How North Korea’s Political Ideology Became A De-Facto Religion

On Tuesday, the highly insular North Korea conducted a massive artillery drill to mark the foundation of its military as tensions with the United States continued to escalate.

Like many aspects of North Korea’s political and economic systems, its military came into being under the late president Kim Il Sung. Born into a Christian family during a time of Japanese colonial rule in Korea, Kim rose to power with a vision of an isolated, almost hermit-like independence for his fledgling country.

It was under Kim that the political ideology of “juche” ― a guiding philosophy that places commitment to the state above all else ― took hold in the 1950s and solidified in subsequent decades.

Juche’s pervading influence on civic life explains why freedoms of any sort, including religion, are scarce in a nation that treats its current and past leaders as heroes of mythic proportion.

Miroslav Zajic via Getty Images
Kim Il Sung, the “eternal president” of North Korea, died in 1994.

Juche literally means self-reliance. As a political philosophy, it entails utter independence to the exclusion of any kind of outside influence. Kim described the ideology in a 1955 speech in the aftermath of the Korean War by saying: “All
 ideological
 work
 must
 be
 subordinated
 to
 the
 interests
 of
 the
 Korean
 revolution.” In other words, the state, its leaders and its political vision come before the interests and identities of individuals.

In practice, said Korean history scholar Donald Baker, juche ― and the unconditional loyalty it demands of the citizens ― has “evolved into a functional equivalent of religion.”

As a result, organized religion is tolerated at best and viewed as secondary to juche, which operates to maintain North Koreans’ faith in the government and in the Kim family. “Juche serves as an ideological tool for unifying the country,” Baker, a professor of Korean history and civilization at the University of British Columbia, told HuffPost. “It says, ‘We don’t need God. Instead, we rely on the leader.'”

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