Part 2 of 6 in our Inside the Hermit Kingdom series about the people and culture of North Korea. Ben Piven is a multimedia producer at Worldfocus who went to North Korea in August. He writes about the isolated Communist nation’s Juche state religion.
North Korea is a Cold War relic, but its communist roots alone do not explain the widespread adoption of the ideology knows as Juche — essentially a hybrid of East Asian Confucianism and East European Stalinism.
Despite the fact that state literature decrees “man is the master of all things,” Juche (“self-reliance” in Korean) is relentlessly collectivist.
Juche emphasizes rigid hierarchical authority and the harmonious arrangement of highly deferential individuals. Economic independence and military self-defense are its primary goals.
Juche is the main philosophical component of the political system known as Kimilsungism, which emerged from the leadership of Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung.
The Kim Il-sung cult overshadows reverence for Kim Jong-il, whose image is scarcely seen on monuments. Scholars debate whether Juche qualifies as a religion, but the North Korean government certainly permits worship of no other gods.
Omnipresent Juche obelisks and Kim Il-sung immortality towers memorialize the “eternal president” who died in 1994 after almost a half-century in power. His portrait adorns every major public space, as Mao and Stalin’s did in their respective societies.
But subordination to the dead emperor is more theocratic than in Maoism and Stalinism. Pyongyang is Juche’s Jerusalem, and Kim’s birthplace, Mangyongdae, is the North Korean Bethlehem. His presidential palace, Kumsusan, is a sprawling compound with intimidating right angles and exquisite marble interiors, where his body lies in state – like Mao in Tian’anmen Square.
North Korean society is organized into groups. Citizens rarely do anything alone, and there is no concept of pluralism. Self-esteem and personal confidence come from conformity and compatibility with the Juche ideological framework.
The mass culture of North Korea is stunning due to its high level of coordination and the sheer numbers of participants in events such as the Arirang Games, the mass games spectacle involving over 100,000 performers — including 20,000 schoolchildren who form a human television.
Ironically, Pyongyang was the center of Korean Christianity prior to the Korean War, but currently religious freedom is limited to three Christian churches in the capital and a handful of state-run Buddhist temples. Pohyonsa, a Buddhist temple complex near Mt. Myohyang, is designated as #40 on the “national treasure” list. A vestige of once-flourishing Buddhism, the site is reminiscent of Holocaust memorials to extinct communities.
In the Hermit Kingdom, Juche trumps all.
– Ben Piven