B.R. Myers: North Korea’s Juche Myth I

August 3, 2016 7:00 AM

I have never put much weight on ideological explanations of North Korea’s domestic or foreign behavior. To be sure, the regime was communist at birth, thanks to the Soviet occupation. The regime’s communism influenced economic policy and structure and political institutions in predictable ways. As in other communist takeovers, private property was nationalized, agriculture collectivized and markets curtailed under the thumb of the plan; this is no small ideological effect. North Korea’s formal political institutions initially followed the basic Soviet template as well, although they subsequently became mere shells for personalism.

But my admittedly limited efforts to track down the meaning of juche and juche sasang (juche thought) in its purportedly foundational texts—for example, in the relevant ideological works of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that are cited extensively in Myers North Korea's Juche Myth—typically turned up nothing other than a mish-mash of empty, even embarrassingly empty, platitudes; I simply didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to keep ploughing.

The second source of my skepticism was the belief that we were on firmer analytic ground with a regime of this sort by thinking in terms of propaganda rather than ideology: the effort on the part of a self-serving political elite to propagate myths that would sustain its power and control. Ideology appeared less a guide to elite action than a justification of it: a tool of domination. If leaders wanted to go a different way, they were unlikely to be particularly constrained by ideologies they themselves had made up out of whole cloth.

The actual content of juche sasang may not be worth studying, but Myers’ account of how it evolved is.

B.R. Myers is one of a small handful of North Korea analysts I would call truly indispensable if you want to understand the country. In this new 2015 book, he continues his exploration of North Korean ideology begun in The Cleanest Race. He not only takes a wrecking ball to juche, but a wrecking ball to those Western and South Korean analysts who have been taken in by it. In the course of doing so, he not only provides a highly literate, thoroughly researched and readable history of North Korea through an ideational lens. He also provides some tools for thinking about the role that ideology and propaganda play in the North Korean system more generally. The actual content of juche sasang may not be worth studying, but Myers’ account of how it evolved is.

Foundations

Myers’ book rests on two analytic foundations. The first is that any understanding of North Korean ideological discourse and propaganda must distinguish between several discrete, identifiable tracks: an “inner track” aimed at North Koreans, where the real action takes place; an “outer track” aimed at North Koreans, but with awareness of outside monitoring; and an “export track” targeted at foreign interlocutors, including both those in the West and South Korea. A repeated problem that Myers identifies is the gullibility of foreigners in believing that the export track has anything to do with the regime’s actual objectives or policies. Rather, as with domestic propaganda, its purpose is precisely the opposite: to obfuscate and secure material benefits of various sorts, most notably by propagating a favorable view of the regime. Marc Noland made exactly this point last week in a post on how the media routinely engages in wishful thinking with respect to signals coming out of North Korea.

The second, and more controversial of Myers’ claims is that the fundamental ideology governing the regime—the inner track—is not well understood either as a nationalist variant of communism, “self-reliance” —as juche is frequently translated—or the fuzzy humanism the regime peddled for a time in the 1970s and 1980s. Rather these more accessible formulations have been used to hide the fact that the regime is more akin to 20th century right-wing—rather than left-wing—totalitarian regimes, combining a radical race nationalism (outlined in Myers’ The Cleanest Race), a Führerprinzip (“Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism,” the suryong ststem) and—increasingly—appeals rooted simply in militarism and military adventurism; for a perfect introduction to the latter, see clips of a Moranbong performance, and look not only at the band but at the audience response.

Early History of an Idea

Myers historical revisionism starts with a close reading of the 1955 Kim Il Sung speech that was supposed to have launched juche sasang, “On Eliminating Dogmatism and Formalism and Establishing the Subject in Ideological Work”; Myers includes the speech as an appendix. The speech reads little differently than the aspirations of other postwar communist leaders who sought to combine adequate fealty to Moscow with a practical focus on national—meaning in this case Korean, not North Korean—tropes.  The “inner track” at this juncture and in the wake of his speech was dominated not by abstruse ideological debates about self-reliance or “man as the measure of all things,” none of which had any practical significance for the aid-dependent country. Rather, they were dominated by efforts to canonize Kim Il Sung in popular culture, particularly through the perpetration of an extravagant mythology of his guerilla exploits. Once the Kapsan faction was finally purged in the mid-1960s, the “inner track” moved more and more in the direction of the “unitary ideological system” characteristic of one-man rule; these ideological developments have little to do with juche except insofar as the highly plastic concept is redefined to incorporate them.

One of the more interesting findings of Myers’ book is the extent to which juche-like ideas—and even the term itself—were more prevalent in Park Chung Hee’s efforts to provide an ideological justification for his seizure of power. The following from Park’s inauguration speech in 1963 bears quoting in full because it is virtually indistinguishable from the later formulations that are peddled by the North Korean regime:

“To promote this great reform movement….we must first unfold an individual spiritual revolution in ourselves. Our citizens, starting with each individual, must foster an autonomous subject consciousness (chajujok chuch’e uisik), firmly establishing a spirit of independence and self-help, according to which one realizes one’s own fate….”

Such vaguely humanist formulations were visible in two other purportedly foundational formulations of the concept: in a speech Kim Il Sung gave in Indonesia in 1965 (the so-called Aliarcham speech) and in prepared remarks he provided to questions posed by some Japanese journalists in 1972. But as Myers argues persuasively, in neither case were these ideological statements related in any way to domestic political developments. Rather, they increasingly became a stylized ideological discourse designed to shore up Kim Il Sung’s reputation abroad among the ideologically gullible. These ranged from Joan Robinson—whom Myers attributes the error of seeing juche as North Korean as opposed to Korean nationalism—to Eldridge Cleaver, to fringe splinterists who were paid handsomely for their sycophancy. As Myers puts it in one of his many acid formulations, the 1970s was “the decade not of chuch’e sasang but of praise for it.”

Next time: the political functions of juche, the decline of the concept and some quibbles with Myers.

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