Le Québécois Libre, January 15, 2012, No 296.
Of all the strange and useless ideas coughed up by communist ideology over the years, few are as strange or as useless as the “Juche Idea,” the putative contribution of Kim Il Sung (1912-1994) first president of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. “Juche” means “subject” or “main body” in Korean and in the context of Kim’s “thought” is interpreted to mean “independent stand” or “spirit of self-reliance.” The Juche Idea is said to be based on the principle that “man is the master of everything and decides everything.”
Kim is said to have developed the Juche Idea in the early fifties while directing efforts to liberate the Korean peninsula from American domination (with some help from the Chinese Red Army), but in fact the regime did not announce this epochal doctrine until the late sixties. What probably happened is that Kim, critical of the Cultural Revolution and worried that it might spread to North Korea, decided to distance himself from Maoism and therefore felt the need to develop his own, distinctly Korean contribution to Marxism-Leninism.
A Policy of Isolation
The result is a mishmash of bromides about creativity and human mastery of all things and is even more gaseous than the works of Chairman Mao, but it served its purpose of advancing Kim’s cult of personality. It also gave an air of principled resolve to the regime’s decision to pursue a policy of international isolation.
It was a policy of isolation but certainly not of independence or self-reliance.
Because despite whatever the official ideology said, rocky, mountainous North Korea was never in a position to be self-reliant agriculturally or economically. Behind the loud talk of independence, its economy relied heavily on subsidized fuel from the Soviet Union, a fact that became brutally obvious when the Soviet Union collapsed. When Kim Il Sung died, the country was in the throes of a massive famine that killed between one and three and a half million people out of a population of 22 million.
The scale of this disaster is mind-boggling enough, but we can only imagine how bad things would have been, and for how long, had the North Korean regime decided to really pursue a strategy of self-reliance. If the experiences of Cambodia and postcolonial Africa are anything to go by, attempts to make a small and barely arable country agriculturally self-sufficient are a sure recipe for disaster. If one wants one's people to be fed, trade is the answer; if one wants first of all to control them, a different answer suggests itself.
A Lie Within a Lie
Of course, the function of ideology is to conceal the reality of what is going on, but in the case of Juche, the lie is even more convoluted than that. As Brian R. Myers argues in his excellent book The Cleanest Race: How the North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (Melville House, 2010), the Juche Idea is actually a “sham ideology” produced for foreign consumption; as Myers says, visitors to North Korea can reliably embarrass their government “handlers” by asking them questions about Juche since they themselves know little about it. According to Myers, who has read, watched and listened to the Korean-language-only internal propaganda, the actual ideology of the regime, the one it feeds its own citizens and the one it actually believes, is a race-based nationalism according to which the Korean people are a pure and childlike race, eternally beset by evil foreigners and protected and guided by their wise and parental leaders.
When outsiders look in bafflement on the banalities of the Juche Idea and ask themselves how anyone could believe or even pretend to believe such a silly ideology, Myers says they are missing the point. The North Koreans are only passingly familiar with the Juche Idea. They know about the biographical myths promulgated about the Kim family, and they know about the purity and racial superiority of the Korean people.
The implications of Myers’s interpretation are stark. Kim Il Sung was originally a puppet of Stalin, put in place to run a local copy of the Soviet regime, and because North Korea has remained a command economy, outsiders have continued to call it “Stalinist” or “hard-line communist.” In fact, it has actually adopted a purely racist and nationalist ideology from the beginning, one for which “socialism,” even “in one country,” was only ever a distraction. For Myers, this makes the standard Cold War approach to the regime—in which it is treated as a basically rational tyranny or oligarchy motivated primarily by a desire to maintain its own power—a dangerously naive misunderstanding. The paranoid racism of the North Korean regime makes it prone to irrational and desperate aggression. If it decides that it cannot maintain its legitimacy in the face of abject economic failure, it may opt to prove itself to its people by launching a new war against the American invaders and their poor, duped Korean subjects in the south.
When Kim Il Sung’s torch passed to his dissipated son Kim Jong Il, the new leader felt obliged to come up with his own contribution to the great thought—no longer identified as Marxist-Leninist—and so the idea of Songun (military first) was unveiled to great fanfare. Songun introduces an innovation to socialism, declaring the army and not the workers or peasants to be the driving force of the revolution. On the surface, this appears to be refreshing candour, since “army-first” was certainly always the actual policy of the regime, the best resources and first food rations always going to the troops.
But Myers points out that it serves another, more important purpose: deflecting criticism from the leader. Kim Jong Il came to power at a time when the economy of the country was clearly failing, and Songun made it clear that his priority was national defence. He was first and foremost the military leader of the people. He had, at least temporarily, to leave the economy, and the blame for its failure, in other hands. The military provocations of the Kim regime and its aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons are of course consistent with Myers’s interpretation of the real ideology of North Korea.
Now that the leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic has passed to another son of the Kim family, we can perhaps expect to see the tree of the Juche Idea bloom with another brilliant flower. All this is window-dressing for foreign consumption. For the starving and desperate people of North Korea, Kim Jong Un will have a different message: one of national pride and a willingness to sacrifice everything for the glory of the pure Korean race.
What does all this mean for a global community looking on with some anxiousness? Ron Paul's proposals to reduce the US military presence worldwide would eventually have to include the return of some of the 28,500 troops in South Korea. (The US military budget will have to be reduced eventually whether Paul's suggestions, discussed elsewhere in this issue of Le Québécois Libre, are taken seriously or not.) It is impossible to predict how the regime of Kim Jong Un would respond to such a move, but not entirely impossible to predict how it might react to a more hawkish approach. While there might be several more or less "right" ways to handle a paranoid racist who controls a large army and possesses nuclear weapons, there is one definitely wrong way: provocation. Let’s hope the leaders of the world’s remaining superpower, present and future, have the wisdom to tread more carefully than they have in the recent past.
* Larry Deck is a librarian who lives in Montreal.