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View more articles by Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Outside observers of North Korea have pondered for decades the exact roots of North Korea’s unique ideology of Juche. An ideology centered upon the concepts of the divinity of the Kim family and their mystical roots, as well as the racial purity and historic mission of the North Korean people, has drawn various comparisons. Some refer to North Korea as the last “Stalinist state,” seeking to intertwine Marxist ideology with a particularly harsh form of totalitarian government. Others look to Maoism and the chauvinistic personality cult which it promoted. Yet nothing seems to be an exact fit.
The dynastic aspects of the Kim family rule would be abhorrent to Karl Marx, representing the antithesis of what he championed – the abolition of feudalistic and capitalistic structures based upon family blood-lines, private property and inherited wealth. For, in a sense, all of North Korea is the private property of the Kim family, since all major decisions regarding resource distribution are reportedly based upon their exact dictates – as demonstrated by Kim Jong Un’s construction of a ski resort and dolphin aquarium in a country which still has widespread child malnourishment. Those persons – reportedly even including Kim Jong Un’s late uncle, Jang Song Thaek – who make resource distribution decisions independent of the Kim family’s wishes do so at their peril.
The only other nominal Communist leaders who reportedly sought to institutionalize family rule were Romania’s ill-fated Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu
Even Maoism at the height of its “little red book” fanaticism did not propose rule by inheritance, as was the modus operandi during dynastic rule in China. Mao offered no “little emperor” waiting in the wings – although one could argue that the putsch instigated by his widow Jiang Qing and the rest of the “Gang of Four” was an attempt to institute a Mao dynasty of sorts. The only other nominal Communist leaders who reportedly sought to institutionalize family rule were Romania’s ill-fated Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Their dynastic vision for their son Nicu ended abruptly when they were brought before a firing squad on Christmas Day in 1989. Ceausescu may have been inspired to embark on his own personality cult after visiting Pyongyang in 1978 and being feted by his ideological soul mate Kim Il Sung.
A DIVINE MANDATE?
The concept of the divine right of kings, which existed in variant forms in both East and West, also does not entirely explain the Kim family assertion of divinity. Rulers assumed and held power under “the mandate of heaven” or the anointing with sacred oil at the time of coronation (such as with the British monarch or the Holy Roman Emperor). These concepts, however, did not confirm actual divinity on the ruler. Korean monarchs drew their legitimacy from Confucian ideals regarding the natural order of human relationships – a ruler, like a father or a teacher was to be obeyed without question. Unlike the unconditional divine right that European monarchs enjoyed, however, celestial omens or natural disasters could always intercede to suddenly change “the mandate of heaven.”
The Korean people were aware, for example, that the very human General Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon Dynasty, coming to power in 1392 after a military coup directed against the 400-year-old Koryo Dynasty. It was a time of instability with a Mongol invasion and raids by Japanese pirates destabilizing the country. The “mandate of heaven” had indeed changed but Yi Seong-gye symbolized renewed power but not outright divinity.
A PURE BELIEF SYSTEM
The closest comparison to the concepts which underpin Kim family rule in North Korea may, in fact, be found in the state Shinto ideology that emerged in Japan, largely beginning with the Meiji restoration. Juche self-reliance echoes the Meiji restoration concept of Sonno joi – “revere the emperor and expel the barbarians.” Juche also reveres the Kim family and seeks to exclude foreign influence from North Korea.
The formal state Shinto system that emerged in Japan as a result of the Meiji restoration has surprising parallels in contemporary North Korea. State Shinto, as outlined in the Yushukan Museum in Tokyo, presented a historic mission for the pre-war Japanese population. That was to wage the Greater East Asia War (Dai To A Senso), based on the bushido system of samurai valor. It sought to liberate the more backward peoples of Asia from Western imperialism and to bring to them, through the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the modernization and economic benefits achieved by Meiji Japan. Juche’s mission, as outlined in museums in North Korea, is to continue the successful struggle which led to victory over Imperial Japan by opposing the American imperialists and re-unifying the mother country of Korea. Both ideologies presented their struggles as heroic ones demanding an “arduous march” of sacrifice by the people.
Another similarity is found in the xenophobic racial purity concepts outlined by B.R. Myers in his excellent study The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. These concepts are quite similar to state Shinto’s concept of the “Yamato people,” a racial group presented as being pure and superior to other Asian peoples. The two Chinese characters for this racial concept, whether Yamato minzoku or Joseon minjok, which might be translated as “people tribe,” carry some conceptual aspects similar to the word volk as used by the Third Reich to connote racial purity, superiority and exclusivity. This, in fact, helps to explain the reported killings of the babies of repatriated North Korean refugee women whose fathers were suspected to be Chinese.
Being a blood descendant of the founder of North Korea…confers legitimacy to rule
The very non-Marxist focus on the racial aspects of political legitimacy is further demonstrated in North Korea by the obsessive focus on the “Baekdu blood-line.” The Kim family bases a considerable amount of its legitimacy on the fact that its dynasty’s founder, Kim Il Sung, was an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter in the Baekdu (Baishan in Chinese) region of Manchuria on the Korean-Chinese border. Being a blood descendant of the founder of North Korea, therefore, confers legitimacy to rule.
But Mount Baekdu symbolized even more than that. Mount Baekdu is sacred to the Korean people – similar perhaps, to Mount Fuji for the Japanese people (both are currently inactive volcanoes.) Baekdu is where the ancestral founder of the Korean people, Tangun, emerged in the mists of time (the Manchu people also trace their ancestry to Mount Baekdu.) Thus, the concept of the Baekdu bloodline ties the Kim family to the mythological founder of Korea, just at the Japanese Imperial family is conceptually tied by lineage to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-omikami. A similar divinity to that which was attributed to the Japanese Emperor prior to the post-war constitution is thus conveyed upon Kim Il Sung and his descendants via the Baekdu blood-line. North Korean propaganda even made the effort of inventing the birth place of Kim Jong Il as being Mount Baekdu. This is in conflict with Russian records indicating that he was born in a Soviet military camp, where his father was stationed during part of World War II. This historic rewriting, however, indicates the symbolic importance of the mountain for North Korean ideology.
The degree of public adulation shown to the Great Leader, the Dear Leader and now Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, the placement of their photographs in homes and schools, and the deference with which objects associated with them are treated echo the Imperial Japanese public treatment of Emperor Hirohito both before and during the Pacific War. The scripted public appearances of the Kim family are also reflective of past Japanese imperial practice. Footage of an adoring North Korean public screaming Manse! (Ten thousand years!) for Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un recalls wartime scenes of Imperial Japanese troops shouting banzai for the Emperor (the Chinese characters for the Korean manse and the Japanese banzai are the same).
More extensive cultural roots for the current ideological system in North Korea, therefore, may be found in Imperial Japan rather than in Stalinist Russia, Maoist China or even the Joseon Dynasty Korea. Given the lingering anti-Japanese animosity, it is perhaps too easy to forget the significant cultural and philosophical impact Japan had on its Korean neighbor during its 35 years of colonial rule. In retrospect, it appears that some of the trappings of emperor-worship may have been transplanted as a result.