Juche, loosely translated, means “self reliance”. North Korea has used this concept as a central tenant of its government for about 40 years. The specific meaning and application of the slogan has changed, but the core value hasn’t. In its modern history, North Korea has relied on larger states to support it with aid and political legitimacy. That dependance may seem to contradict the idea of “Self Reliance” but it is consistent within the closed loop of political thought inside North Korea. In order to maintain relationships with both China and the USSR, North Korea had to develop a new form of socialism that was compatible with both. Juche shares some components with traditional socialism and the versions practiced in China and the USSR. The defining difference is the cult of personality that has grown around the Kim family. The Soviet Union and China both use leader deification as a part of their societies, but not to the extent that it’s used in North Korea. Stalin and Mao were both icons of socialism in the Soviet Union and China, and developed state sponsored personality cults. North Korea builds on those two examples, but places the Kims at the center of the state instead of using them as secular saints in the larger cause of Socialism. This has created a country that relies on specific individuals to maintain the state instead of a larger ideal or “revolution”.
When Stalin died in 1953, the Soviet Union entered a period of turmoil, but the state itself remained. The focus of Soviet style socialism was to maintain the October revolution, not serve the dictator. This allowed a measure of continuity that was independent of the country’s leaders. North Korea’s tradition is a little different than the Soviet or Chinese model. The central belief in North Korea is that Kim Il Sung is the founder and foundation of the state. Even today, Kim Jong Il is not the spiritual leader of the country. Kim Il Sung is still called President for Life, 17 years after his death. The state philosophy has expanded to include Kim Jong Il and his Kim Jong Un as a matter of necessity rather than part of the country’s narrative. This has created a hereditary system in North Korea that is fairly unique in the Communist world. Self reliance, Juche, incorporates the North Korean people into a single body politic that is represented by Kim Il Sung and his descendants. Louis XIV claimed that the king represented the entire body of the nation and was responsible for all aspects of it’s success or failure. The Kims embody the Juche principle in a similar way. The system they’ve created in North Korea relies on the mythos of the Kim family and their “miraculous” deeds in protecting the country from outside threats.
Juche needs an enemy to remain effective. Self reliance loses it’s power if there is no external threat to focus the country’s attention on. It’s not the same balance that the the superpowers maintained in the cold war. Instead of pitting two philosophies against each other to compete for global influence, North Korea sets itself against the world to maintain internal stability. An information vacuum is central to that stability. North Korean citizens believe that they enjoy the highest standard of living in the industrialized world. Even a small glimpse of the outside world would destroy that misconception, and destabilize the entire state. Without an external enemy, there’s no rationale to maintain internal secrecy. Likewise, without the internal secrecy, there’s no rationale to focus on an external enemy. The adversary has to be both faceless and real. North Korea has entered the information age in a limited way, so there has to be some kernel of truth in all the propaganda they produce. An imaginary enemy would be easier to create, but harder to maintain. The volume of information available outside North Korea allows them to pick and choose which stories fit the narrative they want to create. Even though North Korean televisions and radios receive a limited number of stations, there still has to be a consistent stream of content to satisfy both the state narrative and domestic expectations.
Overall, it requires a lot of effort to maintain the Juche idea. North Korea has had to extend self reliance to include the military (Songun) in order to maintain domestic stability as well as act as an external deterrent. This military emphasis creates a new power base outside the Kim cult of personality. In many dictatorships, empowering the military leads to instability. In the case of North Korea, that instability is more subtle. Since the populace strongly associates their national identity with Kim Il Sung, a revolution isn’t likely to take the form of a coup that topples one of his descendants. Instead, Kim Jong Un will most likely assume power once Kim Jong Il dies. Whether he wields that power in more than just name will depend on the military.