Environment, Politics, and Ideology in North Korea (Review)

Posted January 8, 2022

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Review of Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Environment, Politics, and Ideology in North Korea: Landscape as Political Project (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015), 102 pages and Jae-Jung Suh, ed., Origins of North Korea’s Juche: Colonialism, War, and Development (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 184 pages


Ideas have always played an important role in North Korean politics.


This assertion is, itself, a controversial idea. Many observers view North Korea as a dictatorial state ruled by a succession of power-hungry individuals willing to do anything to stay in power. For a long time, the default position of North Korea analysts was that the country had imported its ideas from China or the Soviet Union and that Kim Il Sung, who never progressed past an eighth-grade education, had nothing original to add to the Communist canon. He was simply a cat’s paw of Mao or Stalin.


The North Korean leader, of course, insisted to the contrary that his philosophy of juche represented a quintessentially North Korean set of ideas that have guided the country from nearly its beginning. But despite the reams of material produced inside North Korea about juche, North Korea analysts are prone to dismiss the philosophy as an empty conceit that the ruling elite adapts to whatever the circumstances require. Brian Myers, in The Cleanest Race, goes so far as to argue that juche merely conceals a racist and nationalist dogma.


One thing is certain, however: juche is notoriously difficult to define. It has conventionally been equated with “self-reliance,” though the word itself simply means “subject” in Korean. North Koreans I met in Pyongyang would sound almost Shakespearean in their explanation that juche ideology establishes man as the measure of all things. Kim Il Sung associated the term with three related concepts: political independence (chaju); economic self-sufficiency (charip), and national self-defense (chawi).


Two recent books attempt to give juche more definitional clarity. The essays collected in Origins of North Korea’s Juche, edited by Jae-Jung Suh, provide six different ways of contextualizing this ideology, going all the way back to Kim Il Sung’s early years as an anti-Japanese guerrilla.


As Hongkoo Han writes, for instance, Kim Il Sung was deeply influenced by the Minsaengdan Incident of the 1930s, a purge of Korean Communists undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party. This witch-hunt, directed at Koreans who were accused of working as Japanese collaborators, practically wiped out the cadre of Communists operating in Manchuria to which a young Kim Il Sung attached himself. Kim nearly fell victim to the purge as well. Yet he also benefited from it since, after the hysteria passed, he rose in the ranks of the decimated organization of Korean Communists. He also took under his wing a group of youngsters orphaned by the purge, thus establishing the core of his future support. Kim Il Sung spoke Chinese and spent his formative years in the country, but the Minsaengdan Incident instilled in him a life-long suspicious of the Chinese Communist Party.


This ambivalent attitude toward fraternal socialist entities was only strengthened after the end of World War II. The Soviet Union, where Kim Il Sung and his cadre took refuge for much of the war, occupied the northern half of the peninsula as the war was coming to an end. Still a young man, Kim Il Sung returned to Korea with a Soviet escort. Then, as Gwan-Oon Kim points out, Kim watched as the Soviets plundered the country and attempted to maintain strict control over the political and economic institutions of the country. Having recently cast off the yoke of Japanese imperialism, Koreans were not eager to accept Soviet control:


These feelings of betrayal and resentment provided the seeds from which patriotic slogans grew and spread. One of the popularized slogans called upon the northern Korean people to uphold their national identity: “even though we read foreign writings, our mind must be rooted in our own country.” From this society-wide resentment and contempt, the Juche ethos developed. In opposition to the Soviet other, the northern Korean nation was born.


The juche philosophy, in other words, became shorthand for resisting the efforts of both the Chinese and the Soviet Communists to control the destiny of North Korea. This tension played itself out throughout North Korean politics in the post-Korean War era. In the August Faction of 1956, for instance, Kim Il Sung pushed juche as a strategy against those within the Party who preferred to pursue reforms comparable to what were taking place in a de-Stalinizing Soviet Union. The creation of the suryong or Supreme Leader system – and the consequent strengthening of a personality cult around Kim Il Sung – was a way to emphasize a collectivist tradition against a more pragmatic and individualistic set of reforms, as Young Chul Chung argues.


Ideas, Kim Il Sung insisted, were as important if not more so than material conditions. And he used these ideas to marginalize his opponents domestically and maintain a distance from his allies internationally.


This philosophy spilled over into agriculture as well, as North Korea attempted to squeeze as much yield from its unpromising material conditions (lack of arable land, short growing season) through increasing mechanization of production. Kim Il Sung didn’t want to be dependent on outside suppliers. But, as Chong-Ae Yu argues, this strategy only created a greater dependency – on the petroleum and petroleum products like chemical fertilizer that made such yields possible. When oil prices spiked after 1989 – with the Soviet Union and China switching to market prices for their energy sales – North Korean agriculture quickly became unsustainable. Throw in a couple of natural disasters and the country quickly plunged into a famine. The songun system – the military-first doctrine – was the inevitable response to the country’s perilous condition, as Jae-Jung Suh argues, as only the armed forces could guarantee North Korea’s independence when other state institutions were beginning to wobble.


Juche, as Suh’s book makes clear, is a coherent but evolving set of ideas that has set North Korea apart from its South Korean neighbor, its Communist partners, and the liberal tradition of individualism that has dominated thinking in the West.


In his book Environment, Politics, and Ideology in North Korea, Robert Winstanley-Chesters adopts a different strategy for understanding juche – not contextualizing the ideology but attempting to understand how it functions in one arena of North Korean life: the relationship between the state and the landscape. Initially, like most Communist countries, North Korea saw the land as simply a set of resources to be extracted to build socialism: trees to cut down, soil to grow crops, coal to power factories, inlets to dam up for land reclamation.


For a brief time in the late 1970s, the North Korean government seemed to respond to the worldwide environmental movement. The Land Law of 1977 asserted the need to “protect land against natural disaster and enhance the beauty of the country by creating shelter belts, anti-erosion woods, woods for recreation…and forests to safeguard watersheds.” But by the Sixth Party Congress of 1980, the government had reverted to its earlier, utilitarian approach to forests as a means to the end of creating wood pulp and building materials. During the collapse of North Korea’s agriculture and industry in the mid-1990s, the government – and the people – made a desperate effort to survive by planting on marginal land, which led to severe deforestation.


In a sense, the disaster years precipitated their own version of juche, for the central government required provincial authorities to become self-sufficient and the impoverished locales left it to the people themselves to survive as best they could. The central government did take the unprecedented step of appealing to the outside world for humanitarian aid. But it struggled mightily to prevent the country from becoming dependent on its more powerful neighbors – for instance, by pursuing nuclear power as a way of generating indigenous energy, nuclear weapons as a way to deter outside aggression, and a military-first policy to safeguard the country’s independence.


When the worst of the famine had passed, North Korea again began to incorporate environmentalism into the concept of juche, by marking World Environment Day since 2000 and establishing an Environmental Protection Fund in 2005. “The paradigmatic framing in which nature and the natural world had been seen entirely in terms of productive outcome and capacity,” writes Winstanley-Chesters, “has been replaced with one in which the environment and landscape can be incorporated within wider national narratives.”


Today, North Korea remains an independent country. It owes its survival as a sovereign state ruled over by a nominally Communist system – at a time when other Communist states have either collapsed or transformed themselves beyond recognition – to its ideology more than its material conditions, which are not particularly promising. The North Korean economy is still in poor shape; the country continues to be isolated; it has to depend on China for trade and inputs. But the ideology of juche, as well as its many institutional forms, provides a different way to be Korean in a globalized world. It may be a difficult concept to define – as is liberalism, for that matter – but it has a legitimacy in North Korea that goes beyond the charismatic authority of the leadership or the institutional power of the Party.


Korean Quarterly, Fall 2015


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