Juche[a], also called the Juche idea, is the official ideology of the DPRK. Juche is predominantly translated into English as "self-reliance" or "independence," but a more accurate and comprehensive translation is "subjecthood."
The "subject" that Juche refers to is the masses of the people, who form the driving element of socio-historical development. While the Juche idea acknowledges that social movement is ultimately governed by the universal laws of the material world, it asserts that the development of the social movement can be caused and developed by the volitional action and role of the subject—the working masses of the people—who can creatively and consciously transform nature and society to their benefit when they become aware of their own role in socio-historical development. The Juche idea also consists of the assertion that it is only by seizing state power and the means of production and establishing a socialist system that the working masses can free themselves from exploitation and "create history consciously as true masters of society and their own destiny."
Kim Il-sung developed the ideology which was originally viewed as a variant of Marxism–Leninism until it became recognized as a theoretical advancement. Kim Jong-il officially broke the Marxist-Leninist continuity of Juche, claiming it to be something unique entirely. It incorporates the historical materialist ideas of Marxism–Leninism and strongly emphasizes the relationship between the individual, the nation state and its sovereignty.
Kim Jong-il states this about the unique Juche characteristic of Socialism in Korea and how it is not merely Marxism-Leninism,
"In the early years of revolutionary activity, the leader (Kim Il-Sung) was well versed in Marxism-Leninism. But he did not confine himself to applying Marxism-Leninism to the Korean Revolution but pioneered a new phase of revolutionary theory from a steadfast Juche-oriented standpoint and resolved the problems arising in the revolutionary practice from a unique angle."
Kim Jong-il stated that "the historical achievements of Marxism-Leninism must be acknowledged" but also states that it has limitations when it comes to the specifics of post-revolution socialist construction in the present day context, and states that, "the present historical condition is fundamentally different from what it was when the founders of Marxism-Leninism were active" and while Lenin certainly advanced Marxism, "is now clear to everybody that one cannot build socialism properly by drawing on a theory that was put forward based on prediction and supposition a century ago." Kim Jong-il adds,
"Although Marxism-Leninism has limitations and failed to clarify the specific ways for building socialism, those parties that are building socialism can prevent the degeneration of their class character if they correctly maintain the revolutionary principle of Marxism-Leninism [...] As for the mistakes revealed in socialist construction in some countries, their parties which allowed dogmatism and revisionism, not Marxism-Leninism and its founders, are to blame for them."
In the foreword to the book Socialist Education in Korea, Derek Ford and Curry Malott write that the "mobilization of Juche allows for endless tactical flexibility in foreign, economic, and social policy even today" and argue its successfulness by noting that Koreans played a key role in defeating Japanese imperialism, forced the U.S. to sign an armistice in 1953, and survived the Cold War, the opening up of China, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the overthrow and collapse of the European Socialist Bloc countries, and have "managed to rebuild their country from rubble" while navigating these "endlessly complex geopolitical challenges".
The word Juche (Korean: 주체; Hanja: 主體) is a Sino-Korean word that can be defined in English as "subject", "main agent", or "principal agent". It is used to refer to the philosophical concept of the entity perceiving or acting upon an object or environment, a being who has a unique consciousness, or an entity that has a relationship with another entity that exists outside itself.
Juche is also frequently referred to as the "Juche idea" (Korean: 주체사상, or juche sasang). Juche sasang literally means "subject idea" or "subject thought." The word sasang (Korean: 사상; Hanja: 思想) is a Sino-Korean word that means "thought", "idea" and also relates to the concepts of "ideology" and "philosophy". The characters that form the word sasang are also found in the Chinese term that is commonly referred to in English as Mao Zedong Thought.
The Juche idea may be contrasted with the concept of Sadae (Korean: 사대), meaning "subservience". Sadae is a Confucian concept based on filial piety that describes a reciprocal hierarchical relationship between a senior and a junior, such as a tributary relationship. The term is also used as a descriptive label for bilateral foreign relations between Imperial China and Joseon dynasty Korea. A more modern usage of the term can also refer to a sycophantic or self-effacing diplomacy towards a stronger nation. This second meaning is sometimes translated as "flunkeyism" in English.
The Juche idea holds that the popular masses are the driving force of history, and that humanity's goal is striving for independence from social subjugation and natural restrictions. In the context of Juche, the popular masses are not determined by their class background, only by their ideological basis.
It focuses on popular sovereignty and self-reliance to advance revolution in the conditions of the Korean people. This theoretical premise forms the core strategic goal of the Juche idea in upholding the sovereignty and independence of the DPRK from imperialist aggression, a position held as a consequence of the actions perpetrated by the United States.
In general, the Juche idea upholds political and economical self-reliance and achieving a rich material and cultural life for the people through revolutionary leadership strengthened by a relationship with the masses.
The Juche idea must not be viewed as a simple inheritance and development of Marxism-Leninism; it must be viewed as a new and original idea. That we should see originality in context with derivations in understanding means that the Juche idea is not an ideology, which contrasts with Marxism-Leninism and that the historical achievements of Marxism-Leninism must be acknowledged. We acknowledge the historical achievements of the dialectical materialism of Marxism, as it smashed the reactionary idealistic and metaphysical outlook on the world, but do not view it as the perfect philosophy of the working class. We appraise the historical achievements of Marxism-Leninism as it proved the inevitability of the fall of capitalism and the triumph of socialism and clarified the and theory on building a classless ideal society free of exploitation and oppression, but we do not see it as a perfect communist revolutionary theory. As a matter of course we have so far not spoken much about the limitations of Marxism-Leninism. But today when its limitations are more and more evident, it is necessary to bring them home to our officials. Only then can they fully understand the originality and superiority of the Juche idea, the revolutionary idea of the leader, and make firmer their conviction of our style socialism based on the Juche idea. – Kim Jong-Il
The Juche idea concerns itself with defining humans as social beings who possess creativity, consciousness, and independence. According to the Juche idea, these three qualities are what enable human beings to approach the world "not fatalistically but revolutionarily, not passively but actively, and to reshape the world not blindly but purposefully and consciously." Juche further asserts that it is correct for human beings to consciously transform nature and society in ways that benefit them, while also acknowledging the material limits and objective laws of reality. Kim Jong-Il said in regard to this that the Juche viewpoint and attitude are revolutionary because they enable people to transform the world "with a high degree of awareness that they are masters of the world and their own destiny."
Emphasis on independence from great powers
One of the major points emphasized in Juche is the concept of independence from great powers and the avoidance of sycophancy and extreme dependence on foreign powers. According to Kim Jong-Il, this ideological line is derived from the historical experience of Korea, which, in his words, has a "long history" of "worship of big countries", a result of Korea being "sandwiched between big countries". Kim Jong-Il describes this historical worship of big countries as an "ideological malady" that has "long caused harm to the liberation struggle, the communist movement and the construction of a new society." In order for Korea to put itself on a successful path to revolution, Kim Il-sung put forward a policy of rejecting "sycophancy and dogmatism" and establishing a Juche orientation for the revolutionary movement.
This concept can be seen in DPRK's relationship to the strains of thought in the Soviet Union and in China. Although DPRK at times received help from each nation, the Juche idea was emphasized to avoid extreme dependence on either country's applications of Marxism-Leninism. This was to avoid dogmatic and mechanical application of their ideas and to prioritize the importance of focusing on the material conditions within Korea, centering Korean realities in their own revolution rather than simply following the ideas of others while neglecting to consider the specific situation of Korea.
In the foreword to the book Socialist Education in Korea, Derek Ford and Curry Malott contextualize the development of the Juche idea, describing its origins in the anti-Japanese struggle in Korea, and its further development in the context of the Sino-Soviet split. They write:
In response to those who wanted to build the anti-colonial struggle and the future independent Korea by relying on outside forces or self-styled leaders parroting theories from elsewhere, Kim Il-Sung formulated the slogan “The people are my God,” which encapsulates “the spirit of approaching everything with the masses of the people at the centre and boundlessly treasuring them.” As Kim Jong-Il recounts, Kim Il-Sung “clarified the truth that a revolution should be carried out not by anyone’s approval or instruction but by one’s own conviction and on one’s own responsibility that all problems arising in the revolution should be solved in an independent and creative way.” [...] By making Juche official policy, the WPK and state apparatuses fastened the country’s direction around “the principle of solving for oneself all the problems of the revolution and construction in conformity with the actual conditions of one’s country, mainly by one’s own efforts.” Juche was formulated against “dogmatism and flunkeyism towards great powers” as a dynamic doctrine organized around “independence in politics, self-sustenance in the economy, and self-defense in national defense.”
Providing context for the role of Juche in Korea in respect to the advances of Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union, Kim Jong-Il said in a 1990 speech:
In the past, many countries, while building socialism guided by Marxism-Leninism, applied the propositions of Marxism-Leninism advanced long before as they were, and imitated the Soviet experience in a mechanical manner. [...] As a matter of fact, we cannot deny the historic exploits and experience of the Soviet Union which built socialism for the first time in the world. However, the experience of the Soviet Union in socialist construction is, in every point, the reflection of the then historical conditions and the concrete situation of the Soviet Union. [...] In our country, once a backward, colonial semi-feudal society, we could not literally accept the Marxist theory which had been advanced on the premises of the socio-historical conditions of the developed European capitalist countries, or the Leninist theory presented in the situation of Russia where capitalism was developed to the secondary grade. We had had to find a solution to every problem arising in the revolution by racking our own brains and with our own efforts to suit our country’s socio-historical conditions. Immediately after liberation we started building a new society under the situation in which our country was divided into north and south and we were in direct confrontation with the US imperialists; this situation urgently required us to solve every problem from the standpoint of Juche. Such a requirement of the developing revolution was fulfilled satisfactorily by the great leader who, on the basis of the Juche idea, put forward original lines and policies suited to our people’s aspirations and the specific situation of our country.
- Paul French (2014). North Korea: state of paranoia. Zed Books.
- Riley Seungyoon Park and Cambria York. "Socialist Education in Korea: Selected Works of Kim Il-sung." 2022. Iskra Books, Madison, Wisconsin. Peacelandbread.com. PDF.
- Kim Jong Il. "On the Juche Idea." Treatise Sent to the National Seminar on the Juche Idea Held to Mark the 70th Birthday of the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung. March 31, 1982. Marxists.org.
- On the Juche Idea - Kim Jong-Il, page 7
- On some problems of the ideological foundation of socialism
- DPRK Foreign Languages Publishing House (2014). Juche Idea: answers to 100 questions.
- Kim Jong Il. "Worshipping Big Powers and Depending on Foreign Forces is the Way to National Ruin." Talk to Students at Kim Il Sung University. April 5, 1961.
- Kim Jong Il. "Socialism of Our Country is a Socialism of Our Style as the Embodiment of the Juche Idea." Speech Delivered to the Senior Officials of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. December 27, 1990. Marxists.org.
- Korean: 주체/主體, lit. 'subject'; usually left untranslated or translated as "self-reliance"