COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — We all know North Korea’s Kim Jong Il is a happenin’ dude. He’s got the nukes. He’s got the hair. He’s got a basketball signed by Michael Jordan.
And he’s got his very own worshippers, too.
The North Korean state-sanctioned philosophy of Juche is the 10th-largest religion in the world with 19 million adherents, according to Adherents.com, a Web site that tracks world religions.
Not bad for a religion that isn’t even considered a religion by its followers.
If you told a loyal North Korean that Juche (pronounced “JOOCH-ay”) is a religion, he might punch you in your shamelessly heretical mouth.
“Juche,” he might say, “is definitely NOT a religion: We’re atheists, for heaven’s sake.”
And then he might tell you how Comrade Kim Il Sung, Juche’s founder and Kim Jong Il’s dad, is laid to rest within the Sacred Temple of Juche, near signs that read “The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung will always be with us!”
If religion is a duck, says Tom Belke, author of “Juche: A Christian Study of North Korea’s State Religion,” Juche quacks big time. In an attempt to run away from religion, North Korea has run smack dab into it. “They have their holy sites, they have their ceremonies, they have their own exclusive belief system,” Belke said. “It’s something that demands one’s all.”
Now, with Kim Jong Il in the news for agreeing to dismantle his weapons program, you might want to know more about North Korea’s real prime mover — the religion/philosophy/personality cult that forms the backbone of the nation’s beliefs.
Without further adieu, here are the answers to some questions about Juche.
Q: What the heck is Juche?
A: The word “Juche” means “self-reliance.” Or, as Juche’s founder Kim Il Sung described it, “the independent stance of rejecting dependence on others and of using one’s own powers, believing in one’s own strength and displaying the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance.”
Moreover, Juche is North Korea’s mandatory philosophy, embodying loyalty, determination, devotion to state and whatever else Kim Jong Il wants it to stand for. James Church, a former Western intelligence expert now writing North Korean-based novels under an assumed name, describes Juche as a flexible tool that North Korean leaders can mold to fit their ideological needs at the moment.
“Juche is, from my vantage point, very pragmatic in one sense,” said Church, author of the North Korean detective story “A Corpse in the Koryo.” “It was not ideologically laden with Marxism or Leninism or anything else. To that sense, it was almost value free.”
Q: When did it start?
A: Kim Il Sung created Juche in 1955, shortly after the Korean War. Church said it was an effort to ideologically buffer North Korea from its pushy neighbors.
“During those years, there was a huge [philosophical] struggle between the U.S.S.R. and China,” Church said. “What they [North Koreans] needed to do was carve out a philosophical niche, which gave them sort of a protective bubble.”
Juche was North Korea’s way of saying, “Hey, we like you guys, but we don’t have enough in common for you to take us over, OK?”
Q: Is it a religion?
A: Depends on whom you ask.
“Juche is not a religion,” said Hae Won Suh, a pastor from South Korea who heads the Korean Baptist Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It is mind control.”
There is no god in Juche. There is no heaven or hell. But John Lennon’s “Imagine,” it’s not.
In place of a god, Juche substitutes Kim Il Sung, who’s called North Korea’s “Eternal President” despite kicking the bucket in 1994. Forget Christmas and Easter: North Koreans take off work for Sung’s birthday and the day of his death.
In 1979, journalist Bradley Martin visited North Korea and uncovered stories that attributed supernatural powers to Sung, including making bullets out of pinecones and walking on water. According to Belke, North Koreans must physically bow before a 90-foot-high statue of Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, if they’re in the neighborhood.
Kim Jong Il honored his dead pappy by resetting the North Korean calendar to coincide with his dad’s birth year: Instead of A.D. 2007, North Koreans are in Juche 96.
“In a country like this, a leader really does occupy an almost unbelievably important place in the psychic universe of the individual,” Church said. “For much of the population, he [Sung] was the only leader they knew and heard about. Not unnaturally, they began to believe he was really the core of their existence.”
Q: So if Kim Il Sung is some sort of North Korean savior, does that make Kim Jong Il the son of a god?
A: Kim Jong Il’s no slouch on the divine scale. He’s referred to as North Korea’s “Dear Leader” (in contrast to Sung’s moniker as “Great Leader”), and the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state-run news outlet, routinely runs stories praising Jong’s brilliance in all areas — from politics to poetry.
In September, the KCNA said old fruit trees were blooming out of season in anticipation of Kim Jong Il being selected for another national post.
“On the morning of September 22, fishermen of the fishery station in Rajin-Sonbong city caught a 10 cm-long white sea cucumber while fishing on the waters off Chongjin,” the release went on. “They said the rare white sea-cucumber has come to hail the auspicious event of electing Secretary Kim Jong Il as Party General Secretary.”
And let’s not forget Kim Jong Il’s legendary skill as a golfer. His first time out, the leader allegedly scored five holes in one and finished 38 under par.
Q: So if Kim Jong Il and Juche are all that, why hasn’t Juche spread?
A: North Koreans don’t get out much. Most are forbidden from traveling abroad, which actually gets right back to the heart of Juche: Why leave the country when you have everything you need right here?
“They don’t have any freedom there, especially human rights,” said Hae Won Suh.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called North Korea the most censored country in the world. It’s said even Kim Jong Il must surf the Internet through Chinese connections. Church also says that North Koreans may be less apt to “evangelize” these days. For the past five or six years, he says he’s seen a dip in people gushing over the philosophy. And frankly, he wonders whether most North Koreans were ever that passionate about Juche. “In one sense, it’s been overrated in its effect and philosophical breadth,” he said.
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