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

August 4, 2016 7:00 AM

In my previous post on B.R. Myers outstanding North Korea's Juche Myth, I outlined the foundations of the book in his distinction between “inner,” “outer,” and “export” ideological or propaganda tracks and the core of the regime’s real ideology in racist nationalism. Throughout, however, is the deeper theme of how the elusive juche concept was repeatedly invoked in purely instrumental ways to get things accomplished, both externally and internally.

The North Koreans appeared to have stumbled on the external benefits of having their own obfuscatory ideological line, particularly if it could play to the biases of potential sympathizers; here, of course, is where Myers’ rubs engagers the wrong way. In the formulation of the concept provided to a group of Japanese journalists in 1972, Kim Il Sung waxes loftily about how a thorough understanding of the idea would require endless study of the underlying texts. As Myers notes in another one of his acid formulations, “this sort of bluster has remained integral to the juche discourse ever since. No matter what text one consults, one is made to feel, through a kind of infinite regress, that the argumentative groundwork must have been laid somewhere else (p. 121).”

The explanation offered to the Japanese—cooked up by Hwang Yong Jop—consisted in little more than some humanist platitudes that are vaguely reminiscent of the early Marx: man is the master of his fate, the masses are key to any revolution, one must pay attention to local historical conditions, and so on. We genuinely wonder whether all of the little groups that are established abroad devoted to Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il-Juche thought genuinely absorb the massive “collected works” spit out by the national publishers or whether they were initially simply bought and paid for; Myers provides ample and humorous anecdotes with respect to the latter.

But juche did come to have an important domestic political role in the succession. Although this story has been told before, Myers gets it particularly right because of his insight into how ideology should be conceived as propaganda. Kim Jong Il’s fascination with culture was partly just the whim of a spoiled autocrat’s kid; if you think this is an exaggeration, read the marvelous account of the North Korean film industry by Paul Fischer entitled A Kim Jong Il Production. But by positioning himself as the keeper of the juche flame, Kim Jong Il was able to define a political position that left any adversaries bereft of ideological breathing room

And what was going on in the so-called “inner track” as Kim Jong Il climbed the ladder to succession had nothing to do with juche. Rather, Kim Jong Il was formulating the true ideological core of the regime, namely unconditional loyalty to the leader, unconditional loyalty to his revolutionary thought, and above all, unconditional loyalty to his every instruction. As Myers points out, juche actually does not even appear in any of these crucial formulations, most notably in the Ten Principles outlined in 1967 and made public in the inner track in April 1974. The Orwellian nature of the exercise barely needs comment: an ideological system that Myers translates as “Subject Thought” reaches its culmination in a set of ten commandments in which the subject is eviscerated, realized only through complete submission to the Leader.

Although Myers has little sympathy for engagers who place some weight on the mysteries of juche as a driver of North Korean behavior, he is particularly disdainful of the way that South Korean leftists and intellectuals get sucked in. As he points out, the appeal is precisely that the Americans—the central adversary for a significant portion of the student movement—can’t possibly understand the mysteries of Korean nationalism that juche thought is tapping.

Myers basically sees the period from the famine forward as a period when juche undergoes secular decline at home, just as it is being treated with increasing seriousness among commenters abroad. Juche gets fewer and fewer mentions as other formulations—military-first, strong and prosperous nation, the byungjin line—rotate across the ideological marquee. As Myers concludes, the fact that juche never served as an orienting ideological concept for the regime does not diminish its importance: “By crediting Kim Il Sung with an original, world-renowned doctrine, the propaganda apparatus enhanced his prestige, undermined internal challenges to his rule, strengthened pride in the DPRK and helped save the regime’s face when its patron-states collapsed.”

I have two small quarrels with Myers, the first deriving from my focus with Marcus Noland on economic issues. We have long made clear that the “self-reliance” claims of juche notwithstanding, North Korea has long survived on the largesse of the international community; this is one of the elements of Orwellian genius behind the concept. Without the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, the aid community, and China, North Korea would have long ago gone the way of Enver Hoxha’s Albania.

But it is wrong to underestimate the extent to which the myth of self-reliance influenced a host of economic policies that the regime pursued. These policies stemmed in large part from the communist model that stamped the country from birth. But it seems at least possible to us that the regime drunk its own Kool Aid with respect to policies on agriculture, trade, foreign investment, import substitution and so on, and at high cost; this impression has been confirmed in earnest discussions with North Korean technocrats. Some ideological influences of self-reliance appear to be at work, almost always to the detriment of the country.

And second, after reading Myers account I have some doubt whether there really is a coherent inner track either. My colleague Marc Noland has been particularly focused on bringing to light the racist comments that the regime periodically trots out, including references to President Obama as a monkey. But the inner track is not limited to the race card by any means and seems to shape-shift at well, anchored at different times and to different degrees in the Fuherprinzip, collectivism, in the military, in white-elephant technology projects and most recently in the nuclear and missile programs as ideological as well as material weapons. Yet however we characterize the ideological underpinnings of the regime, Myers has once again written a must-read account. It is not only thoroughly researched in Korean and other foreign sources but witty and adheres to Foucault’s adage that “knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.”   


Owen Hilton

I agree that Brian Myers' North Korea's juche myth is a fascinating and convincing book. But I wonder to what extent juche really has been swallowed in the West. No doubt there are cranks who take juche seriously (for example, the members of the above-mentioned study groups), but having read scores of academic articles on North Korea I can't remember any that devoted much space to the ideology. And I don't see that debunking juche will annoy engagers—do any of them even think about it?

Rudiger Frank

Just a small but important correction: chuch'e is not Marxist, it's the exact opposite. The sentence "man is master of everything", as shallow as it sounds, is actually a bombshell to any Marxist thinker who believes that societies are governed by objective laws. These laws can at best be understood, a Marxist would argue, but by no means altered. Kim Il Sung said exactly the opposite, much like Mao (and Lenin, although the latter at least paid lip service to Marx while doing something very different). Kim said that he is not bound by any objective law of societal development but can do as he pleases (man is master of everything). This makes chuch'e so unspecific, and at the same time so resilient. My simplified understanding of chuch'e is that of a carte blanche for the NK leader. 

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