According to Adherents.com, which tracks membership numbers among the world’s various religions, the 10th largest religious group in the world is the entire state of North Korea itself – namely, the Juche (주체) ideology coined by Eternal President Kim Il-sung and propagated through the DPRK’s propaganda machine.
The Juche movement is much more overtly religious in nature than either the Stalin or Mao personality cults, with Kim Jong-il’s birth marked by the appearance of various natural phenomena and his life graced with messianic capabilities that set him up as an accompaniment to his father. As the regime’s circumstances have grown more dire, its propaganda has taken on an increasingly paranoid tone that often invokes the divine nature of the leadership and indeed the North Korean nation itself.
Some have argued that the regime in Pyongyang more closely resembles that of Nazi Germany than any of its communist brethren. There is some merit to this argument but it is merit born out of more recent developments in the state’s presentation of itself, its leadership, and their position in the wider world.
Initially, Juche was Kim Il-sung’s formulation of the DPRK’s unique strand of communism – like Maoism or Stalinism. Meaning ‘self-reliance,’ Juche, on its face, preached a gospel of indigenous industry and technological development without the need for outside assistance or reliance. What this translates into, in effect, is a hodgepodge of inefficient state-run industries left-over from the glory days that are neither capable of or designed for providing for the domestic consumption needs of the North Korean state. Juche’s main salient feature is the need for total and utter personal devotion to the leadership of the state as embodied by Dear Leader and the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP).
Efforts to reform these industries have thus far been minimal and, far from being self-reliant, the DPRK is quite reliant on foreign aid in order to feed and clothe the vast majority of its population.
The real secret to Juche is that Juche was never actually a real ideology and has never actually been field tested. While it is true that, for a brief moment, the living standards in the DPRK outstripped those in South Korea, this was because of the massive amounts of Soviet aid that the DPRK received because it was a member of the Soviet bloc. Kim Il-sung did not rebuild North Korea nor did he organize its industries – whatever work was done was completed by Soviet advisers and technicians. It is the same infrastructure, albeit in a derelict state, that is present in the DPRK today.
Much like Maoism and Stalinism, Juche’s real utility is in its control over the populace of North Korea and its subjugation of the state to the personality cult of the Kim family, now three generations strong. In this regard it is very much like a religion because it speaks in allegories and metaphors that do not attempt to translate the reality of conditions in the DPRK into a coherent political reality, whether manufactured or not, but rather speaks of the time to come or the nation to be. Juche’s end goal is always some state of secular heaven that can neither exist nor even be attempted; its contours do not conform to political or economic realities but rather aspire to something higher and greater than those realities upon which it comments.
Of course, the Kim family has the unique gifts of leadership and person that can bring this reality about on the Korean peninsula. Nuclear weapons, followed by reunification, are the first two major steps in the realization of this paradise for the Korean people.
To what extent Juche and its circuitous logic remains a force in the DPRK is a question for history; however, the current prospects presented by its aims and worldview offer many reasons to be concerned about the future stability of the Korean peninsula.