12 July 2007

North Korean Ideology: Juche as Kokutai

The North's successful quasi-Stalinist economic development did not mean that North Korea adopted the particular blend of Marxism-Leninism developed under Stalin in the 1930s. On the contrary, if the North's ideology resembled any socialist experiment, it was closer to the Chinese model [under Mao]. In retrospect, it is now clear that North Korea actually developed an independent ideological line from the beginning. Perhaps because of its early close association with the USSR and the PRC, the North continued to parrot a line of Marxism-Leninism, but from Kim Il Sung's first formal elaboration of Chuch'e [= Juche] thought in a 1955 speech, Marxism-Leninism progressively declined as a formal category of thought in the North. In hindsight, it is difficult to see how the North's economic and social revolution had anything at all to do with Marxist antecedents. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites after 1989, North Korea quickly disassociated itself from Marxism altogether. Moreover, the development of Chuch'e thought in tandem with the rise of the cult of the leader has provided the North with a ready explanation for the survival of its revolution even after the collapse of the Socialist world order.

Not only do North Korean ideologues assert they have leaders such as the world has never seen before, they also have an ideology that completes their self-image as the center of a world revolution. This ideology revolves around the seminal idea of Chuch'e. Chuch'e is a Sino-Korean compound formed from Chinese characters for the words "subject" [or 'lord, master'] and "body" [主体]. Together they adumbrate the concept of "autonomy" or "self-reliance." In its most straightforward use, Chuch'e can denote one's independence and autonomy from any external control or manipulation. Therefore, one core meaning of Chuch'e resonates in society-wide contexts to describe an autonomous, independent, and self-reliant nation. The ch'e in Chuch'e is the same character used in kukch'e, often translated as "national body" or "polity" (see below). Here it can also carry the connotation of the "national face," as in self-respect. Thus an independent and autonomous nation's face (honor) must not be besmirched or denigrated. This core definition goes a long way to understanding the intense emphasis in North Korean ideology on their independence, whether in terms of their national integrity, their position earlier in the global socialist revolution, or their autarkic economic policies. The nationalist connotations of Chuch'e developed in the late nineteenth century, when it was used as an antonym of the concept of "serving the great" (sadae), a term used originally to describe the interstate relationship between Korea and China during the Chosŏn period. In the twentieth century, sadaejuŭi (the "ism" of sadae) became synonymous with being subordinate to another, with being a toady. To have sadae consciousness means to worship the outside world while denigrating one's own culture. Chuch'e thus had come to mean an independent stance, in mind and in body, and in nationalist context it means to uphold the independence and integrity of the nation.

Chuch'e was a useful concept in creating distance with the early Soviet presence in North Korea, and later, during the time of extensive Soviet assistance in the rebuilding and first Five-year Plans, it was deployed to signal North Korean independence. The term, first elaborated by Kim Il Sung in 1955, moved to its central position during the 1960s as Kim maneuvered between his giant socialist neighbors during the Sino-Soviet split. By the 1970s Chuch' e thought had become so linked to the genius of the Great Leader that it literally became the "ism" of Kim Il Sung, as in "Kim Il Sung-ism."

In the polemical warfare between the two Koreas, the North's Chuch'e stance gave it an advantage over the South, especially in the first decades of division. The South was an economic dependent in the 1950s, and until the mid-1960s it relied heavily on American military protection. Although the North was also relatively dependent on the PRC and USSR in the early years, foreign troops withdrew after the Korean War, leaving the North to defend itself. To the North Koreans, the continuing presence of the US Eighth Army in the South has been proof of the ROK government's "slavish" dependence on outside power. The Chuch'e argument continued to resonate with opposition forces in South Korea into the 1980s, since they had from the start questioned the legitimacy of the ROK government and they railed against the continuing US military presence in the South. They pointed to the contrasting stance of the North and its resolute emphasis on autonomy. Whatever the facts may have been with regard to the North's actual independence, its consistent propaganda and its emphasis on national independence reminded all South Koreans of Korea's historical humiliations at the hands of imperialist and colonial powers.

Chuch'e has become the principle behind all government policy in the North, which, of course, has significant implications for economic policy. Indeed, in keeping with astrict adherence to independence in all matters, North Korea has developed perhaps the most autarkic economy in the world. Economic achievements are touted as successes based on self-reliance, and great pains were taken to seek internal solutions to economic problems. The story of the creation of the synthetic fiber "vynalon" by North Korean scientists using indigenous raw materials (in this case limestone) became an often-repeated morality tale of technological self-reliance in state propaganda. Where indigenous capital was scarce or other inputs unobtainable inside the country, the state resorted to exhortation and mobilization of the innate creativity of the masses. Thus all problems, technical or otherwise, are solvable if the people retain a staunch consciousness of Chuch'e. Such a stance inhibits overtures to the outside world for the economic or technical assistance the North now desperately needs to solve its economic woes. With the principle of Chuch'e inviolate, the state finds itself in its own straitjacket. And as we will see below, the new policies that have created zones for foreign investment, initiatives to find foreign capital, and, most obviously, accepting foreign food aid during the 1995 famine are issues that must be justified in terms of the unitary logic of self-reliance.

At its most abstract, Chuch'e operates as a code word for North Korean identity itself. Thus holding a consciousness of Chuch'e is to have a North Korean subjectivity. Some speculate that Kim Il Sung developed the idea in reaction to the vague and virtually indefinable concept of kokutai (kukch'e in Korean) used to evoke "national essence" in Japanese ideology before 1945. All North Koreans are enjoined to hold Chuch'e in their minds and hearts, as only in so doing will their actions be appropriate. Since Chuch'e is the leader's core inspiration, all his subjects carry the leader in their hearts when they hold fast a consciousness of Chuch'e. Just as the emperor embodied the essence (kokutai) of the nation in pre-World War II Japan, so does the leader, now Kim Jong Il, embody the very essential principle that guides all thought and action in North Korea today.
SOURCE: Korea's Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A Short History, by Michael E. Robinson (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2007), pp. 158-161

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