Ideology generally is one of the main characteristics which typify an established regime. As Max Weber noted, power needs to justify itself, and an ideology – religious legitimacy, socialism, Arabism, and so on –is what is necessary for a regime to support its hold on power. Precisely, ideology provides a way of understanding the world and a model for future action.
In the North Korean case, we have a dominant ideology, and some other distinct elements which strongly characterize the regime and reinforce it.
The official ideology in North Korea is “Juche”. This is a term which literally means “self-reliance”, and it implies an active subject who turns against its submission to destiny, thereby becoming the architect of its own history.
If we expand the meaning of this assumption and we apply it to the North Korean national case, we can easily realize that the “active subject” at issue is the North Korean people, that went through foreign domination, external influence and submission during their history.
The experience of the past foreign domination and of the actual division from South Korea deeply influenced the North Korean mentality, and these two elements contributed to the development of a sense of “wounded ultranationalism”. This made the Pyongyang regime literally obsessed with evidencing the bad-treatment suffered by its people, and it further strengthened the appeal of “Juche”, since it was considered as the suitable basis from which to start to claim a nationalist North Korean identity.
The term Juche appeared for the first time in a speech held by Kim Il-Sung in 1955. In it, the leader was concerned to expose the deficiencies of all those Korean communists who had subordinated their strategy and tactics to a foreign (that is, Soviet or Chinese) revolution rather than pay attention to the concrete conditions of Korea [J. Cotton, 1988].
Differently from them, the guerrilla bodies led by Kim Il-Sung, obtained some victories against Japan during the period of domination and, most important of all, they were independent from any external influence and they took an oath of allegiance just towards the Korean cause. On this basis, their work style should have been taken as the model for the whole party and for the Korean revolution.
Of course, we should not forget the “opportunistic” nature of such a speech and the clever omission of the fact that the Korean guerrilla bodies were helped by the Soviets and China in the occasion of their struggle against Japanese domination, but the heart of the matter is evident: for its realization, Juche requires a number of active subjects faithful towards the Korean cause (nowadays, the North Korean cause), who should be led against their enemies by a great protector (that is, Kim Il-Sung and his heirs). And it is in this light that the dictatorship of the Kim dynasty has acquired its legitimacy.
“Juche” should be carried out through the realization of three pillars: chaju, charip, and chawi. The first term states for political independence and self-government. The second refers to economic independence, or autarky. The third term describes a foreign policy based on an independent policy making and complete equality among nations.
The leader is tasked to comply with these three objectives, and its success depends on its achievements in this sense.
But all these three objectives result difficult to be realized in the North Korean case, in particular as things stand at present.
There are some other elements which provide a strong characterization to the North Korean regime; in detail, the continuous mobilization of the masses, a triumphal survivalism and the cult for the past and for the characters connected to it, are three substrates of the dictatorship which we should not leave out.
Concerning the first mentioned element, namely the continuous mobilization of the masses, it basically is a feature not unique to Korean communism, but it is peculiar in its dimension; indeed, according to Scalapino and Lee, no other regime has placed so much emphasis on the politics of mass-mobilization as North Korea. Besides, people are indoctrinated from an early age.
On the other hand, triumphal survivalism is an element more unique to Korean regime, and it acquires its basis on the fact that the dictatorship has succeeded in triumphing against all kind of enemies (Japanese domination at first, then the Korean war and now the American menace), and it will continue to do so. It has succeeded in preserving its independence, and this is a key factor for its legitimacy. A key instrument for ensuring the safety and independence of the country is the army, hence a strong emphasis is posed on the military dimension.
The last element, that is the cult for the past, derives from the attitudes formed out of the guerrilla experience, which continues to influence the North Korean mentality still nowadays. The glorious events connected to it, made the regime fond of the protagonist(s) of the guerrilla, in particular Kim Il-Sung, who has been depicted by the propaganda as the real hero of North Korean history. This fact contributed to the elaboration of the ancestor cult.
DPRK’s regime is focused on the reverence for and obedience to elders and superiors, and on a mythicization of the past. The peak of this mentality is embodied by the complete awe towards the Founding Father, Kim Il-Sung.
This last influence is evident in the continuous references to the glorious past events of the regime and, more superficially, on the physical appearance of Kim Jong-Un; indeed, it is said that he gained weight, he cut his hair and started to wear glassesin order tolook as similar as possible to the Founding Father.
If we analyze the events which are currently involving North Korea, we can see the measure in which the ideology and concrete facts are intertwined: the regime continues to persist thanks to the “doctrines” which inspired it, by exploiting the guidelines set to carry out action; but such a strict connection between facts and ideology strongly affects its way of existing and of keeping the power.