Book Review: North Korea’s Juche Myth

Myers has taken an odd approach to writing about North Korean politics: originally a literary critic and expert on North Korean literature, he has turned to analyzing North Korean propaganda more broadly in his 2010 work, The Cleanest Race which seeks to describe the governing ideology of North Korea. He published his most recent book, North Korea’s Juche Myth, this past August as a follow-up and expansion of some of the concepts of The Cleanest Race. Both pieces advance some of the same ideas, claiming that most observers of the DPRK describe it as having one of three ideologies: communism; Juche, an indigenous ideology of self-reliance; or none, believing that ideology no longer matters in North Korea. The DPRK has not officially espoused communism since the 1990s, so most academics who study North Korea fall into the latter two camps (Juche or none). B. R. Myers believes that Juche is a smokescreen, designed to hide the fact that racial nationalism, inspired by the imperial Japanese occupation, is what motivates the DPRK government.

Myers argues that it is important not to fall for the “Juche myth” because thinking that the North Korean government is primarily motivated by a desire for self-reliance might suggest that the North Korean regime, in its current state, would be content with both a detente with the United States and with relinquishing its claim to be the only legitimate government of the Korean people. In particular, Myers disagrees with the assertion by Bruce Cummings, an American scholar of Korean history, that the DPRK wants the United States to stay involved and “to keep the South from swallowing it [North Korea].” Instead, Myers holds that North Korean racial nationalism means that the government will continue to derive legitimacy from opposition to the United States, which it sees as occupying the South and upholding a puppet regime there.

juche_wikimediaWhile The Cleanest Race focuses on criticism of North Korean propaganda, Juche Myth is more of a historical work. In The Cleanest Race, Myers had set out to explain his views of North Korean ideology as being racially nationalistic, and also maternalistic rather than paternalistic in nature, with the Dear Leader as a much-needed protector of the morally pure Koreans who can not survive in the world without a strong leader. Juche Myth is more of an academic work, employing a wide variety of Korean-language academic writing and news media to take on the specific task of refuting the claim that that Juche has been a real governing ideology for the DPRK.

Myers disagrees with many Western observers of the DPRK, including Columbia University’s own Charles Armstrong, professor of history, that Juche-as-ideology began in a speech given by Kim Il-sung in 1955. The Korean word Juche literally means “subject,” and Myers maintains that Kim Il-sung’s 1950s and 60s references to “the subject” are simply Kim’s description of how he is applying the theory of Marxism-Leninism to the Korean nation, rather than the establishment of a new ideology. Accordingly, while Armstrong in his 2013 Tyranny of the Weak translates part of the title of Kim’s 1955 speech as “Establishing Juche in Ideological Work,” Myers uses “Establishing the Subject in Ideological Work.” Myers prefers to translate the word juche directly, believing that it makes the concept seem less foreign and more banal, much the way he says that it seems to most Koreans. Myers explains that what Kim meant by “Establishing the Subject” is not the establishment of a new ideology, but simply the application of Marxism-Leninism to the local context, as was the norm in all Communist Bloc countries. This local context is “subjective,” in the sense of something that is not universal, explaining why the North Koreans used the word “subject” frequently in their discussions of applying Communist ideology to North Korea.

In covering the history of Juche, Myers shows how Juche-as-ideology eventually evolved out of a desire to put space between the DPRK and the rest of the Communist bloc. For a couple decades, however, North Korea was only nominally aligned with the USSR: “Until about 1960 the regime hewed to an obsequiously pro-Soviet line in the outer track while espousing a moralizing, Kim-centric blood-nationalism in the inner one. The Russians should have seen all this coming when they put a minor ex-guerilla in power with instructions to keep his years in the Red Army a secret.” Myers points out that racial nationalism was inevitable, given the recent experience with Japanese fascism. Juche as an ideology, or at least the smokescreen of an ideology, gradually grew in importance as the country developed a Kim-centered personality cult and needed something to point to as the product of Kim Il-sung’s ingenuity, not just a Soviet import.

North Korea’s Juche Myth is a highly opinionated book that makes a compelling case for its own interpretation of Juche, although it expects its readers to be somewhat familiar with the basics of North Korean history and, with its singular focus on ideology, is best suited for students and scholars of East Asian politics. The Cleanest Race is a more accessible and generalist work than Juche Myth, and if you are not well-versed in North Korea, you should read The Cleanest Race first. That said, the publication of Juche Myth should draw attention back to Myers’ contrarian arguments about the nature of the North Korean regime, which deserve to be taken seriously by anyone interested in the DPRK. The received consensus is that North Korea is only concerned with self-reliance and maintaining its own security, and with the right diplomacy might establish good relations with the United States and relinquish its claims on the South. If that consensus is wrong, the United States should rethink its entire strategy towards North Korea