The Prophet Is Dead: Juche and the Future of North Korea

As the North Korean government announces the death of Kim Jong-il, the future of the "hermit kingdom," along with its 25 million people, remains largely uncertain. It is no secret that life under the Dear Leader was no picnic. Just this month, over 40 human rights organizations, marking the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, called for "international action to stop crimes against humanity perpetrated by North Korea's dictatorship."

Human Rights Watch marked the occasion of Kim John Il's death with a statement that governments around the world should demand that his successor reform the country's dismal human rights record. As the rights agency noted, "Kim Jong-Il exercised total control for 17 years over one of the world's most closed and repressive governments. He was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of North Koreans through widespread preventable starvation, horrendous prisons and forced labor camps, and public executions."

But even while the North Korean regime has been a major concern of governments around the world due to the horrendous treatment of its people as well as its obsessive nuclear ambitions, little has been written about its driving state ideology - the "Juche idea" - and the clues it may hold for predicting the nature of post-Kim Jong Il North Korea.

As Christopher Hale has written, "In its simplest form, Juche is generally defined as North Korea's ideology of autonomy and self-reliance, and it is meant to replace the principle of sadaejuui (serving the great) that has characterized Korea's foreign relations throughout much of its history." As is well known, with the end of the Second World War, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel into the north (administered by the Soviet Union) and the south (administered by the United States). North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), was formally established in 1948.

The 1948 constitution of the DPRK closely resembled other communist countries under the control of the USSR and was patterned on the Soviet Union's 1936 "Stalinist" constitution. Soviet influence in the DPRK was so strong that the U.S. State Department stated at the time that North Korea was "well advanced toward becoming a Republic of the USSR." According to Hale, the political philosophy of Juche stemmed from Kim Il Sung's disillusionment with Soviet dominance as well as his "highly nationalist orientation."

This nationalist orientation reached full bloom in the 1972 Constitution, which enshrined Juche as the overarching ideology of the state. Article 44 noted that there was a need to "thoroughly establish Juche in scientific research," and Article 45 expressed the need for "a Juche-oriented, revolutionary literature and art." Christopher Hale goes so far as to say that "it would be accurate to call the constitution a Juche constitution in light of its saturation with Juche ideology."

Over the next several decades, the "Juche idea" became more entrenched in the foundation of North Korea. The fall of the USSR in 1991, rather than weakening Kim Il Sung's commitment to socialism, was a major boost to the Juche idea. According to Kim, the fall of the USSR only signaled the superiority of the North Korean system. As such, in 1992, a new constitution was introduced, one in which references to Marxism-Leninism were replaced by articles reaffirming the superiority of Juche.

However, a more pivotal event would occur two years later that would enshrine Juche as a kind of state religion: the death of Kim Il Sung. As Hale points out, with his death in 1994, Kim Il Sung was relegated to godlike status, "and subsequently he and his purported Juche ideas were regarded with a level of holy sanctity that was not quite possible while he was alive."

Thus, while Juche was originally used by the elder Kim to emphasize the autonomy of the North Korean state, it has grown into something very different. It was Kim Jong Il's treatise On the Juche Idea, published in 1982, that first highlighted some of Juche's religious elements. The treatise raised Kim Jong Il to a kind of prophet, uniquely capable of interpreting and implementing his father's hopes for the country. After the elder Kim's death, a new constitution was introduced in 1998, which by all accounts was "a religious eulogy to Kim Il Sung," referring to him as the "sun of the nation and the lodestar of the reunification of the fatherland."

As Grace Lee has argued, "Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il have successfully wielded the Juche idea as a political shibboleth to evoke a fiercely nationalistic drive for North Korean independence and to justify policies of self-reliance and self-denial in the face of famine and economic stagnation in North Korea."

Now with the passing of both father and son, the future seems uncertain. While some commentators are optimistic that the death of Kim Jong Il signals an end to decades of brutal rule, one wonders if the philosophy of Juche and its religious status in the country will be an impediment to the forging of a drastically new path. As Adrain Buzo rightly argued in The Guerilla Dynasty: Politics and Leadership in North Korea, "to depart from this ideology would threaten the DPRK's very self-definition as a state."