There are some things about North Korea, as a society and government, that seem almost too strange to be believed. It’s a country where thousands of people celebrate their weddings in front of a statue of its first leader, Kim Il Sung, as a kind of quasi-religious ritual. It is an official belief that the state’s second leader, Kim Jong Il, invented the hamburger (or “double bread with meat,“ as it‘s referred to there). Under Kim Jong Un, the North Korean government has claimed to have developed a wonder drug that can cure both AIDS and Ebola.
North Korea’s repressive government survives in no small part because it has convinced its people of the legitimacy of its government. As hard as it may be for Americans to grasp, millions of North Koreans appear to truly believe their government’s pronouncements. And the tool the state has used to convince of them of these ideas is a unique official philosophy called “juche” (pronounced JOO-chay).
Juche, which roughly translates as “self-reliance,” is an odd blend of several different ideas. It borrows much of its language from Marxism but also draws on Confucianism, 20th-century Japanese imperialism, and traditional Korean nationalism. Its core idea is that North Korea is a country that must remain separate and distinct from the world, dependent solely on its own strength and the guidance of a near-godlike leader.
The doctrine’s meaning has shifted over time, depending on the needs of the North Korean leadership. It’s not actually clear how much of it North Korea’s leadership actually believes and how much of it is simple propaganda. But experts on North Korea believe that the country’s indoctrination into juche ideology is profound and deep, with an unknown-but-significant number of ordinary North Koreans actually believing its loopiest claims.
“Of course they [believe it],” says David Kang, a North Korea expert at the University of Southern California. “I always object to putting in terms such as brainwashing, because every society has rituals and cultures and norms and values … when they’re very clear, and everyone else is doing them, you just do it too.”
Grappling with juche, as well as Kim Jong Un‘s innovation on its core ideas, is actually quite important to grasping what Kim wants from the world. And it helps explain why Kim is suddenly trying to play nice with both President Donald Trump and the world.
North Korea’s ideas may be weird. But that’s doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them seriously.
Juche turns Kim into a godlike figure
From its inception, juche has meant more or less whatever the North Korean government needed it to mean.
In the 1950s, North Korea was in a tough situation both politically and economically. It was a poor Marxist country located near the world’s two largest socialist states: the Soviet Union and China.
Those two countries didn’t always see eye to eye. But Pyongyang couldn’t afford to alienate either of them by seeming to align itself more with one than the other; as a result, it couldn’t fully adopt the Soviet Union’s Stalinist ideology, nor could it take up China’s Maoism.
It also was a young country, with a dubious claim to legitimacy — it was one half of the formerly united Korea — and its new leader actually grew up in the Soviet Union. Juche, as developed by Kim Il Sung and his cronies, was designed to solve both of these problems.
The initial juche ideal of “self-reliance” centered on three elements: ideological autonomy, economic self-sufficiency, and military independence from imperial influence. These ideas were never implemented literally — North Korea‘s economy depended heavily on aid from the Soviets, in particular — but were useful diplomatically. By elevating autonomy as an ideal over all things, North Korea could claim to be fully aligned with neither the Soviets nor the Chinese.
Domestically, juche served to connect Kim Il Sung and the nascent North Korean state to ideas that would resonate with ordinary Koreans. It paired the Marxist language of the country’s communist patrons with traditional Korean nationalism, arguing that South Korea was not a legitimate government because it was the tool of imperialist-capitalist foreign powers like the United States.
It also developed a doctrine of Korean racial purity, drawing on historically Korean beliefs and language used by Japanese imperialists, to argue against opening up to the global economy. Even today, North Koreans are still taught that the first humans emerged there, and that part of the reason they’re superior to other countries is that they’ve preserved their purity while others have become mongrels.
Perhaps most interestingly, juche modified a traditional Confucian doctrine — that human beings can transform the world if they possess the correct mindset — to explain why Kim Il Sung deserved the Korean people’s respect. Juche holds that the only the possessor of truly correct consciousness is the “suryong” (leader) of North Korea. Kim was so uniquely gifted, so incredibly accomplished, that the only way to make one’s life better was to align your own will with that of the suryong’s.
“Human beings don’t need God. They now have the Kim family,” as Don Baker, a scholar of Korean philosophy at the University of British Columbia, summarizes it.
This is why North Koreans visit statues of Kim Il Sung when they get married, and why North Korean state propaganda attributes nearly divine power to its leaders (both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un have reportedly altered the weather on the country’s quasi-sacred mountain, Mt. Paektu, simply by visiting it).
Juche ideology demands total fealty to the leader. But to convince people they also owe fealty to the state required something even more profound than a cult of personality around the Kims: a set of rituals and beliefs that amounted to a form of religion. State media literally refers to the tomb where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are interred as the “the sacred temple of juche.”
Because North Korea has such tight controls over the information its people get, most of them have no way of knowing that their state religion isn’t exactly supported by the facts. There is no such thing as an independent media in North Korea, aside from what people can glean from secretly consuming foreign media. With citizens completely in the dark about the world, dependent almost wholly on state-run media for information, it’s quite easy to convince people that the Kim family can perform nearly divine feats.
The vagueness of juche as a political philosophy — self-reliance can mean practically anything — combined with media control and the elevation of the suryong to near-divine status serves to give the Kims incredible policy flexibility. The policies that are necessary to achieve “self-reliance” are entirely up to the will of the member of the Kim family in power.
“I don’t think it’s a series of precepts, like a Bible or something,“ says Kang. “Juche is some kind of loosy-goosey thing that can be deployed however the leader wants.”
You saw this very clearly under Kim Jong Il’s rule. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, North Korea lost its primary source of food aid, which led to a massive and devastating famine. So Kim Jong Il developed an addendum to traditional juche, which he called songun (or “military first”).
Songun held that to be self-reliant and independent, North Korea needed a strong military first and foremost. This served as the state’s justification for feeding soldiers before ordinary citizens, something Kim needed to do to avoid risking a military coup.
Songun also served to justify the state’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Though its nuclear program incurred international condemnation and sanctions that hurt the economy, Kim argued that it was worth it in order to secure the state’s military independence. The Korean people had to suffer for the Korean nation to survive.
Songun didn’t supersede juche, which remains the official state ideology. Instead, it’s more like an interpretation of its doctrines — one tailored to fit the needs of the North Korean government at the time.
Why juche matters for understanding the Trump-Kim diplomacy
Given the fundamental vagueness of juche, and the way it changes based on what the regime requires, it’s tempting to say that juche is mostly irrelevant to North Korean politics.
But the North Korea experts I spoke to say this isn’t quite right. How the current suryong interprets juche, and the ways he explains its precepts to his people, is actually quite significant.
“Every ideology is malleable,” John Ishiyama, a political scientist at the University of Texas, tells me. “There are, however, parameters.”
In 2013, Kim Jong Un‘s second year in power, he developed his own school of juche thought — “byungjin” (“side by side”). The basic idea of byungjin was dual-track development: building up the economy and the military equally, without prioritizing one over the other. This was an abandonment of songun, though Pyongyang would never put it in those terms, in favor of a renewed emphasis on economic development.
Once Kim announced the byungjin line, actual economic development became vitally important. While his father and grandfather argued that Koreans needed to suffer for the nation to survive, thus allowing the economy to remain stagnant, Kim Jong Un argued that the North Korean people deserved higher living standards.
All of a sudden, the basic legitimacy of juche is bound up in the state actually delivering on its economic promises. Even a controlled media architecture can’t convince people that they aren’t starving when they are.
“He’s telling his people a story: I care about you, and you should not be hungry anymore,” Kang, the USC expert, explains. “There’s only so long you can go down that line without it affecting what people want you to do … he’s really staked his claim on being able to move the [economic] needle.”
This doesn’t mean that if Kim fails to secure economic benefits in the near term, there will be a revolt against the government. It does mean, though, that Kim runs the risk of unrest and dissent, even from his own top advisers, if he fails to follow through on his new version of juche.
So Kim has embarked on a project of economic reform, incrementally lifting restrictions on owning private property and foreign investment, to spur economic growth without sacrificing the most fundamental juche ideals of self-reliance and independence from foreign control.
“They want development — but they want it their way,” explains Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “That includes trade and investment but carefully controlled.”
The byungjin line partly explains Kim’s outreach to Trump: The more military tension there is with the United States, the harder it will be to focus on improving the economy. When you get tweets like this, by contrast, it feels like less of a risk for foreign corporations and tourist agencies to do business with North Korea:
Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018
The summit also served a second ideological goal: reinforcing to the North Korean people that byungjin isn’t sacrificing self-reliance on the altar of prosperity.
The images circulating around North Korean state media of Trump shaking hands with Kim and literally saluting North Korean generals serve as tangible proof that Kim is following through on some of the core juche ideals.
Kim has, through the strength of his nuclear arsenal, gotten an American president to sit down with him as an equal for the very first time. It shows that the byungjin line, dual military-economic development, is working at both intended goals.
“For him, [the summit was] a great propaganda coup,” says Ishiyama. “He got exactly what he wanted, which was legitimacy by meeting with the most powerful leader in the world face to face. It’s what they’ve been wanting for at least three decades.”
So while the juche ideology may be malleable, it defines the basic conditions under which the government in Pyongyang makes decisions. And, inside those parameters, Kim Jong Un has to view the diplomacy of the past week as a great success.