In his new book, B.R Myers challenges the notion that Juche is the ruling ideology of the regime in Pyongyang and asserts that Juche was never central to the North Korean leadership’s policymaking. This is a point that Myers made in his previous book, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (2010). But with North Korea’s Juche Myth, Myers seeks to once and for all end discussion of Juche, typically described as a doctrine of radical self-reliance, as the true guiding light of the Kim family regime and expose it as a smokescreen for North Korea’s real ideology: paranoid, race-based, ultra nationalism.
Myers argues that the West’s misunderstanding of Juche has been harmful to our interpretation of North Korean actions. Instead of viewing the DPRK as a state focused on unification of the Korean race, Westerners have interpreted North Korea as a failed communist state that desperately clings to self-reliance in an age of globalization. Myers sees this misunderstanding of Juche as not only harmful but dangerous as it results in the West’s misguided hope for reform in the DPRK or a thaw in relations between the DPRK and the United States.
Myers sees this misunderstanding of Juche as not only harmful but dangerous as it results in the West’s misguided hope for reform
Using a chronological framework, Myers investigates the DPRK’s ideological history from the period of Soviet occupation before the Korean War to the present day. Myers begins with the establishment of a multi-track discourse in postcolonial northern Korea. According to Myers, Kim Il Sung publically pursued a pro-Soviet line that did not deviate from the communist orthodoxy while promoting an inner track that preached race-based nationalism. Myers sees Kim’s supposedly watershed 1955 Juche speech as nothing more than going along with the styles of the international communist movement at the time, which allowed the application of Marxism-Leninism to national conditions. In the 1960s, Myers argues that Kim did not assert Juche as a new ideology but rather used it to position himself as a middle ground between the “revisionist” Soviets and the “dogmatic” Chinese.
During the 1970s and 1980s, North Korea exported the Juche ideology abroad, in the form of research institutes, study groups and conferences in an attempt to boost the international profile of Kim Il Sung. On pg. 133 Myers writes that, “Juche was not meant to become a political force overseas either.” Myers sees a decline in the lip service paid to Juche by the North Korean regime in the 1990s and 2000s. Replacing Juche in official North Korean texts, “Military-First Thought” took center stage. Myers concludes that North Korea, under Kim Jong Un, has ramped up its militaristic rhetoric and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that North Korea is not guided by Juche but rather a crude, race-based nationalism.
At times, Myers makes broad, sweeping statements that go beyond the range of evidence available. For example, on pg. 64, Myers states, “To this day the average person in the DPRK is profoundly ignorant of his cultural heritage.” Myers tries to back up this claim in his footnotes by making an anecdotal reference to the regime trying to impress foreign tourists with traditional architecture or paintings. For such a broad claim, Myers comes up short with evidence. Myers also says, on pg. 23, that North Korea scholars have increasingly self-censored their work for the sake of visas. I highly doubt most North Korea scholars are itching to get to Pyongyang in order to conduct research. Independent research in the DPRK remains a dream, so why would academics self-censor for this purpose?
In being a corrective text to, what Myers calls, the “Juche orthodoxy,” North Korea’s Juche Myth sharply criticizes a large number of influential North Korea scholars and experts. But, what is the “Juche orthodoxy?” Scholars have had a wide variety of opinions when it comes to North Korea’s Juche ideology. Lumping these varied opinions into a single category seems like a classic case of knocking down a straw man.
Unlike an ideology, a value does not have to define a system but can remain in the backdrop as a principle in which most believe
Myers convincingly refutes the idea that Juche is the blueprint for the regime in Pyongyang. However, Juche can be convoluted and still be a value, not an ideology or a smokescreen, for most North Koreans. Unlike an ideology, a value does not have to define a system but can remain in the backdrop as a principle in which most believe. In a roundtable book review of Charles Armstrong’s book, Tyranny of the Weak, Steven Denney raises the question as to whether Juche is similar to the idea of American Exceptionalism. Armstrong responds, “ Juche Thought is indeed comparable to ‘American Exceptionalism’ in the U.S., a baseline of value rather than a well-defined ideology.” The idea of American Exceptionalism exists in the American consciousness but it does not guide policymaking in Washington.
Juche operates in a similar fashion in Pyongyang. It is hard to argue that most North Koreans do not see their nation as exceptional in some way. According to a 2014 Chosun Ilbo survey of 100 North Korean civilians legally living in China, 65 percent of respondents said that they are “exceedingly proud” or moderately proud” of North Korea’s Juche ideology. While North Korean texts on Juche may certainly be a “stodgy jumble of banalities,” as Myers asserts, it does not mean that North Koreans see Juche as simply a “sham doctrine.”
Despite these criticisms, North Korea’s Juche Myth makes some important contributions to the field of North Korean studies. First, it takes North Korean propaganda seriously. While some scholars eschew North Korean materials as simply meaningless propaganda, Myers sees North Korean materials as an informative primary source that allows the outside world to view the messages that the North Korean state sends to its own people. Myers separates North Korean discourse into three tracks: the inner track (for solely domestic consumption), the outer track (for domestic and foreign consumption) and the export track (for solely foreign consumption). Myers is one of the few (if only) scholars to highlight the different tracks of North Korean propaganda and the influence this has had on the West’s (mis)understanding of North Korean ideology.
Second, North Korea’s Juche Myth focuses on North Korea’s ideology, a topic that has previously received little attention in North Korean studies. Articles related to human rights, military capabilities and nuclear issues dominate the discourse while scholarship investigating North Korea’s ideology remains limited. If the outside world continues to misunderstand North Korea’s rhetoric and actions then how can international policymakers approach and handle these specific issues? Finally, Myers’ characteristically clear and jargon-less writing style, which is sometimes lacking in the field of Korean studies, makes the text accessible to the general public who are interested in North Korean ideology.
North Korea’s Juche Myth is an important, if controversial, book that investigates Juche’s (un)importance within the North Korean political system. Since the book was well written, well researched, and deserving of a contract with an academic press, I was left wondering why the book was self-published and an explanation of this was absent in the book. Nonetheless, scholars of modern Korea should read North Korea’s Juche Myth, which will hopefully lead to new and innovative scholarship on the history of North Korean ideology.
For a different take on North Korea’s Juche Myth by Gianluca Spezza, click here.
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Featured Image: Tower of Juche Idea, Pyongyang, North Korea by yeowatzup on 2008-09-25 13:40:59