Ideological Center of North

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

The North Korean press insists that the “great and immortal” juche idea was designed by the “Great Leader,” Kim Il-sung, in the mid-1920s and has remained the guiding principle of the Korean revolution ever since. But do not expect to find references to juche in Korean publications of the 1950s or even early 1960s.

Even if Kim Il-sung first used the term in his speech in December 1955, it took at least five years before the term became widely known in the country _ and five more years for it to become the name of North Korea’s official ideology.

Only in April 1965, while delivering a lengthy lecture in Indonesia, did Kim Il-sung make it clear that from that point on juche would be considered the basic principle of North Korean ideological policy.

The North Korean leadership badly needed a new ideology in 1965. Why? This was the year when the dispute between the Soviet Union and China reached new heights. The two communist powers had been quarrelling for some time, but from 1965 to 1970 the two countries, which had recently vowed “eternal friendship,” were on the brink of war.

North Korea wisely decided to maintain neutrality, allowing it to milk both sponsors. But in the heavily ideological world of oldstyle communism one needed a theoretical justification for one’s position, even if this position was taken exclusively on account of pragmatic considerations (sounds like academia, doesn’t it?).

Nothing could be as handy as a new ideology, especially since the North had been drifting away from Soviet-style Leninism for some time. A locally designed juche was a good solution to the ideological conundrum.

It was easy to say that North Korea had discovered a new truth that was, needless to say, superior to the truth of Sovietstyle Leninism or Chinese-style Leninism-plus-Maoism. Hence, being bearers of the supreme truth, Koreans could not be ordered around.

But what exactly were the relations between juche and Marxism? For our readers this might appear a rather scholastic question, but the world of communism was based on ideology, and ideological disputes mattered. Of course, communist leaders had long learned how to bend their ideology and how to adjust its postulates to any given current political purpose.

In this regard, they were no different from leaders of supposedly religious states, whose actual policy was not too constrained by their loudly professed faith.

Nonetheless, some explanations had to be invented.

Until the late 1960s, juche was presented as a specific form of Marxism-Leninism, which suited the Korean realities and demands of the Korean communist revolution. It was not separated from Marxism. This explanation found its way into the North Korean constitution of 1972. Article 4 described juche as “a creative application of Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of our country.”

The next step in juche’s development took place around 1974 and was perhaps related to the gradual rise of Kim Jong-il. It has been often stated that Kim Jongil introduced new interpretations of juche because he wanted to flatter his father, the founder of juche, and thus demonstrate his loyalty to Kim Il-sung’s cause.

Whatever the reasons, in 1974 some documents signed by Kim Jong-il but actually written by the administration’s chief theoretician, Hwang Jang-yop (currently in Seoul), began to use the term “kimilsungism” as a synonym for juche. In February 1974, Kim Jong-il explained that the works of Marx and Lenin had become outdated.

They described the world as it was 100 or 50 years ago, while juche was suited for the modern world, they argued. Thus, in 1980 the Korean Workers’ Party proclaimed juche the party’s guiding ideology, without mentioning its relationship to Marxism.

That statement doubtless resonated well with the nationalism of Korean cadres because it essentially placed North Korea at the ideological center of the world. Since then, the nationalist element of juche has been increasingly emphasized.

That position was also an open challenge to orthodoxy as understood in Moscow and Beijing. It was as if a local Catholic bishop proclaimed that he had a better grasp of the Holy Scriptures than the pope (or, to take the analogy a bit further, two quarrelling popes) and was able to devise something like a Newest Testament.

These statements made juche-worshipping North Koreans into open heretics within the communist camp, but other “fraternal countries” had to swallow this: Whatever they said, strategic considerations took precedence over ideology. Nobody wanted to alienate Pyongyang, which had been long seen as a strangebehaving sibling of the communist “family.”

However, this family unity did not last. In 1992, the newly amended North Korean constitution completely omitted references to Marxism-Leninism and replaced it with juche as the sole official ideology. Nobody was outraged.

By that time Leninism was patently dead, and even the few countries that still maintained a commitment to that ideology hardly took their own declarations seriously.

However, after the death of Kim Il-sung there were some signs that the significance of the juche idea began to wane.


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