The most important questions regarding North Korea are the ones least often asked: What do the North Koreans believe? How do they see themselves and the world around them? Yes, we know the country has a personality cult, but this fact alone tells us little. Cuba has a personality cult too, yet the Castro regime espouses an ideology quite different from that of its counterpart in Pyongyang. On what grounds is the North Korean Leader so extravagantly acclaimed? What is the nature of his mission, and the purported destiny of his nation as a whole? Only through this sort of information can one begin to make sense of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), to use its formal name. It is unfortunate but by no means surprising that our news correspondents eschew such topics in order to return ad nauseum to the same monuments and mass games, the same girl directing traffic. More remarkable has been the extent to which academics, think-tank analysts and other Pyongyang watchers have neglected to study the worldview of the military-first regime. Regardless of their own political leanings (and North Korean studies remains marked by a sharp left-right divide), they have tended toward interpretations of the country in which ideology plays next to no role. Conservatives generally explain the dictatorship's behavior in terms of a cynical struggle to maintain power and privilege, while liberals prefer to regard the DPRK as a "rational actor," a country behaving much as any tiny country would in the face of a hostile superpower. Such interest as either camp can bring to bear on so-called soft issues exhausts itself in futile attempts to make sense of Juche Thought, a sham doctrine with no bearing on Pyongyang's policy-making
To be sure, the Western world is generally much less interested in ideology — for reasons that are themselves ideological — than it was during the Cold War. Most Americans know just as little about Islamism as they did before 9/11. But why is there more talk of ideological matters in any issue of Arab Studies Journal than in a dozen issues of North Korean Review? The obvious if undiplomatic answer is that most Pyongyang watchers do not understand Korean well enough to read the relevant official texts. But even scholars with the requisite language skills would rather research other topics, usually of a military, nuclear or economic nature. One colleague told me he finds the North Korean personality cult too absurd to take seriously; indeed, he doubts whether even the leadership believes it. But no regime would go to such enormous expense, year in, year out for sixty years, to inculcate into its citizens a worldview to which it did not itself subscribe. (The only institution in the country that did not miss a beat during the famine of the mid-1990s was the propaganda apparatus.) As for absurdity: the examples of Nazi Germany and Pol Pot's Cambodia show that a dictator and his subjects are capable of believing and acting upon ideas far more ridiculous than anything ever espoused by the Workers' Party. For all the hyperbole in which it is couched, and the histrionics with which it is proclaimed, North Korean propaganda is not nearly as outlandish as the uninitiated think. No matter what some American Christian groups might claim, divine powers have never been attributed to either of the two Kims. In fact, the propaganda apparatus in Pyongyang has generally been careful not to make claims that run directly counter to its citizens' experience or common sense. Granted, it has made museum exhibits out of chairs that Kim Il Sung rested on while visiting this factory or that farm, but there is no reason to doubt that he actually did sit on the things. (In most cases there is an authenticating photograph nearby.) This approach can be contrasted with that of Stalin's Soviet Union, or Mao's China, where propagandists were not quite so effusive or incessant in their praise of the leader, yet regularly made claims — of bumper harvests, for example — which everyone knew to be untrue.
While ignoring North Korean ideology, the West has assiduously, almost compulsively, added to its pile of "hard" information on the country. Much of this has come from experts in nuclear or economic studies. Aid workers have also contributed accounts of their experiences in the country. An international network of Google Earth users is busily identifying structures visible in aerial photographs. Despite all this, experts continue to describe North Korea as "puzzling," "baffling," a "mystery" — and no wonder. Hard facts cannot be put to proper use unless one first acquires information of a very different nature. If we did not know that Iran is an Islamic country, it would forever baffle us, no matter how good the rest of our intelligence might be.
Unfortunately a lack of relevant expertise has never prevented observers from mischaracterizing North Korean ideology to the general public. They call the regime "hard-line communist" or "Stalinist," despite its explicit racial theorizing, its strident acclamation of Koreans as the world's "cleanest" or "purest" race. They describe it as a Confucian patriarchy, despite its maternal authority figures, or as a country obsessed with self-reliance, though it has depended on outside aid for over sixty years. By far the most common mistake, however, has been the projection of Western or South Korean values and common sense onto the North Koreans. For example: Having been bombed flat by the Americans in the 1950s, the DPRK must be fearful for its security, ergo it must want the normalization of relations with Washington.
These various fallacies have combined to make the West worry less about North Korea's nuclear program than about Iran's. The word Confucianism makes us think of Singapore, Asian whiz-kids, and respect for the elderly; how much trouble can a Confucian patriarchy be? Self-reliance does not sound too dangerous either. Communism has a much less benign ring to it, of course, but if there is one thing we remember from the Cold War, it is that it ended peacefully. For fifteen years the perception of a communist North Korea has sustained the US government's hope that disarmament talks will work with Pyongyang as they did with Moscow. Only in 2009, after the Kim Jong Il regime defied the United Nations by launching a ballistic missile and conducting its second underground nuclear test, did a consensus begin to emerge that negotiations were unlikely ever to work. Yet the assumption prevails that the worst Pyongyang would ever do is sell nuclear material or expertise to more dangerous forces in the Middle East. All the while the military-first regime has been invoking kamikaze slogans last used by imperial Japan in the Pacific War.
In this book, therefore, I aim to explain North Korea's dominant ideology or worldview — I use the words inter- changeably — and to show how far removed it is from communism, Confucianism and the show-window doctrine of Juche Thought. Far from complex, it can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader. More must be added perhaps, if only to explain that "therefore" to an American reader, but not much more of importance. I need hardly point out that if such a race-based worldview is to be situated on our conventional left-right spectrum, it makes more sense to posit it on the extreme right than on the far left. Indeed, the similarity to the worldview of fascist Japan is striking. I do not, however, intend to label North Korea as fascist, a term too vague to be much use. It is enough for me to make clear that the country has always been, at the very least, ideologically closer to America's adversaries in World War II than to communist China and Eastern Europe. This truth alone, if properly grasped, will not only help the West to understand the loyalty shown to the DPRK by its chronically impoverished citizens, but also to understand why the West's policy of pursuing late Cold War-type solutions to the nuclear problem is doomed to fail.
What is more, this ideology has generally enjoyed the support of the North Korean people through good times and bad. Even today, with a rival state thriving next door, the regime is able to maintain public stability without a ubiquitous police presence or a fortified northern border. Sensationalist American accounts of the "underground railroad" helping North Korean "refugees" make it through China to the free world gloss over the fact that about half of these economic migrants — for that is what most of them are — voluntarily return to their homeland. The rest remain fervent admirers of Kim Il Sung if not of his son. Though we must never forget the men, women and children languishing in Yodôk and other prison camps, we cannot keep carrying on as if the dictatorship did not enjoy a significant degree of mass support. How significant? Enough to make the regime desperate to hold on to it. I intend to argue, however, that this support cannot be sustained for long, because what the masses are taught — especially in regard to South Korean public opinion — is coming increasingly into conflict with what they know to be true. It is the regime's awareness of a pending legitimacy crisis, not a fear of attack from without, which makes it behave ever more provocatively on the world stage.
The official worldview is not set out coherently in the leaders' writings. These are more often praised than read. So-called Juche Thought functions at most as an imposing row of book-spines, a prop in the personality cult. (A good way to embarrass one's minders in the DPRK is to ask them to explain it.) Unlike Soviet citizens under Stalin, or Chinese under Mao, North Koreans learn more about their leaders than from them. It is not in ideological treatises but in the more mass-oriented domestic propaganda that the official worldview is expressed most clearly and unselfconsciously. I stress the word domestic. Too many observers wrongly assume that the (North) Korean Central News Agency's English-language releases reflect the same sort of propaganda that the home audience gets. In fact there are significant differences. For example, where the DPRK presents itself to the outside world as a misunderstood country seeking integration into the international community, it presents itself to its own citizens (as I will show later) as a rogue state that breaks agreements with impunity, dictates conditions to groveling U.N. officials, and keeps its enemies in constant fear of ballistic retribution. Generally speaking the following rule of thumb applies: the less accessible a propaganda outlet is to the outside world, the blunter and more belligerent it will be in its expression of the racist orthodoxy.
How do you solve a problem like North Korea?
Don't ask Justin...
Just don't ask Jimmah and Bubba...