The Juche Myth: A Response to Haggard

B.R. Myers



The following is a guest post by B.R. Myers in response to Steph Haggard's two part review of Myers' book North Korea's Juche Myth. Haggard's review can be found here and here

B.R. Myers

I appreciate the review from Witness to Transformation and the opportunity to respond to a number of points that may be of interest to students of North Korea. 

First, I don’t think the regime is preaching in the inner track an ideology it does not believe. One does not grow up in such a mythology, even with opportunities for travel, and remain immune to it. I see a comparably uncritical acceptance of nationalist myth even among the most cosmopolitan South Koreans.

Second, if a leader has the choice between regarding himself as a fraud or a messiah, he will regard himself as the latter, especially when others confirm him in that delusion every day. A man would have to be both brave and reflective (a rare combination) to read himself ruthlessly under such conditions. Whatever self-effacing export-propaganda Kim Jong Il dished out to visiting Americans and South Koreans is beside the point. The rest of the elite will be just as willing to sun itself in the light of official myth.

We just need to keep in mind that ideological conviction can go hand in hand with conscious lying about many things; look at the Jesuits. Real faith can go with corruption too, as it did in the Third Reich.  

Many Americans think the regime’s indifference to its subjects’ welfare gives the lie to its nationalism, but love of the nation is quite different from concern for actual citizens. In 1945 Hirohito was unmoved by the skyrocketing number of dead Japanese; it was fear for his own bloodline — the essence of the race, as he saw it — that induced him to surrender.

More importantly: North Korea’s ideology provides the only context that makes sense of its behavior. The nuclear program has passed the stage at which one could regard its ultimate goal as anything less momentous than unification under its own terms. I.R. scholars of a “realist” bent, who refuse to take ideologies seriously, are welcome to focus on the threat to the North’s security instead. It is primarily an internal threat — of a slow, inexorable cooling of public support — but the elimination of the South is the only solution to it.

In the West, if not in South Korea, I encounter resistance to such assertions. A unification drive must mean war, which must mean the annihilation of North Korea, as the regime must be aware: that’s the prevailing logic in the USA in particular. It’s faulty in each three of those assumptions, but particularly the first. The regime cannot negotiate its way to unification in one fell swoop, but it can hope to bully or grand-bargain its way through quite a few intermediary stages when the left returns to the Blue House. (The likely first stages: resumption of unconditional aid, some re-drawing of the NLL, and, to Western applause, abolition of the National Security Law.)

Whether the North can really make it all the way to US troop withdrawal, confederation and “final victory” in such fashion is another question. It does not necessarily need to, so long as it can make steady enough progress down the road in that direction.

Those who reject such an interpretation need to explain how any of the more benign — and more America-centric — goals now commonly attributed to North Korea could solve its security and legitimation crises in the long term. I marvel at the ongoing currency of the notion that the DPRK’s end goal is guaranteed preservation of its current state of Yankee-imposed truncation. Now that’s wishful thinking.

As you point out, the inner track touches upon all manner of topics, but the same could be said of the official culture in Nazi Germany. Far-right propaganda always covers more thematic ground than the communist kind, and accommodates a higher portion of pseudo-apolitical entertainment than Orwell imagined. Vilification of the race enemy is hardly incessant; as Jacques Ellul pointed out, such stuff must be done sparingly if it is not to bore people. The ideology is always there though, even (as I explain in The Cleanest Race) in syrupy landscape paintings or tales of young love. The vision of “final victory” hovers over everything in North Korea.

Let me move on to the subject of self-reliance. One can say a lot about a state that has always relied on foreign aid for its very survival. What one cannot attribute to it is a commitment to radical self-reliance. This is simple common sense of a kind to which we should never have let the Juche Myth blind us. We can talk of North Korea’s obsession with isolation, or its refusal to let patrons push it around, or its yearning for respect, but those are different matters. Note also that this regime spent billions importing luxury sedans and monument-building materials in the middle of that famine you wrote about. So we can hardly talk of an ideological opposition to imports in general.

Like George Washington, Kim Il Sung knew that one cannot pursue liberation and self-reliance at the same time. The race must be set free by any means necessary, even if it means calling in a foreign army. Self-reliance can come later, after the more important goal has been reached.

The East Bloc archives thus attest to the North’s unembarrassed mooching for aid from all possible sources, including poorer countries. As Szalontai writes somewhere, the foreigners’ largesse confirmed the North Koreans in their belief that it was a form of tribute. When help is seen in that light, why try to do without it?

Of course North Korea was always alert to the propaganda benefits of pretending to autarchy. Back when South Korean public opinion still seemed up for grabs, it spent a lot of foreign money on building its “own” machinery factories. We all know how useless most of them turned out to be, and how little sustained interest was brought to bear on such matters.  

Still, most if not all militarist states of limited means have to impose austerity on their subjects, and they usually do so under the more inspiring banner of autarchy or self-reliance. North Korea is a typical case. Even in many anecdotes attributed to the leaders, it is clear that slogans like charyŏk kaengsaeng or “Kanggye spirit” are just euphemisms for belt-tightening. In one short story Kim Jong Il tells people to overcome the fertilizer shortage by using less of the stuff! In short, I see little in inner-track propaganda that cannot be interpreted as an effort to keep non-military expenditures to a minimum. Perhaps I should say non-nuclear, non-ballistic; the foot soldier is as neglected as anyone else.

Which does not mean there is no self-reliance on display. Many neglected sectors have responded to austerity pressures with a measure of real innovativeness, real charip. But to claim that such clusterings of forced self-reliance have reflected North Korea’s main ideological mission, which a strong military has been there only to safeguard, is to confuse causes and effects. It means getting the country’s priorities dangerously wrong.

You imply that North Korean officials conveyed to you some serious interest in self-reliance as a virtue in itself. Are you sure these officials were not just putting a heroic face on necessary austerities, or on their need to maintain isolation, to impede transparency? Were they really trying to wean themselves off some sort of unconditional outside aid, even where it might have been available? If memory serves, it was your book that informed me of how the regime used to reduce its investment in agriculture in accordance with the amount of food aid received. Have you seen a change in that sort of attitude? It would be ironic if the regime were becoming more self-reliant now that lip service to Juche is on the wane.  

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