Do North Koreans Actually Believe in the Official North Korean Ideology?

More and more news reports and human rights organizations these days assert that more and more North Koreans are having doubts about the Juche ideology. (Juche is North Korea’s official belief system that is also sometimes referred to in the West as Kim Il Sung-ism, since the Juche ideology centers around the teaching of and about Kim Il Sung.) Are North Koreans losing the faith in the Kims?

It is worth noting that comparatively few Christian organizations make the claim that North Koreans are doubting Juche. The majority of claims come from secular organizations, typically ones whose work involves getting information into North Korea, i.e., balloon launchers, radio broadcasters, and those distributing Korean dramas and KPOP songs via DVD, USB, and SD card. Usually the claims from secular organizations go like this:

  • Our information is getting into North Korea.
  • Our information is changing the minds of people in North Korea.
  • We need more money to get more information into North Korea.
  • When people in North Korea have more information, North Korea will change.

It’s that third point that ought to prompt us to take a closer look at the claim. In other words, it’s not a disinterested claim. It’s a claim in support of a cause.

That doesn’t mean the claim is false, of course. We should always be looking for the most effective ways to do our work, and when we find ways that work, we should consider whether more of the same might yield an even bigger benefit. If outside information is the key to breaking the stronghold of Juche, then perhaps more outside information can crumble the castle completely.

As an organization that does balloons, radio, and distribution of DVD/USB/SD cards, clearly we at VOM Korea believe these are helpful tools. But as a Christian organization, we don’t make the claim that Juche is losing its grip on North Korea. Why?

Short answer: Because no matter what people may tell you, no amount of information can change the human heart.  

I completely and categorically reject the claim that distributing Korean dramas, KPOP songs, Western movies, and political news weakens North Korea’s Juche ideology. That such information awakens something inside a North Korean person is beyond dispute. The question is: What awakens?

Short answer: Desire. And not for anything good.

The case of the North Korean soldier who recently crossed the DMZ (nearly at the cost of his life) provides a helpful illustration. Floating in and out of consciousness, clinging to life amidst surgery after surgery, the soldier reportedly professed his desire for Choco Pies, KPop tunes, and American movies. A man risking his life for such things certainly shows that new desires have been awakened in him. Does it show, however, that the stronghold of Juche has been broken?

Short answer: No, it shows that Juche is confirmed.

Juche is not an ideology of self-denial and repudiation of desire. It is, in fact, an ideology of the supremacy of human desire. It is an ideology that claims that the key to the fulfillment of desire is absolute submission to the Kim family. If we submit to the Kim family, says the Juche ideology, then we will have a life of fulfilled desire that the South Korean running dogs can only dream of.

One only need follow Kim Jong Un on his inspection tours to see that Juche has plenty of room to embrace the most South Korean and American of desires. If you suggest that freedom is a South Korean and American desire that is not embraced by Juche, I will suggest to you that the freedom that South Koreans and Americans covet–freedom of choice–is exactly what Kim Jong Un embraces. Kim Jong Un is building bowling alleys, shopping centers, consumer electronics, and ski resorts. The message is clear: Stick with me and we’ll go places.

Consider also the small but growing number of North Koreans who are re-defecting back to North Korea, or trying to. People assume that re-defectors and re-defector wanna-be’s are either mentally ill, under pressure from North Korean spies or blackmailers, or otherwise in a state of such incapacity that they have to be stopped from doing the very thing they want to do: return to North Korea. But we can learn a lot from even a basic review of their claims, which go like this:

  • I was deceived into leaving North Korea because I was told life would be better in South Korea.
  • My life in South Korea is worse than my life in North Korea. Plus I miss my family.
  • Therefore, I would like to return to North Korea.

The second point makes us dismiss the claims out of hand. “How could any life in South Korea be worse than any life in North Korea?”, we sputter.

But that is only because we think in stereotypes. The truth is, life in South Korea is harder for some North Koreans. They actually did have better lives in North Korea, at least according to measurements like comparative material prosperity and time with family.

My point, however, is not to debate the sanity of their claims nor to suggest that re-defectors go on to peaceful and prosperous lives when they return to North Korea. My point is that we should be humbled by how little change information actually makes when it comes to breaking ideological strongholds. 

The belief that information breaks ideological strongholds is actually an ancient idea that the church declared to be a heresy: Gnosticism. The belief that strongholds are broken when people risk their lives for the chance at unfettered access to Choco Pies, KPop tunes, and American movies is also an ancient idea. It goes all the way back to Genesis 3. It is called sin. 

Sin is the state of seeking ultimate satisfaction in anything other than God. Juche declares that ultimate satisfaction–which is material satisfaction–can only be found in serving the Kim family. South Korea (and America, and other “free” countries, which are increasingly defining freedom as freedom of choice, rather than freedom to participate in the good, which is the classical definition of freedom) declares that ultimate satisfaction–which is also understood to be material satisfaction–can be found in Choco Pies, KPop tunes, and movies and dramas. The North and South Korean visions are not competing visions. These are two sides of the same coin, and they both exchange spiritual freedom for material slavery (and, more and more these days, slavery to exactly the same things). In both systems, we are slaves to our desires, and the only question is who presently can best satisfy them. (That word “presently” is key because, as the case of re-defectors demonstrates, allegiances readily shift depending upon whom we believe can supply the goods this year/month/moment.)

Juche is a difficult term to translate, and its meaning is notoriously shifty even in North Korean use. The North Korean government defines Juche like this:

The Juche idea means, in a nutshell, that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction.

The same could be said for the “idea” of life in South Korea or America. So-called “information wars”, where balloons, radio signals, and DVDs traverse the border, do not question Juche but rather question how Juche is best achieved–or, rather, who can best achieve it for you.

So the answer to the question “Do North Koreans actually believe in the official North Korean ideology?” is, at the most basic level: Yes. Even the ones who leave North Korea continue to believe. Their belief is what motivates them to leave.

In other words, just because North Koreans defect does not mean they have rejected Juche. As in the case of the North Korean soldier who recently risked his life to cross the border, it can be said that he defected from North Korea not because he rejected Juche but rather because he believed in it so passionately; the only thing that changed was his belief in who could help him achieve it.

All of this may sound like so much philosophy to you, but actually now we have arrived exactly at the point that I want to make, namely:

The sign that North Koreans have rejected Juche is not that they reject North Korea and head south for Choco Pies. The sign that North Koreans have rejected Juche is that they stay in North Korea rather than leaving it, but they stay as changed people.

This is why Christian organizations like Voice of the Martyrs Korea don’t equate defection with rejection of Juche. Most defectors we meet are still ardent Juche-ists. They still believe that life is exactly like the North Korean government says it is: an exercise in self as the master of the revolution. Defectors are simply exercising their “rights” as masters of the revolution to change sides, motivated by Choco Pies, KPop, and Korean drama. That is hardly praiseworthy, and it should certainly not be touted as either a great victory, a psychological transformation, a rejection of the essence of North Korean ideology, or a sign that regime change is imminent. This side-switching is easily reversed, as will become even more apparent in the future as re-defections continue to mount, as the chance for North Koreans to get rich in North Korea begins to exceed that same possibility in South Korea.

By contrast, when North Koreans become Christian, it is important to note that by and large, they reverse their plans to leave North Korea. They stay in the country, or they return to it if they were attempting to flee it. Perhaps stranger still, they pray for their leaders to experience the same transformation they have. They reject Juche precisely by accepting their leaders. 

“Yes, but I don’t think you understand my question,” you may be thinking. “I am asking whether North Koreans really believe what Kim Jong Un is saying, or whether they stay there simply because they believe they have no other choice.” To which I respond, “Yes, actually I understand the sense of your question. But I am seeking to drive you to a deeper one: Do you really think that those who leave North Korea do so because they don’t believe the Kim family? Or is it possible that they leave exactly because they do?

For most North Koreans, you can take the North Korean out of North Korea, but you can’t take the North Korea out of the North Korean. No amount of Choco Pies can accomplish that. Because it turns out both Kim Jong Un and South Korea promise a lifetime supply of Choco Pies; the only question is who you believe is better equipped to deliver on that promise. The rejection of Juche is not the rejection of the Kim family. It is the rejection of the belief that any government or leader or political system can save you or make your life worth living; only God can do that. Once God does that, well, you find that you are designed to bloom exactly where you are planted.

This is the meaning of the verse of scripture from the Apostle Paul that has troubled so many, 1 Corinthians 7:20 (BSB):

Each one should remain in the situation he was in when he was called.

Or, even more controversially, as he says in 1 Corinthians 7:21 (NIV), ” Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you.” It’s just not, assures Paul, the essential issue. The essential issue is whether we are willing to belong to the Lord wherever he calls us.

And that is not revealed by what we say, or what we think, or what we know, or what we say about what we think we know. Rather, it is determined solely by the orientation of our heart. One cannot reject Juche by exchanging Kim Jong Un for Choco Pies. One can only reject Juche by rejecting every expression of human mastery and instead becoming, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:22, Christ’s slave, which makes us the servant of all for Christ’s sake. That doesn’t happen–it cannot happen–through information wars, balloons, radio broadcasts, or USBs. It can happen only through the word of God.

The ultimate question, then, is not whether North Koreans believe in Juche, but, dear friend, whether you do.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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