Juche: Stalinism and Maoism with Feudal Characteristics

The following article is our translation of a critique of Juche by the group Internationalist Communist Perspective in South Korea. We publish it here as a contribution to the analysis of a Stalinist legacy which still “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (Marx).

A Critique of Kim Il-sung's Juche Ideology

The charter of the Workers’ Party(1) enacted in August 1946 declared that “The Workers’ Party of North Korea is guided in its activities by the theory of Marxism-Leninism.” From the liberation day of 1945 to the mid-1950s, Marxism-Leninism (Stalinism) was accepted in a similar way to the principle of “learning from the Soviet Union”. However, in the process of establishing a position on economic development after the Korean War (1950-3), the concept of Juche first appeared in 1955, in the speech on On Eliminating Dogmatism and Formalism and Establishing Juche in Ideological Work, where it was stated that “Marxism–Leninism is not a dogma [but] a guide to action and a creative theory”. However, for practical reasons, from 1955 to 1963 the Juche idea was hardly mentioned officially.

As the Sino-Soviet split in the international “communist” movement progressed, the position of North Korea became clearer and an independent line took shape through the criticism of the Soviet Union. Kim Il-sung's April 1965 lecture On Socialist Construction and the South Korean Revolution in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was the first formulation of the Juche ideology. Here the concept of an “independent” and “creative application” of Marxism–Leninism, along with a method of raising the political and ideological consciousness of the masses, was presented.

Then, in 1970, the Fifth Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea revised the party charter and declared "Kim Il-sung's Juche ideology, a creative application of Marxism-Leninism, as the guideline for state activities”. In addition, the “Socialist” Constitution adopted in 1972 clarified that “The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is guided in its activities by the Juche idea of the Workers' Party of Korea, a creative application of Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of our country." Finally, in the 1980s, the Juche idea was elevated to a higher level than that of Marxism-Leninism.

… The leader [Kim Il-sung] was well acquainted with Marxism-Leninism in his early revolutionary activities. However, he did not stop at applying Marxism-Leninism to the practice of the Korean revolution, but pioneered a new frontier in revolutionary theory from a firm and independent standpoint, and creatively concluded the problems raised by revolutionary practice.

Baeksan Seodang, Juche Ideology, Volume I, 1989

The Juche ideology is composed of a holistic system of ideas, theories, and methods. This systematisation is summarised in Kim Jong-Il's 1982 treatise On the Juche Idea. In the Juche philosophy, the relationship between matter and consciousness, existence and thought, was taken as the fundamental problem of philosophy, and the “position and role of man in the world” is raised as a new fundamental problem. It claims that while the preceding working-class philosophy (Marxism) saw the essence of man in terms of the “ensemble of social relations”, the Juche philosophy enriches it by seeing man in a social relationship and defining the essential characteristics of a person to be independence, creativity, and consciousness.

The evaluation of the Juche ideology can be broadly unfolded around two axes. One is the philosophical problem of the Juche ideology, and the other is the social and historical logic of the Juche ideology. There may be many philosophical problems that can be also raised in the Juche idea, such as the concept of human destiny, its existentialist view of society and history, and irrational views on collective life, but here we intend to limit the analysis to its relationship with Marxism.

The rational elements that the Juche ideology added to Marxism are its so-called “people-centred” ideas, theories, and methods. But they are neither new nor rational. “When we say that we look at people as the centre and grasp the attributes of people by that, we mean to capture people as being distinct from animals and other beings.“ (Kim Jong-il, On Some Issues Raised in the Juche Ideology) Such formulations existed even before Marx, like those found in Feuerbach, when he refers to the attributes and characteristics that distinguish human beings as the highest form of material existence from other beings. (Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity)

Marx’s critique of philosophy was also focused on this very point, and it is clearly evident just by looking at his Theses on Feuerbach. After all, the “person-centred” world-view and the so-called human (attribute) theory are not new rational elements absent from Marxism that emerge along with the “development of the times”. They are nothing more than an “irrational element” that Marx had already learned from Feuerbach in the 1840s and criticised and discarded with the development of his own ideas. Therefore, we cannot see any new idea revealed by the Juche ideology “for the first time in history” as a rational element to be added to Marxism, but rather a deviation from Marxism. This is a fact clearly revealed in the philosophy of the Juche ideology. The “person” revealed by Juche is an ideal and metaphysical being and is nothing more than an abstract human who has lost concrete class definitions. The essential attributes of a person that the Juche ideology has “newly” revealed, that is, independence, creativity and consciousness, are not profound, but mostly just official phraseology.

Furthermore, there is the issue of the infinite power of Suryong, or the Great Leader. The definition of the essential attributes of this figure are vividly revealed only when we arrive at the Suryong system. In other words, independence, creativity and consciousness are only attributes given by the leader, rather than an essential attribute of a person, and through this, the aim is to to become a “subjective human being” who unconditionally obeys the leader with infinite loyalty.

In other words, in the Juche idea, like in all religions, emphasis on human absoluteness has forced the logical need to properly harmonise the infinite absoluteness of humans in ideas and the finite relativity of humans in reality. It is the bourgeois idealism of North Korea. Just as mediaeval scholastic philosophy saw its absoluteness in God, and Hegel saw it in the absolute spirit, the Juche idea sees it in the Great Leader.

In short, the Juche idea is nothing more than metaphysics that misunderstand the core concepts of historical materialism, the relationship between base and superstructure, and the production of social existence. However, the bigger problem is that all components of the Juche ideology result in the idea of the revolutionary leader. The claim that the leader, and ultimately, an individual, makes the history of the party is essentially the same as the claim of idealists that the hero or great individual makes history. The most important thing in all revolutionary struggles is the leadership of the party, not the individual, which is essentially collective guidance. Blind commitment to the master of the sect is no different from pre-modern religion. Moreover, when it becomes the social principle of a North Korean capitalism dominated by the bourgeoisie, which has nothing to do with Marxism, it becomes clear that it takes the form of a state capitalism with feudal characteristics that destroys even the form of bourgeois democracy.

“People's Democracy” and North Korean Capitalism

We criticised above the ideology of Juche, which has become a pillar of North Korea's ideology of one man rule, as an idealism that has nothing to do with socialism and Marxism. Is the “Democratic People's Republic” a socialist country then? Just as the Maoist revolution in China was a bourgeois "People's Revolution", North Korea's "People's Democracy", forced from above by Stalinism, is nothing more than transformation into state capitalism which has nothing to do with the revolution of the working class.

North Korea divides the history of Chosŏn into feudal era Chosŏn and the modern period of Chosŏn,(2) which it thoroughly rewrites on the basis of the Juche ideology, and describes it as a history of the struggle for independence, breaking away from the class view based on historical materialism: “The history of human society is the history of the struggle of the popular masses to defend and realise independence.” (Kim Jong-il, On the Juche Idea)

The modern history of the Chosŏn people was consistent with the anti-aggression and anti-feudal struggle to oppose foreign capitalists and to liquidate the feudalist system, far from historical development by sticking to national independence. … From the socio-political and class content, it had the character of a bourgeois national movement.

Lee Jong-hyun, "Modern Chosŏn History", North Korean Studies, 1988

The historical interpretation found in Kim Il-sung's writings narrates the struggle for national liberation, and views it through the prism of American imperialism that began with the French expedition to Korea in 1866 and continues to this day. Japan is also written off as militarist rather than imperialist, as an aggressive force on the back of a large imperialist force (the United States), a collusion based on the common interests of the United States and Japan.

In evaluating the anti-aggression and anti-feudal struggle, while positively evaluating its historical significance, it is also characteristic that historical interpretations summarise the limitations of this struggle by the absence or immaturity of its leaders and organisations. As can be seen, this eventually interlocks with the Juche ideology: the arrival of the Great Leader and the revolutionary strategy of the Juche party.

Modern Chosŏn history is characterised by describing the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle with Kim Il-sung at its centre, considering the Down-with-Imperialism Union(3), allegedly formed on 17 October 1926, as the origin of the Juche ideology. Since then, history has taken the form of stages of historical development towards anti-feudalism, bourgeois nationalism (capitalism) and socialism, but the content is recorded as a history of independence, that is, a history of anti-imperialist and national liberation struggles.

On 8 February 1947, Kim Il-sung said the following:

On the international arena the struggle between democracy and anti-democracy, between progress and reaction is acute and complex, but the situation has already changed in the people's favour. The world's democratic forces are far more powerful than their opponents, the forces of reaction. … This is the new international environment of our country where all our people are working to establish a democratic, independent, and all-sovereign state.

Kim Il-sung, On the Political Situation in Korea

He also said,

The people's democracy we are aiming for is fundamentally different from the democracy of European and American capitalist countries, and it is not a copy of the democracy of socialist countries. … Our nationalism is a new nationalism suitable for the reality of Korea, which is in the stage of anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, democratic revolution.

Kim Han-gil, The History of Contemporary Chosŏn, 1988

The next stage after completing the "anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, democratic revolution" is, of course, the stage of "socialist revolution". It is said that North Korea entered that final stage after 1971. The socialist construction, which refers to nationalisation, was just the result of the Provisional People's Committee of North Korea simply inheriting industrial facilities from the Soviet Union.(4) In fact, when workers at large factories in some parts of North Korea tried to take them over and manage them independently shortly after liberation, the Soviet Union did not allow it. In 1945, the number of workers in North Korea was estimated to be more than 1 million, more than 10% of the total population of 10 million, which means that the North Korean working class had the potential to establish some form of workers' power and self-management.

However, looking at the dependence on trade with the Soviet Union, the share of Soviet exports in North Korea's total industrial output reached 47.5% in 1946, 45.7% in 1947, and 55.5% in 1948, so North Korea was inevitably subordinated as a satellite state. Moreover, the North Korean bureaucrats oppressing the people were a privileged class receiving more than workers' wages. We believe that North Korea did not meet the minimum conditions of a workers' state, and can instead be seen as a bureaucratic state capitalist formation, a special form of Stalinism with feudalist political features.

North Korean Economy and the Market

The leadership of the party was at the core of North Korean politics from the first half of the 1950s, but between 1956 and 1961, the party supremacy began to centre on Kim Il-sung, and after the succession of Kim Jong-il in 1998, it was passed on to the military. As capitalism in North Korea is based on a market economy system, the Great Leader, the market, and the currency exhibit contradictory changes.

From 1958 to 1961, China suffered the death of more than 20 million people from starvation through the Great Leap Forward, but achieved growth based on the exploitation of the working class through the reform of state capitalism. North Korea has not been able to escape from persistent famine. The continued failure of economic planning and ideological manipulation centred on the Great Leader made the feudal state chaebol system(5) move towards market-oriented capitalism.

The 1978 Second Seven-Year Plan achieved only 55% of the target, despite its desperate measures emphasising the “Juche economy” and the “principle of self-reliance” and the presentation of “Ten Major Targets for Socialist Construction” at the Sixth Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in 1980. In 1989, during the Third Seven-Year Plan (1987-1993), the World Festival of Youth and Students held in Pyongyang aggravated the foreign debt crisis, which reached $4.6 billion, equivalent to the total amount of North Korean trade. The revised constitution in April 1992 introduced a new trading system that guaranteed economic activities of foreigners, and on 14 July, monetary reform was carried out, mobilising the capital obtained through the suppression of consumption for industrial purposes. In 1993, the next two to three years were set as the “buffer of socialist construction” and “revolutionary economic strategy” of prioritising trade, agriculture, and light industry. However, in December 1993 the achievement rate of the 10 major prospects of the Third Three Year Plan was only 9.6% to 25.9% and the factory operation rate was 40%, recording negative growth for nine consecutive years from 1990 to 1998.

After that, North Korea calls the period from 1994 to 1999 the age of the “Arduous March” as it attempted to change the existing method of capitalist accumulation. Contrary to what was said in On Some Theoretical Problems of the Socialist Economy published by Kim Il-sung on 1 March 1969, the discussion was now devoted to increasing the activity of the law of value. (See: Cha Moon-Seok, The Arduous March and Changes in the Characteristic of the North Korean Economy, The Study of Modern North Korea, 2005)

At this time, the public distribution system – through which goods were provided by the state, based on the personal and patriarchal relationship to the Great Leader, who expects loyalty, support, and mobilisation of the masses in return – began to crumble. In 1998, under the new slogans of “forced march for the final victory” or “forced march for socialism”, the state tried to manipulate the symbolism of the “Second Chollima Movement” and “Kanggye spirit”(6), but it was not enough to allow the destroyed North Korean economy to recover.

Eventually, at the end of 2000, a “new economic policy” was announced. It included strengthening the functions of the Cabinet(7), expanding the authority of individual economic organisations that make plans for each sector, and the massive reorganisation of factories and business establishments to improve and rationalise economic management. In July 2002, the government sought to change the labour structure by improving labour management and the governance structure of factories, expanding their autonomy by strengthening the authority of professional managers. Since then, after the reorganisation of the general market in 2003, the national store has been converted into a purchase store, and the implementation of the independent profit-making system, the replacement of the public distribution system by the Jangmadang markets(8), and the conversion to monetary wages, have all led to the commercialisation of the labour force, leading to a full-fledged market economy system.

North Korea claims to have overcome the economic crisis through the “Arduous March” period (1990-1998), the “production normalisation period” (1999-2004), and the “economic revitalization period” (after 2005). It can be seen as the declaration of transition to a capitalism based on a market economy.

In its New Year's Address of 2007, North Korea said that it experienced a “turbulent year” after the nuclear test, and that 2006 was one of the worst years of adversity. In 2006, North Korea's trade with China amounted to about $1.7 billion, suggesting that North Korea's dependence on Chinese capitalism is enormous. And in 2007, most of the general factories and enterprises stopped operating. The factory utilisation rate varies depending on the region, the number of military and civilians, and the production rate, but it seems to be around 20% on average. It can be said that North Korea's nuclear sovereignty is not a desperate struggle to escape from the “Arduous March”, as the enormous cost of nuclear development further weakens the North Korean economy and causes terrible hunger due to food shortages.

However, despite the objective misery of North Korean capitalism, the ideological manipulation of the Great Leader still remains.

The Great Leader has dedicated all his heart and soul to strengthening our self-defence capabilities, continuing on the road of Songun (military-first), keeping the factory and the trains behind him. …The success of the nuclear test in Korea is a historic event that will serve as a special feature in the history of the nation and world politics for half a million years.

Pyongyang, Workers’ Party of Korea Publishing House, 2006

Wages account for only 10% of North Korean people's income, and about 90% of their income is from business. Food security is also achieved through “self-reliance,” as they say, by purchasing it from the market, securing it on your own, or smuggling it. Although the market economy system was introduced, it lags in production, so it takes the form of commercial capitalism that seeks to earn profits through the distribution of foreign products. It will be difficult to establish the North Korean economy as a capitalist system centred on industrial capital through food aid and material compensation in return for nuclear disarmament. Ultimately, Kim Jong-il's power is likely to be maintained through a tug-of-war between the following options: dependence on Chinese capitalism or dependence on American and South Korean capitalism. The historical responsibility of destroying North Korean capitalism rests primarily with the North Korean working class, but it depends on the unity of the working class in East Asia (including the unity of the North and South Korean working classes) and the revolutionary struggle of the world working class.

Oh Sei-chull
Internationalist Communist Perspective (ICP)
October 2012

Translator's Notes:

(1) The Workers' Party of North Korea was founded in August 1946 from the merger of the northern branch of the Communist Party of Korea and the New People's Party of Korea. In June 1949 it further merged with the Workers' Party of South Korea, forming the Workers' Party of Korea which remains the ruling party of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to this day.

(2) Chosŏn, or Joseon, refers to the historical kingdom of Korea (1392-1897). North Korea, which calls itself Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk, harkens back to it.

(3) According to official North Korean history, the Down-with-Imperialism Union was a leading organisation in the fight against Japanese rule founded by Kim Il-sung (who would have been 14 at the time). The existence of such an organisation has been historically questioned.

(4) Following the Second World War, the Southern half of the Korean Peninsula was occupied by the USA, and the Northern by the Soviet Union. At the same time various "people's committees" sprang up all across Korea. In the South, these were dissolved to make way for the First Republic of Korea. In the North, the Soviet Civil Administration attempted to assimilate them. For this purpose an interim government called the Provisional People's Committee of North Korea was founded in February 1946, which also nationalised key industries and introduced land reform.

(5) Chaebols were family-controlled corporate groups.

(6) The “First Chollima Movement” was a North Korean Stakhanovite movement intended to boost production in the 1950s. Kanggye is the provincial capital of Chagang where construction of power stations and factories continued despite the 1998 famine. Kim Jong-il toured these facilities and encouraged the whole nation to emulate the "Kanggye spirit."

(7) The state-management organ of the North Korean government.

(8) Jangmadang markets, where farmers sell off their surplus of goods, were initially part of the large informal economy of North Korea, but have become increasingly tolerated by the regime.

Thursday, September 15, 2022