North Korea’s Juche Myth (Review)

Posted January 8, 2018

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Review of North Korea’s Juche Myth, B. R. Myers (Busan: Sthele Press, 2015)


With his latest book, Brian Myers attempts to prove that North Korea’s juche ideology is not an ideology at all. Because it does not actually drive North Korean policy, Myers argues, juche is nothing more than a myth that North Korean propagandists have fed to gullible outsiders in an attempt to prove that the country is truly self-reliant and that leader Kim Il Sung made a singular contribution to philosophy and politics.


North Korea’s Juche Myth makes an intriguing argument. And it’s impossible not to be impressed by Myers’s commitment to parsing some of the least interesting passages ever written by human hand. Ultimately, however, his latest book fails to convince. Myers is more interested in scoring points – mostly against Korea watchers – than making a fully satisfying argument.


The book’s title captures the ambiguity of the author’s quest. He is interested in proving two contentions: that juche has never functioned as a proper ideology within North Korea and that a generation of Korea experts fell for canard. To demonstrate the first contention, Myers combs through various North Korean texts and navigates the definitional thicket that has developed around the word.


Juche means “subject” in Korean. In 1955, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung gave a speech on “establishing the subject in ideological work.” Kim was attempting to steer between two errors of dogma – slavish adherence to Soviet-style Communism and the embrace of a purely Korean (or nationalist) approach to building a classless society. This was a problem that preoccupied leaders throughout the Soviet bloc in the late 1940s and 1950s, prompting Tito’s break with Stalin as well as a series of show trials that led to the imprisonment and even execution of Communist officials accused of following Tito’s lead.


Myers argues that Kim Il Sung’s 1955 speech by no means identified him as a Titoist. Kim continued to praise both Soviet and Chinese guidance and assistance. Moreover, juche played more of a role in South Korean strongman Park Chung Hee’s thinking of the period. Finally, the definition of the word was beginning to shift in North Korea, acquiring connotations of self-reliance, self-defense, and autonomy. Later, too, Kim Il Sung began to ascribe a humanist dimension to juche, arguing that the core principle of his philosophy was that “man is the master of all things.”


Thus, Myers argues that as “subject,” juche was not exclusively North Korean in its provenance. As “self-reliance,” the ideology was flatly contradicted by the aid that North Korea depended upon from the Soviet bloc, China, and even the West. And as “humanism” juche was an example of “differentiated speech code,” namely a version entirely for export as part of a “charm offensive.” Rather than humanistic, juche was overshadowed by the philosophy of the “great leader” (or suryong) in which one man, Kim Il Sung—not men in general—is the master of all things.


As such, juche is not specific to North Korea or Kim Il Sung, not internally consistent, and not connected to actual policy directions within the country. For these reasons, Myers argues, juche is a “myth” constructed largely for external consumption though not without its domestic uses.


Myers isn’t entirely wrong in his analysis up to this point. But in his eagerness to prove the fallibility of the Korea Studies profession and to demonstrate that engagement with North Korea is futile, he overstates his case.


So, for instance, juche was in fact an element in Park Chung Hee’s philosophy. Indeed, the ruling philosophies of the two Koreas were quite similar in the 1960s and 1970s. The autocrats in both north and south believed in a measure of economic self-reliance that went beyond the usual requirements of nationalism. Refusing to be locked in the role of producer of raw materials to the global economy, South Korea invested in industries like steel and shipbuilding that, by the rules of comparative advantage, it should never have tried to develop. Refusing to be locked in the role of producer of raw materials within the Soviet bloc states, North Korea instead began to develop its own indigenous manufacturing.


In both states, this ideology of self-reliance guided actual policy. It wasn’t just for show.


Yes, North Korea has always been more dependent on outside assistance than it would care to admit – or that is consistent with the stated aims of juche ideology. But since when are ideologies consistent? The United States promulgates a democratic ideology but has also cozied up to numerous dictators. It makes for a hypocritical ideology, but it is no less an ideology because of it. Marxism trumpeted its classlessness to the world at large even as Marxist leaders constructed a new class system to replace the old. Yet, Marxism continued to be an ideology that guided actual policy.


Myers argues that in contrast to other internally inconsistent ideologies such as Stalinism, “North Korean propaganda misrepresented Kim’s published works during his lifetime, without his either objecting or conversely ordering changes to those works.” It’s not clear why this misrepresentation disqualifies juche from being an ideology while the inconsistencies of Stalinism, for instance, do not.


In reality, North Korea hasn’t so much pursued juche as attempted to avoid its opposite, namely sadae. Sadae is the tribute that Koreans (and others) once paid to the emperor when China ruled the region. Sadaejuui, often translated as “flunkeyism,” is the condition of being subjugated. North Korea has refused to be subservient to anyone, not South Korea, not Japan or the United States, and not even China. This desire to be autonomous and not dependent on anyone else—even when it has manifestly failed—continues to motivate North Korean policy.


As with his previous book, The Cleanest Race, Myers wants to demonstrate that North Korea is not a leftist state but rather a “far-right state.” He argues that its policies are based on racialism.


It’s true that North Korea is no longer Communist and doesn’t espouse any values or positions that correspond to what might be construed as “leftism.” There are good reasons to describe it as a right-wing state. But then how does that lead to Myers’s conclusion that “to grasp North Korea as a far-right state is to admit the futility of engagement, something many remain reluctant to do.” One could make such arguments about Russia under Putin or Iran under the ayatollahs, and yet both of these countries have entered into agreements with the international community.


In addition to attempting to prove the uselessness of engagement, Myers wants to demonstrate that virtually the entire Korea studies profession has been deluded into taking juche seriously. Bruce Cumings comes in for particular scorn (disclosure: I generally escape his censure except for one glancing footnote). But the quote on juche from Cumings that Myers uses – “The closer one gets to its meaning, the more its meaning recedes. It is the opaque core of Korean national solipsism” – sounds a good deal as if Myers himself could have written it.


The book contains other flaws. He makes assertions that cry out for more substantiation, such as the claim that in the early 1990s, half the student-body presidents at South Korean universities belonged to the pro-North movement. He cites a defector account without subjecting it to any scrutiny. He also argues that the North Korean regime today “knows far less about the average North Koreans than the US government knows about its obligingly self-surveilling citizens.” Given the penetration of surveillance in North Korea, that seems unlikely. And, by the way, much of the surveillance in the United States today is far from voluntary.


In the end, North Korea’s Juche Myth is a fascinating trip down the rabbit hole of North Korean thinking. If the author didn’t have so many axes to grind, he might have made a more substantive contribution to the literature that he so bracingly disparages.


Korean Quarterly, Winter 2018


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