Juche (Self-Reliance) on Translation

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

Many people know that the official North Korean ideology is called “juche.” But what exactly does this term mean? Furthermore, when and how did it develop?

If we look at a reference book, we will probably come across a statement like “juche or self-reliance, the official ideology of North Korea, was first promulgated by Kim Il-sung in 1955.” While not completely wrong, this definition needs a lot of qualifications.

Indeed, December 1955 was the first instance of Kim Il-sung mentioning the term “juche.” North Korean publications remain vague to this day in describing exactly who Kim Il-sung addressed with his “juche speech,” but contemporaneous Soviet materials seemingly indicate that this was not just a meeting of “Party propaganda workers”, but a gathering of the KWP high-level functionaries who came to listen to Kim’s denunciations of the country’s excessive dependence on the Soviet models in culture and ideology.

However, the “juche speech” can be seen as a starting point in the history of the term only with some major caveats. The 1955 speech remained secret for the next few years, but it was distributed among party cadres, including journalists. Having scrutinized the North Korean newspapers from that period in depth, and being acquainted with the text of the speech, I have seen a number of hidden quotations circa 1956. However, the word `juche’ did not feature prominently in these quotations. In fact, it was hardly mentioned at all. For the journalists and propagandists, the key words of Kim’s speech were `dogmatism’ and `formalism’ which hinted at the excessive use of foreign, that is to say Soviet and Chinese, methods. In 1956 or 1957 nobody, including probably Kim Il Sung himself, thought that juche was going to become the name of the country’s official secular faith.

And what does `juche’ mean? Contrary to the commonly repeated idea, it has nothing to do with `self-reliance’. Juche is a Sino-Korean word, a combination of two Chinese characters that are used in all languages of the region. It means `subject’ or `one’s own identity’. When it was first used in 1955, Kim Il Sung meant that Koreans must assert their identity more aggressively against foreign pressures.

If so, where did the descriptive pseudo-translation of `self-reliance’ come from? In the early 1960s juche began to be re-defined as North Korea’s (or Kim Il-sung’s) own ideology. This happened against the backdrop of the growing Sino-Soviet split. Facing two quarrelling giants, North Korean began to advance its own brand of Marxism-Leninism, one that was allegedly superior to both the Soviet “revisionist” and Chinese “dogmatist” interpretations. At this stage juche was still interpreted as a local form of Marxism, or as a “creative application of the eternal truth of Marxism-Leninism to the North Korean reality.” Thus, juche began to acquire new dimensions and meanings.

This process culminated in April 1965 when Kim Il Sung delivered a lengthy speech in Indonesia. This speech was the first attempt to present the juche idea as a coherent ideology of worldwide significance. At that stage, it mostly targeted Third World countries. Kim Il Sung stressed that juche implied “independence in politics, self-reliance in the economy, self-defence in the military.” Hence, it was from that broadened understanding that the now commonly used “translation” of juche as “self-reliance” probably originated.

However, juche is more than self-reliance. In fact, it has much greater connotations with nationalism, and in later years when economic self-reliance, once much trumpeted in Pyongyang, went out of fashion, the nationalistic essence of juche became even more visible.

In 1972, juche acquired formal standing as the country’s official ideology. Article 4 of the new Constitution mentioned it alongside Marxism-Leninism as the `guiding ideology’ of the DPRK. Marxism survived _ not least due to diplomatic considerations. An open demotion of Marxism-Leninism would definitely trigger serious friction with fellow Communist countries, and thus Marxism temporarily lived on as an appendix to the North Korean state. Only in 1992, after the demise of the Communist bloc, was the reference to Marxism dropped, and juche remained the sole ideological foundation of the DPRK.

Frankly, I am sceptical when my colleagues try to explain North Korea’s actual policies as reflections of juche ideas. The definition of juche has changed so many times that it has essentially become a meaningless label encompassing everything the Kims’ considered useful or praiseworthy at any given stage of the country’s history. Perhaps, only the nationalist component has remained unchanged. But that is another story altogether.


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