North Korea has been variously described as a “Communist” state, a “Cold War relic,” and a “Stalinist throwback,” while its iconography and the vast military parades in its capital, Pyongyang, certainly recall Soviet displays of might.
But experts contend this is a mistake: North Korea rejected Communism decades ago, they say, and U.S. failure to understand the real beliefs and values of the regime’s rulers could have catastrophic repercussions.
“There are two ways of looking at a place: There is what it calls itself, and there is what analysts or journalists want to say a place is,” Owen Miller, who lectures in Korean history and culture at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), told Newsweek.
“On neither of those counts is North Korea Communist. It doesn’t call itself Communist—it doesn’t use the Korean word for Communist. It uses the word for socialism but decreasingly, less and less over the decades.”
The state’s official ideology is juche, a Sino-Korean word used in both North and South Korea that roughly translates as “independence, or the independent status of a subject,” according to Miller.
Juche is enshrined in North Korea’s constitution, explicated in thousands of propaganda texts and books, while teachers indoctrinate North Korean children with the ideology at an early age.
The concept evolved in the 1950s, in the wake of the Korean War, as North Korea sought to distance itself from the influence of the big socialist powers: Russia and China. However the concept has a more profound resonance for North Koreans, alluding to the centuries when Korea was a vassal state of the Chinese.
“When Kim Il Sung started using the word, he was using [it] to refer to this sense of injured pride, going back decades and much further, hundreds of years under Chinese control. He is saying North Korea is going to be an independent nation in the world, independent of other nations,” Miller says.
Under Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung’s successor and the father of current leader Kim Jong Un, juche was used to promote the cult of personality of the ruling dynasty and to justify their monolithic leadership. In 1980, the “leader doctrine” came to be officially adopted by the North Korean state, which held that the Kim dynasty were infallible, quasi-divine beings—and the North Korean people owed them their absolute loyalty.
“They take this very simple idea that Korea should be a free, independent, equal state, not ruled by others—meaning mainly China and Russia—and they turned it into this huge ideological apparatus everyone has to learn and recite every day,” Miller says. It “becomes part of the fabric of life, and there are books and books and books written about it, whole shelves full of books by Kim Jong Il and so on.”
It is this emphasis on independence that some observers believe accounts for North Korea’s obsession with nuclear military power.
In a September statement in which the Pyongyang threatened to destroy Japan, North Korea’s nuclear program was described as a manifestation of juche.
“The four islands of the [Japanese] archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb of juche,” said a government committee in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.
There is also the question of race: The Marxist tradition calls all races to unite in throwing off the chains of oppression, whereas juche emphasizes the purity and superiority of North Koreans.
North Korean analyst B.R. Myers, who teaches in South Korea, believes that North Korea’s emphasis on race places it at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum to the Marxist-Leninist tradition.
“According to this race theory, the North Koreans, by virtue of being especially pure-blooded, are also the most virtuous race in the world. And this makes them as vulnerable as children on the world stage,” Myers told NPR in 2011.
Others have disputed this interpretation and point to North Korea’s long history of support for less economically developed countries, especially in Africa, as evidence of a more complex belief system.
Despite attempts to distance themselves from Western Communism and develop a distinctive ideology independent of outside influence, the legacy of one Soviet leader remains pervasive: Stalin.
It was on Stalin’s orders that Korea was occupied by Soviet troops in 1945, and Kim Il Sung installed as leader of the provisional socialist government. The influence continues. The state’s iconography and Pyongyang’s absolutist architecture hark back to the Stalinist USSR, as does its emphasis on domestic industry and military strength.
Observers say Trump’s recent threats against North Korea are simply the most current manifestation of systematic U.S. misunderstanding.
“For example, there is this constant idea that North Korea is a client state of China, and that is completely wrong,” Miller says. “It’s highly dependent on China, but they’re not a client state, not at a political level. The idea America has that China can just sort this stuff out is delusional, to be honest,” she adds.
Historian Michael Brabazon has warned in The Guardian of the danger of the international community treating Kim Jong Un in the same way as Soviet leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev.
“The lack of understanding of the real nature of juche, a nationalistic religious cult, mistaking it for Marxism, continues to be the precursor for disastrous U.S. responses. Developing nuclear weapons is primarily a statement of national independence.
“Kim Jong Un wants what his father and his grandfather wanted: for the south to recognize the dynasty as the prophesied royal lineage,” Brabazon wrote.