When discussing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea we have a tendency to obsess over images of colorful parades, mass games and relayed grainy images of missiles being launched into a technicolor sky. Cut to Hillary Clinton wearing an awkward coat and peering through a Soviet-era pair of binoculars and you have your average formulaic bit of reportage on North Korea, set to a soundtrack of revolutionary music whilst an “analyst” explains why the state is a threat and why Kim Jong Un is too young to prevent it from collapsing.
But all we actually know about Kim Jong Un is that he’s young, he’s a bit fat, and he looks like his Grandfather. How, exactly, we use these facts to ascertain what policy decisions he may or may not make remains a mystery that few seem to be trying to solve.
Too often, we try to understand what is a fundamentally multi-dimensional state of affairs through a very one-dimensional lens. For example, the fact that North Korea regularly pursues foreign investment is often dismissed as a laughable contradiction of its core ideology of “Juche” which we tend to translate as “self-reliance” in English.
However, Juche sasang or 주체사상 [主體思想] is frequently criticized by the outside, defended by the inside, but rarely defined. Like any faith or system of thinking, it was born out of a particular culture, at a particular time, for a particular set of circumstances.
Just to what extent Juche defines the DPRK and its regional relations is highly debatable. Our English translation of “self-reliance” is often banded about in foreign media and taken quite literally to mean isolationism, a completely internalized economy and a hostile stance to the outside world. Yet dig just a little deeper and it quickly becomes evident that this translation, whilst not entirely wrong, is nevertheless incomplete. Not only would most North Koreans actively encourage trade with the “outside world,” others would laugh at the prospect of not pursuing foreign investment and international ties.
Most Juche-related literature from Pyongyang that is available to foreigners talks only of the origins of Juche, how it is implemented or how it should be implemented. Yet, whilst Juche is indeed not easy to concretely define, it’s important to at least try to understand its mechanics.
There are three “core principles” to Juche, perhaps better represented by the Sino-Korean words: chaju 자주 [自主] meaning “political independence” charip 자립 [自立] which refers to“economic self-reliance” (lit. “standing by oneself”) and chawi 자위 [自衛] which calls for “self-defense.” By adding charip and chawi to our own definition of “self-reliance” that seems to only incorporate charip, we can at least start to have a bit more of a broader interpretation of how Juche affects North Korea’s diplomatic and political positioning.
In addition to these three buzzwords, the closest thing we can get to a relevant definition is perhaps a line from a late 1980’s publication entitled On the Juche Idea attributed to the late Kim Jong Il that says: “the Juche idea is based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and [therefore] decides everything” This, coupled with the three concepts above suggest little more than a concrete desire to assert Korea’s independence from a history of external control. (Note: I do not subscribe, nor support any of these ideas, I am merely trying to explain why they might matter to the North Korean people).
Indeed, what matters is not how Juche is defined but in what context it evolved and why it became entrenched in the North Korean national identity. In a field of competing ideologies, it seems to be born more out of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism based on a history of failed independence movements that never succeeded in re-gaining control of a colonized Korean peninsula.
Even after “liberation” from Japanese rule, the “liberators” were in fact the allied powers, not the Koreans themselves. It should therefore hardly be surprising that a little bit of the post 1945 nation building on both sides of the Korean peninsula might try to entrench some form of ideological independence from foreign powers at the core of their regimes.
When viewed through this lens, the manner in which North Korean society acts and functions starts to make a little bit more sense. Too often both outside observers and the North Koreans themselves become bogged down in a frequently fruitless debate in trying to define Juche when its raison d’etre can be somewhat understood with a little bit of knowledge of the history of the Korean peninsula and its post-colonial nation-building process.
The same can be said of the structure of the North Korean government. For example, in his popular book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, author Brian Myers quite passionately, and convincingly, makes the argument that the sole legitimizing factor of the DPRK government is anti-Americanism. A former literary critic with a background in East-German and Soviet studies, Myers draws on his own scholarly training and a comparatively thin selection of sources to reach fairly large and sweeping conclusions that paint a picture of a state that is coherent, united and, above all, populated with a people that firmly believes in its propaganda.
But anyone familiar with the the DPRK, its people and its systems of government will know that the state is not as unified as it would like itself to appear and its citizens are not all brain-washed robots, desperate to kill an imperialist at the drop of a hat. Even some of the most faithful Christian believers don’t necessarily take the gospel literally.
Myers’ is not wrong –– his work is excellent, and I would encourage anyone to read it –– but it is frequently quoted in Western press as an authoritative source on the nature of North Korean government. The image he constructs is incomplete: whilst anti-Americanism does partially legitimize some actions of the DPRK government, he simplifies a highly complex state of affairs by choosing to look only at propaganda.
As Patrick McEachern points out in Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-totalitarian Politics, the DPRK is not as one-dimensional as it seems and by no means is its government a unified body. Too often, idealistic Party hardliners dominate diplomatic and political discourse when, behind the scenes, North Korean diplomats are using comparatively measured language and strive to operate a relatively pragmatic foreign policy. Yet it is more readable books like the Cleanest Race that still seem to dominate high-level debate at a political and media level whilst the valuable lessons of McEachern’s work receive comparatively little attention.
It is important to remember that these stories are often dictated by the demand of the market. Stories of famine and starvation are popular reading, stories of people going to the library or playing in the park are not. In any case, where there is even the slightest incentive to sensationalize a story for the publishing market, a selective truth may emerge and the more mundane aspects of normality may become overlooked. We’ve reached an odd level of surrealism when articles like this one that criticizes a firmly-established status quo could be seen as equally sensationalist. Again, to be clear, in no way do I suggest that these stories should not be told –– but they should be understood within the broader context within which they were written.
As I mention in my last article, it should be basic procedure in any analysis to seek a wide range of sources and critically assess them before reaching a conclusion. But, once again, little effort seems to be made to engage with the idea that, perhaps behind all that fanfare and marching there are still people living comparatively normal lives in North Korea.
Sadly, we never seem to toy with the idea that, within the “world’s largest prison camp” as it is so often labeled, there are normal people, living normal lives, doing normal jobs. Many may find this image of “normality” laughable. But an Alpine sheep farmer would probably find the fact you squeeze yourself onto the subway every morning and excite your heart with too much caffeine equally bizarre. Normality, in this sense, is forever a subjective concept. These “normal” people, of course, might not represent the majority. But, like it or not, they exist.
In fact, so much of what we know about daily life for normal citizens in the DPRK is based on the accounts of defectors. Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy promises to shed some light on “real lives in North Korea” yet it is entirely based on “seven years of conversations with North Koreans” – all of whom had defected, all of whom lived very grim lives. The book is a gripping read – a real page- turner and, again, to be clear to those who are highly likely to misinterpret my argument, it goes without saying that the stories of these people should not go untold.
But, despite Demick’s best attempts to bill the book as “primarily an oral history” and emphasize that most of this takes place during a catastrophic famine, those that read it still come away with the general impression that this is what life for all North Koreans must be like and it therefore shapes our debate and affects our ability to engage with the regime. Written about the 1990s but released a decade later in 2010, why are we drawing contemporary conclusions on a bygone era?
By no means does this go to suggest that the plight of defectors should be ignored. They provide us with a valuable insight into North Korean society and certainly help develop our understanding. The danger only arises if we try to paint a picture of daily lives in North Korea solely on these accounts.
Just like you and I, North Koreans eat, sleep, drink and breathe. They fall in and out of love. Some have girlfriends and boyfriends that they keep secret from their parents – not from the fear of an Orwellian state-reprisal, but from teenage embarrassment. Others are late for work and get frustrated with their superiors. When they have one, they slap the side of the television when it stops working and they are proud of their children’s achievements. Well-heeled girls in the North will obsess about coordinating their handbags with their outfits, just as their cousins do in the South. So often, there is a human element of life behind the last slither of the iron curtain that we neglect to engage with, either because we obsess with the actions of the state or we dismiss any attempts by the regime to relay images of North Korean normality by Pyongyang as misguided propaganda.
We laugh at Pyongyang’s universities sending its students into the countryside to work in the fields. But we rarely stop and consider the possibility that, for many North Korean students in the capital, they view such a program as something to look forward to; a weekend away from studying, encouraged by a sense of patriotic duty that, yes, has probably been indoctrinated into them. But, then again, perhaps some of us were unaware that our misspent youth as a scout or girl guide tying knots and staring fires was actually to prepare us for a future war with a yet-to-be-invented enemy.