Juche: The religion reporter's way into the North Korea-U.S. nuclear summit story


OK, so I’m booking political fantasy bets on whether President Donald Trump will actually have a monumental sit down with North Korea’s equally uniquely coiffed supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

Not because I’m a gambling man, mind you, but because I’m a journalist in need of a lede graph to get rolling here, and that’s what came to mind. Forgive me, but that’s how I work this craft.

Now let’s get serious.

Despite the lower-level North Korea-United States talks in Helsinki this week, a Kim-Trump nuclear summit still feels like a long shot to me.

But if they do actually meet what might religion scribes contribute to the story beyond the standard pieces noting how Korean-American Christian missionaries and other idealistic Westerners occasionally get arrested in North Korea?

Well, you could write about how the officially atheist state actually has what some scholars identify as, sociologically speaking, a homegrown quasi-religion.

I’m speaking about Juche, North Korea’s official governing philosophy.

It's not that Juche hasn't been written about by news organization before. It has, but only rarely. For some reason, editors (and  the public, too) seem to care more about those potentially deadly nuclear threats that both sides toss about every so often.

Rather than my explaining Juche’s architecture, please take a moment to read this Huffington Post piece from last year.

Or read this explainer from The Economist. The hed and sub-hed nicely sum up Juche’s intertwined philosophical, religious (again, speaking sociological) and political nature. Like this:

Just one more religion?
The madness of political ideology in North Korea poses questions about the concept of faith

Here at GetReligion, we have also written about Juche --  which is to say that in 2016 I posted this on the subject.

The angle seems more relevant to understanding North Korea today than when I posted the piece, thanks to the possibility of a Trump-Kim conversation. That post -- as with this post -- sought not to argue whether or not Juche should properly be considered a religion.

My point was, and is, simply that here’s an angle that allows religion journalists to contribute to what the global news media will likely cover solely in military and political terms.

Here’s some of what I wrote two years ago.

As for the existence of religion in North Korea itself, the default position for most journalists, including those on the religion beat, is that the nation formally (and oxymoronically) known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is officially atheist. On occasion, a more knowledgeable reporter may note that its official philosophy is known in Korean as Juche.
This recent New York Times piece does just that. Here's the pertinent sentence: "Juche, or self-reliance, is the North’s governing ideology."
Well, yes. But there's so much more that can be said. Including that some who study the sociology of religion consider Juche -- as politicized and seemingly secular as it is -- a "religious" ideology. Which means there's a "religion ghost," or unrecognized religion angle, hidden in some stories about how the North's oppressed population endures.
Think of Juche as an all-encompassing worldview that helps isolated North Koreans, who know virtually nothing of the larger world, rationalize the deplorably harsh conditions they are forced to survive by a ruthless regime currently headed by Kim Jong-un, the third member of his paternal line to rule their unfortunate homeland. (He was preceded by his grandfather Kim Il-sung and his father Kim Jong-il.)
Or, think of North Korea as a case in which an imposed state philosophy amounts to a real case of "religion" serving as an opiate for the masses, wording made appropriate by the fact that Juche was derived from Marxist-Leninist thinking.
Those who count Juche as a religion maintain that it has more adherents -- coerced as they may be -- than do global Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism or Zoroastrianism.

For those of you still skeptical of Juche’s sociological comparisons to “real” religion, or feel that writing about Juche in a religious context somehow belittles “true” religions, I also said the following.

There's a lot to unpack here, and I admit to wondering whether the parsing of Juche's shadow religious nature is just an excess of academic gaming.
But then there's this unabashedly Christian website that focuses on North Korea -- and which I would have thought would dismiss outright any connection between Juche and "true" religion.
Instead, NorthKoreanChristians.com calls Juche "a full-fledged religion."
Let's be clear. The North Korean regime's utter ruthlessness is the reason it remains entrenched, not because Juche acts as a balm. I can't image that North Koreans are a happy lot because they follow Juche.
That Juche is entirely irrational to us is meaningless. The bottom line for journalists is to remember how important the need to discern meaning [from] experiences is to human survival -- no matter how convoluted that meaning may seem to outsiders.
In short, faith -- religion -- may be said to come in as many forms as there are Hindu deities, including the manipulative and repressive. Witness the most reported upon example around today -- the twisted form of Islam that the leaders of the Islamic State insists is the only true Islam.

Bottom line: Juche could be a religion journalist’s way into what may end up being the biggest story of the year. Though about the latter part of the previous sentence -- at this point I’d wager the meeting is not even close to being a safe bet.

Please respect our Commenting Policy