciousness. Knowledge essentially means knowing how to dominate the world. Ideological consciousness determines what kinds of knowledge to pursue in order to realize man’s destiny. Ideological consciousness must be trained through social education and by thinking only proper thoughts. Because of this, Juche can have no competition. Such ideological education is pervasive in North Korean society. Dr. Andrei Lankov provides some background and insight into these ideological sessions:
1. “Meetings on reading newspapers” starts the working day for many, if not most North Koreans. For half an hour, especially appointed people read out Nodong Sinmun or sometimes Memoirs of the Anti-Japanese Guerrillas.
2. “Meetings on studying from the experience of the Great Leader and the Dear Ruler” are dedicated to stories about Kim Il Song and Kim Chông Il which (mostly from the series Stories about the Love for the People) are also read out aloud and, sometimes, discussed. These stories which we have briefly mentioned above, illustrate how humane, wise and devoted to their subjects both leaders are.
3. “Meetings on analysing slogans” do not need much explanation, their name is self-explanatory.
4. “Meetings of revenge” must nourish the hatred for the enemy. During these sessions, stories about the “bloody atrocities of the eternal enemies of the Korean people – American imperialism, Japanese colonialism and their South Korean puppets” are read and discussed. By the way, among the major villains are Christian missionaries who in these stories are depicted branding Korean children with hot iron, taking their blood to sell overseas and, definitely, spying for their cunning masters in Washington.
5. “Meetings on the ideological struggle” were, perhaps, initially borrowed from Mao’s China. At these meetings, people who have committed “ideological mistakes” or “concessions to revisionism” are criticised. The “mistakes” may include such crimes as long hair and excessive devotion to passion. Everybody has to accuse and denounce the culprit who must also finally deliver a speech of repentance. Nowadays, such meetings normally proceeds relatively peacefully but in the 1960s some victims were routinely beaten up by the “masses”.
6. “Meetings on drawing the results of life” finish the working week. Usually they take place on Saturdays, once or twice a month. These are devoted to self-criticism. All those present are required to confess in turn their sins and misdemeanours over the previous weeks and complete their speeches with an obligatory oath of repentance. These public political confession sessions are a very important part of the daily life of North Korea. After everybody has completed their repentance speeches with the obligatory quotes from Kim Il Song and Kim Chông Il, they turn to a bout of the so-called “mutual criticism”, meaning that each participant must denounce one or another actions of their colleagues. While such behaviour might strike the reader as strange, nevertheless the system has proved to be a remarkably efficient means of cohesion.
7. “Meetings on learning songs” is necessary since a new song in North Korea is a rare event, and each new lyric and tune must be officially approved. Hence, each new work is supposedly a “masterpiece of chuch’e music” and thus must be learned by the whole population. Needless to say, Kim Il Song and Kim Chông Il are mentioned in the text of most songs.
It is worth mentioning the prominence of jingoism in Juche. Juche places the Korean people at the forefront of a global revolution as “chosen people,” with Kim Il Sung as a messianic figure at the top. Juche is even beginning to take on certain mystical qualities as stories of people praying to Kim Il Sung and recieting his works are miraculously saved from danger. For more on this, see Thank You Father Kim Il Sung (PDF link), from the United States Commission on International Religious freedom.