North Korea’s engagement with the world

I remember the shocked look on my students’ faces fifteen years ago when I told them that we actually had no idea how decisions were made or leaders picked in North Korea, that it was more or less still a “black box.” I find it fascinating that we’re starting to get a better public picture of the internal processes of North Korea.

One of the reasons is the steady stream of refugees. In the Financial Times, Matthew Engel reports on a Korean enclave in the SW London suburb of New Malden. The relatively closed and self-reliant society is mostly middle-class, “bourgeois,” but among “the beginnings of an underclass” are North Koreans. I get the impression from the article that many of them are illegal immigrants, and their “underclass” status comes both from their lack of professional skills and their desire to remain outside of official notice.

Mitchell Lerner, at Ohio State University, believes that he’s found the key to understanding the Kim dynasty of North Korea: juche. And when “self-reliance” is slipping, domestically, they bluster internationally to bolster their credentials as strong and independent leaders. It’s counterintuitive: when they need help the most, they can’t get it. But their legitimacy as rulers is based on juche. He writes

In the political realm, it called for chaju (independence), in which North Korean leaders governed without constraint from outside pressure or internal challenge. Economically, juche called for charip (self-sustenance), which required a largely self-contained economy based on domestic workers using domestic resources to satisfy domestic needs. In international relations, juche advocated chawi (self-defense), a foreign policy based on complete equality and mutual respect between nations as well as the right of self-determination and independent policymaking.

Juche, simply, demanded the people subordinate themselves to the state, and the state in turn would advance their collective interests in accordance with the uniqueness and majesty of Korea, and always in pursuit of greater economic, political, and international independence.

By justifying the position of the suryong (single leader) and uniting the people behind him, juche successfully advanced Kim’s interests.

I’d call that a fairly textbook kind of fascism: emphasizing the independence of the nation, the subordination of the people to the nation, and the fuhrerprincip — the leader who embodies sovereignty. Even the reliance on the US as a hobgoblin echoes the “we have been denied our rightful place in the world” rhetoric of the early 20c fascist regimes. The only thing that distinguishes North Korea from them, really, is the longevity of the Kim dynasty. The Kim refered to in the above excerpt is Kim Il Sung, the founder of the DPRK; his son, Kim Jong Il, is one of the only examples I can think of of a successful fascist succession.

However, by closely associating the government’s legitimacy with its successful pursuit of juche, Kim had opened the door to potential disaster. When he triumphantly achieved juche, North Koreans would perpetuate and even embrace his rule. But if the pursuit was unsuccessful, the most fundamental justification for the regime would appear violated.

Legitimation of a government is always a double-edged sword. Some forms of legitimation have a sharper back edge than others: the Confucian Mandate of Heaven is like this, as well.

When considered within this framework, Kim’s tendency to behave more aggressively when he seemed to be at his weakest makes sense. Unable to deny economic and political instability that suggested his government was not acting in accordance with juche principles, Kim redoubled his efforts to demonstrate his strength and independence in the third juche realm, foreign policy.

He does a nice job fitting the periods of economic trouble with the eras of international tension. He also does a good job illustrating the claustrophobic environment — the limited, controlled media, the cradle-to-grave indoctrination, the purges, etc — which makes North Korea such a surreal place.

Update: Speaking of Surreal, Curzon has a post on Reverend Billy Graham’s relationship with North Korea, starting with his missionary ancestors. [via


  1. North Korea is not fascist. It has little in common with Mussolini’s Italy. It is a communist country whose state structure
    was heavily influenced by the USSR under Stalin which had a lot to do with its creation. Now granted North Korea is more
    authoritarian and nationalist than Fascist Italy. But, authoritarianism and nationalism are not unique to fascism or lacking
    in communist regimes.

  2. I think we’re having a definitional problem. You’re right that North Korea was created with Stalinism as the model, but I think that the emphasis on juche nationalism and the monopolization of premiership by the Kim family have clearly moved it away from any recognizable communist model. You’re right that “authoritarianism and nationalism are not unique to fascism or lacking in communist regimes” but the degree to which they dominate in North Korea gives me a strong case that they have moved well away from the leftist side of the totalitarian spectrum.

  3. Lerner is on the right track in seeing through the mystifying gibberish of juche to some of the operative principles of the Nork state., and you are spot-on in labelling the phenomenon “fascist”. Brian Myers has also provided some more detailed deconstruction of juche as a mask for fascisdm, and similarly detailed arguments for regarding the Nork state, despite its soviet sponsorship (and contra Pohl) as genuinely fascist rather than communist.

  4. My guess is that someone who started advocating Marxism in North Korea would promptly get
    arrested and tortured. I don’t know if the label “fascist” is very informative except
    for highlighting North Korea’s nationalism. NK is an
    odd mixture of modern totalitarianism with pre-modern East-Asian monarchy. As for “North
    Koreans in London,” I suspect that most of these people are not from North Korea at all
    but are ethnic Koreans from China.

  5. i am not sure how the analysis above provides readers with new insights either on NK or on the “western” discourses on NK.

    indeed, it seems to “refresh” existing narratives of NK by including a new way to feel sorry/loath/pity/feel better than NK. now NK is not merely communist, they dont seem to be communist enough. they are instead, fascist. (by the way, what you cite for juche is a strawfigure. communism, to which juche can lay some claim, is NOT related to fascism. theoreticaly, western capitalism is closer to fascism than communism. my freshman make the similar error simply lumping all evils into one nasty basket.)

    looks like a case damned if they do, and damned if they dont…and the only solution seems to be having them resemble the US ideals a bit more.

    if only they were not themselves…

    i have seen a few of your other writings and they were fine. this piece falls short of critically analyzing existing discourses on NK. i am not sure why you wrote it.

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