North Korea, Juche and “sacred war”

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

Okay, I am now clear that the correct translation of the Korean phrase that has sometimes been rendered “holy war” in recent news reports is in fact “sacred war”.

I’d been wondering just what an atheist state was doing threatening “holy” or “sacred” war…


Juche is the state philosophy of North Korea, and is considered to be the 10th largest religion in the world by the portal, ranking above Judaism, Baha’i, Jainism and Shinto. It developed out of Marxist-Leninism and has more recently incorporated Confucian elements.

Sunny Lee, writing in a 2007 article in Asia Times titled God forbid, religion in North Korea?, quotes Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, as saying “There is a deification and a religious emotional element [in juche] in the North. The twinned photos of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are everywhere. Every speech says Kim Il-sung is still alive. I think if I stayed another two weeks, I might even see Kim Il-sung. The country worships someone who is deceased, as if he were alive.”

One Christian site goes so far as to call Juche a “counterfeit Christianity:

Recognizing the power of Christianity, Kim wanted it to be directed at himself. So he took Christianity, removed God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, set up himself, his wife and son as the new trinity, and called it Juche. At its core, Juche is a counterfeit Christianity that is deathly afraid of true version, and rightfully so.

I suppose a close comparison here would be with the cult which Robert Jay Lifton described in Revolutionary immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese cultural revolution.


In On Juche in Our Revolution, vol II (published in English, 1977), Kim Il Sung writes:

No military threat of the US imperialists, however, can frighten the Korean people. If, in the end, the US Imperialists and their stooges unleash a new war against the DPRK, in defiance of our people’s patient efforts to prevent a war and maintain peace and the unanimous condemnation of the peace-loving people of the world, the Korean people will rise as one in a sacred war to safeguard their beloved country and the revolutionary gains. They will completely annihilate the aggressors.

So the “sacred war” phrasing has been around for a while.

I hope to learn more — these in the meantime are some clues to be going on with…

8 thoughts on “North Korea, Juche and “sacred war””

  1. North Korea has not compensated for the loss of the economic, political, and ideological pillars on which it had previously relied. Its former major allies, Russia and China, have turned away from the social and economic systems that North Korea espouses, though the PRC continues to provide economic support in the form of food and fuel to prevent a North Korean economic collapse. The juche philosophy of self-reliance has been eroded by a permanent dependency on the outside world for roughly a quarter of its food. The country had to shelve its strategic ambitions of reuniting the Peninsula on its terms and is reduced to making desperate and dangerous tactical displays of military power to threaten its neighbors.

  2. One of the defining attributes of religion is that it provides an entire cosmology. Religions provide an all encompassing world model that ties the actions of individuals to the creation and destiny of the entire universe.

    A totalitarian ideology, in order to be “total”, will eventually have to provide its own cosmology. The ideology will eventually claim to describe everything of any day-to-day importance. Questioning the ideology becomes questioning reality itself. Nor does it take long for real-life figures associated with the ideology to be seen as larger than life and to acquire an aura of infallibility. At that point, the ideology begins to function as a religion.

  3. Marxism is a judeo-christian Heresy with strong elements of the type of gnostic mystery cults that were prevalent in the ancient world, and which posed an early threat to orthodox Christianity.

    One of the obvious results is the continuous formation of personality cults in totalitarian states, and the rapid formation of party elites who quickly begin managing the enterprise for their own benefit. One of marx’s many failings was his inability to foresee the formation of “leader cults” built around the infalliable dictators who assumed control of the state and party, at least while they were alive.

    Collectivism in all it’s forms demands constant sacrifice in the present for the coming utopia of the future. It requires an extremely powerful religious element in it’s doctrines and psychological appeals in order to motivate the faithful.

    If a person attempts to understand collectivist ideology and society without realizing it’s essential religiosity, it is a mysterious and incomprehensible phenomenon. Once the faith-based aspect of it’s nature is grasped, many of the elements that were formerly difficult to understand come into clearer focus.

    Collectivism is a mystery death cult. Once you grasp that, it’s excesses and irrational actions become decipherable.

  4. Not only do mass movements often have a quasi-religious dimension — I think it can get a great deal more specific than that, and that the keenest interest is in the sharpest details.

    Following Norman Cohn, I think that both Nazism and Marxist-Leninism show traces of the apocalyptic strand in western religion — both Hitler’s idea of the Third (supposedly thousand-year) Reich and Engels’ concept of the withering away of the State stemming from the ideas of Joachim of Fiore.

  5. It’s deeper than any one school of thought. The common history of mankind is living in a social setting in which almost all everyday beliefs are dictated, whether by tradition, fiat, or decree.

    Just as there were once thousands of dialects which have become extinct over the millenia, so too were there thousands of tribal or clan religious vatiations, and everyone was expected to believe what the leadership group proclaimed to be the truth.

    The resilience of collectivist doctrines in the face of repeated, and catastrophic, failures and collapses is the resilience of faith, not the perserverence of “scientific materialism”, or some other nonsense phrase. Marx talked about the “opiate of the masses” because, in his social history, everything was held of the king, even the deepest religious beliefs. If the ruler converted, so did all his subjects. Anyone who didn’t was a traitor.

    Theocracy is the norm in human culture, respect for individual conscience is the rarity. The intensity of belief, and the demand by those in power in NK that doubts be abolished, would be as familiar to past cultures as the sun and the moon in the day or night sky.

    The truly revolutionary nature of the experiment with individual liberties and freedom of conscience is reflected by the fact that so many people in our society just can’t quite get what these totalitarian structures are all about, and why don’t the people just throw them over.

    We’re used to dealing with alternatives. Totalitarian collectivism doesn’t allow any choices except conformity or death.

  6. The current NoKo regime was imposed on the country by Russia and China following WWII. Juche is just a riff run by the government that it intends to serve as a relio-political theory for the masses, i.e. the people who are not part of the tiny governing elite. We have no idea if the people of NoKo believe a word of it or care about it at all. The null hypothesis is that they will make enough outward signs of conformity to avoid getting in trouble, while inwardly being consumed by cynicism and nihilism.

    “I am now clear that the correct translation of the Korean phrase that has sometimes been rendered “holy war” in recent news reports is in fact “sacred war”.”

    Is there a meaningful distinction there?

  7. Hi Robert:

    I think that in discussions like this, it is useful to know the meaning that speakers would themselves attribute to to their words, the meanings that would hope their “home” audience would take from them,and the meanings their “enemies” might take from them.

    Various sectors of the American public will react, in some measure, differently to the words “holy” and “sacred” — holiness most likely involving some degree of setting apart by the supreme being, the sacred being a category we humans can invoke, or that is perhaps felt. Thus for many Americans, the flag may be sacred but the gospels are holy.

    In the case of North Korea, however, a word that I don’t know is being used in a language I do not speak, and various translators, some with (English language) papers to sell and others with an ideology (Juche) to present, have used the words “holy” and “sacred” to translate that word…

    So the most significant difference as I see it is between what the words “holy war” conjure in those who have heard the phrase used frequently and recently to describe Islamist terrorism, and what the people of NK will take the word used in their own language to mean.

    Which in turn may be capable of triggering the kind of blind, self-sacrificing obedience that we associate with those swept up in religious or quasi-religious raptures — or just sound like more of the same-old, same-old propaganda, so that the word variously translated “holy” or “sacred” becomes a phatic convenience, a metaphor worn to dust.

    I’m leaning towards the notion that there’s little here that’s close enough to what I understand by “holy” as to warrant the special attention I apply to (eg) the Mahdist current in Iran, Iraq and elsewhere.

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