Kimilsungism — defined as the ideology and system of power instituted by Kim II Sung, the founder and long-time leader of North Korea — is regarded as the civil religion of North Korea Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Originally articulated by Kim Il-sung to assert North Korea's neutrality, or independence, during the years of the Sino-Soviet split,” Kimilsungism and “devotion to the juch'e idea today is the principle that underlies North Korea's reluctance to open its doors to foreign influences. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The central element of North Korea's political philosopy, Kimilsungism is a belief system that glorifies the legacy of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and organizes the loyalty of the Korean Workers Party and the North Korean population in support of the government and its decisions and policies. Kimilsungism justifies the succession of Kim's son Kim Jong-il to national leadership and the transfer of the loyalties reserved for the elder Kim to his son and heavily discourages dissent and opposition. Supported in art and literature and with icons such as statues and portraits of Kim Il-sung across the country, Kimilsungism in many ways resembles a religious cult.”

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Since 1948 Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Cheondogyo have declined in North Korea and have largely been replaced by the official state ideology of Juche (Self-Reliance). The Communist government of North Korea strictly controls any religious activity outside of Juche. Though there are still a few Christians, Buddhists, and followers of Cheondogyo in North Korea, they are far outnumbered by believers in Juche, a political philosophy with religious overtones promoted by the Communist government of the north. The exact percentage of the North Korean population that believes in Juche is unclear. Close to 20 percent of the population are members of the Korea Worker's Party, which is open only to believers in Juche. Because the government heavily promotes Juche in schools and the media, outside observers assume that more than half of nonparty members may believe in Juche as well.” [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006. Baker was a professor in Korean History and Civilization at the University of British Columbia]

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: “Although other Communist countries restrict freedom of religion or belief—even if they pretend to protect it constitutionally— the North Korean regime stands apart for its state-generated ideology known as Juche. Through this dogmatic stranglehold over society, the regime engenders cult-like devotion to and deification of current leader Kim Jong-un, just as it did for Kim’s father and grandfather before him. This forced loyalty leaves no room for the expression or practice of individualized thought, nor for freedom of religion or belief, which in practice does not exist. Those who follow a religion or other form of belief do so at great risk and typically in secret, at times even keeping their faith hidden from their own families. The most recent estimate puts North Korea’s total population at more than 25 million. [Source: United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, International Religious Freedom Report North Korea 2017]


▪“Juche”, a concept based on self sufficiency that would provide the framework for North Korea's isolation, was the cornerstone of Kim Il Sung’s political philosophy. The idea behind juche was that North Korea would build everything itself and do it bigger and better than anybody else. Over time juche replaced Marxist-Leninism as the state ideology. Marxism and Leninism after all were foreign ideas and the premise of Juche was self-reliance. By contrast Eastern European Communist governments relied on Soviet troops to prop them up and for a while North Korea did too.. Now it can be argued that North Korea is an anti-juche society dependent on outsiders for food and oil.

"Juche" means "holding fast to the principle of solving for oneself all the problems of the revolution and construction of one's own efforts." This was to be accomplished, he added, while "applying the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism." Much of reams of prose that has been written about juche is incomprehensible. Bruce Cumings, an expert of North Korea. wrote: “The term is really untranslatable, the closer one gets to its meaning, the more the meaning slips away. For a foreigner its meaning recedes into a pool of everything that makes Koreans Korean and therefore is ultimately inaccessible to the non-Korean.”

Juche also is referred to as "the unitary ideology" or as "the monolithic ideology of the Party." It is inseparable from and, for all intents and purposes, synonymous with Kim Il Sung's leadership and was said to have been "created" or "fathered" by the great leader as an original "encyclopedic thought which provides a complete answer to any question that arises in the struggle for national liberation and class emancipation, in the building of socialism and communism." Juche is viewed as the embodiment of revealed truth attesting to the wisdom of Kim's leadership as exemplified in countless speeches and "on-the-spot guidance." [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

According to Kim, juche means "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." Juche is an ideology geared to address North Korea's contemporary goals — an independent foreign policy, a self-sufficient economy, and a self-reliant defense posture. Kim Il Sung's enunciation of juche in 1955 was aimed at developing a monolithic and effective system of authority under his exclusive leadership. The invocation of juche was a psychological tool with which to stigmatize the foreign-oriented dissenters and remove them from the center of power. Targeted for elimination were groups of pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese anti-Kim dissenters.

Juche is instrumental in providing a consistent and unifying framework for commitment and action in the North Korean political arena. It offers an underpinning for the party's incessant demand for spartan austerity, sacrifice, discipline, and dedication. Since the mid-1970s, however, it appears that juche has become glorified as an end in itself.

Early History of Juche

Juche was proclaimed in December 1955, when Kim Il Sung underlined the critical need for a Korea-centered revolution rather than one designed to benefit, in his words, "another country." Juche is designed to inspire national pride and identity and mold national consciousness into a potentially powerful focus for internal solidarity centered on Kim and the KWP. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Kim Il Sung first used the term juche (self-reliance) in a formal speech in 1955. Initially he used the term to indicate that North Korea was an independent Communist country and would let neither China nor Russia control it. By 1965, however, Kim Il Sung was presenting Juche as a new ideology, a product of his uniquely Korean genius that superseded the traditional Marxism-Leninism that had been the official ideology of North Korea. The constitution of North Korea was revised in 1972 to show that Juche was now "the guiding principle of its [the country's] actions." [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Juche did not become a prominent ideology overnight. During the first ten years of North Korea's existence, MarxismLeninism was accepted unquestioningly as the only source of doctrinal authority. Nationalism was toned down in deference to the country's connections to the Soviet Union and China. In the mid-1950s, however, juche was presented as a "creative" application of Marxism-Leninism. In his attempt to establish an interrelationship between Marxism-Leninism and juche, Kim contended that although Marxism-Leninism was valid as the fundamental law of revolution, it needed an authoritative interpreter to define a new set of practical ideological guidelines appropriate to the revolutionary environment in North Korea.

Kim's practical ideology was given a test of relevancy throughout the mid-1960s. In the late 1950s, Kim was able to mobilize internal support when he purged pro-Soviet and proChinese dissenters from party ranks. During the first half of the 1960s, Kim faced an even more formidable challenge when he had to weather a series of tense situations that had potentially adverse implications for North Korea's economic development and national security. Among these were a sharp decrease in aid from the Soviet Union and China; discord between the Soviet Union and China and its disquieting implications for North Korea's confrontation with the United States and South Korea; Pyongyang's disagreements with Moscow and apprehensions about the reliability of the Soviet Union as an ally; and the rise of an authoritarian regime in Seoul under former General Park Chung Hee (1961-79).

These developments emphasized the need for self-reliance — the need to rely on domestic resources, heighten vigilance against possible external challenges, and strengthen domestic political solidarity. Sacrifice, austerity, unity, and patriotism became dominant themes in the party's efforts to instill in the people the importance of juche and collective discipline. By the mid-1960s, however, North Korea could afford to relax somewhat; its strained relations with the Soviet Union had eased, as reflected in part by Moscow's decision to rush economic and military assistance to Pyongyang.

Beginning in mid-1965, juche was presented as the essence of Kim Il Sung's leadership and of party lines and policies for every conceivable revolutionary situation. Kim's past leadership record was put forward as the "guide and compass" for the present and future and as a source of strength sufficient to propel the faithful through any adversity. Nonetheless, the linkage of juche to MarxismLeninism remains a creed of the party. The April 1972 issue of K lloja (The Worker) still referred to the KWP as "a Marxist-Leninist Party"; the journal pointed out that "the only valid policy for Korean Communists is Marxism-Leninism" and called for "its creative application to our realities."

Since 1974 it has become increasingly evident, however, that the emphasis is on the glorification of juche as "the only scientific revolutionary thought representing our era of Juche and communist future and the most effective revolutionary theoretical structure that leads to the future of communist society along the surest shortcut." This new emphasis was based on the contention that a different historical era, with its unique sociopolitical circumstances, requires an appropriately unique revolutionary ideology. Accordingly, Marxism and Leninism were valid doctrines in their own times, but had outlived their usefulness in the era of juche, which prophesies the downfall of imperialism and the worldwide victory of socialism and communism.

Later History of Juche

As the years have passed, references to Marxism-Leninism in party literature have steadily decreased. By 1980 the terms Marxism and Leninism had all but disappeared from the pages of K lloja. An unsigned article in the March 1980 K lloja proclaimed, "Within the Party none but the leader Kim Il Sung's revolutionary thought, the juche ideology, prevails and there is no room for any hodgepodge thought contrary to it." The report Kim Il Sung presented to the Sixth Party Congress in October 1980 did not contain a single reference to Marxism-Leninism, in marked contrast to his report to the Fifth Party Congress in November 1970. In the 1980 report, Kim declared: "The whole party is rallied rock-firm around its Central Committee and knit together in ideology and purpose on the basis of the juche idea. The Party has no room for any other idea than the juche idea, and no force can ever break its unity and cohesion based on this idea."

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: ““In the 1970s and 1980s Kim Jong Il, the son and future heir of Kim Il Sung, began elaborating on the implications of a philosophy of self-reliance for understanding the place of humanity in the universe. Kim Jong Il explained that traditional Marxist materialism slights the unique position of human beings. Human beings, and only human beings, possess consciousness, creativity, and autonomy, giving them not only the power but also the duty to dominate everything else in the universe and remake the world to better fit human needs. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Kim also explained that Juche philosophy, which he began to call Kimilsungism, recognizes that human beings exist only within societies. Because social relationships define human existence, human beings will continue to exist even after their individual physical lives end, as long as their society continues to exist. Because Juche is an immortal philosophy, all those who hold fast to Juche philosophy and unite around a Juche-led organization under the guidance of a leader who embodies Juche will enjoy an eternal sociopolitical life.”

In his annual New Year's message on January 1, 1992, Kim Il Sung emphasized the invincibility of juche ideology: "I take great pride in and highly appreciate the fact that our people have overcome the ordeals of history and displayed to the full the heroic mettle of the revolutionary people and the indomitable spirit of juche Korea, firmly united behind the party . . . . No difficulty is insurmountable nor is any fortress impregnable for us when our party leads the people with the ever-victorious juche-oriented strategy and tactics and when all the people turn out as one under the party's leadership."

Emergence of Kimilsungism from Marxism, Confucianism and Japanese Ideology

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was born in 1948 as a Communist state backed by the ideas of Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin as adapted to the Korean environment by Marshal Kim Il-sung and his Soviet advisors. Adaptation to the Korean scene meant grafting Communist theory to the recent experience of the people in North Korea, which consisted of life under the Korean monarchy (until 1910) and then Japanese colonialism (until 1945). Since 1948, North Korea has drawn on this history and not on the history that is familiar to people in the West. When we think of the "lessons of history" we think about the ordeals of the industrial revolution, the evolution of political systems in the direction of freedom and democracy, and the difficult, often bloody, struggle against dictatorship. But North Korea's "lessons of history" are quite different. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“This is because since 1945, North Korea has been a very isolated country. Its leaders have traveled only rarely beyond their own borders. Information has always been tightly controlled, and people spend their entire lives without ever being exposed to the ideas that shaped the West or the "lessons" that have shaped the way Westerners, and even their neighbors in South Korea and Japan, think. Looking back on their own experience, their traditional "reference points" are the Confucian ethics that respect authority, foster loyalty and obedience, and put the community ahead of the individual. Their concepts of modernity were shaped under Japanese colonial rule. This is ironic, since the North Koreans profess to hate the Japanese for what they did to Korea between 1910 and 1945. However, the leaders who ruled North Korea from the 1940s until the 1990s all went to school under the Japanese, learned their childhood ethics in the Japanese system, and learned about politics under Imperial Japan, when the emperor was a god and his subjects were said to owe him everything. In the 1930s, Koreans, like all Japanese subjects, were trained to think of themselves as part of the Japanese "body" or kokutai. They were literally taught to think of themselves as the body's hands and feet, unable to exist apart from the body and only having a purpose as part of the body.

“To understand the political culture of North Korea it is useful to think about how North Koreans came to see the world after being liberated from Japan in 1945. As they still see it, the southern half of their country was occupied by the United States, which was building a military alliance with the new, postwar Japanese government to dominate all of Asia. They believe that the Americans turned the temporary division of Korea into a permanent split by creating a puppet government for South Korea under Syngman Rhee. When North Korea tried to reunite the peninsula by force as a last resort, the Americans organized an international effort to frustrate the reunification. In the North Koreans' view, the result was that 2 million Koreans died and the DPRK's cities and factories were bombed into rubble, but the Americans and their anti-Communist friends in South Korea succeeded in keeping the nation divided for more than half a century. After the war, North Korea had to rebuild from the ground up. The North Koreans were most fortunate to receive a great deal of help from China, the U.S.S.R., and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. But mostly it was the Koreans themselves who reconstructed their country with their own backbreaking labor. And as they worked, the North Koreans vowed never again to be hurt as they had been in the war and earlier, by foreign imperialism. Out of this bitter experience, Kim Il-sung invented a set of national ideas for North Korea that were to be taught, almost like a religion, to the people from childhood up. Many adults, of course, agreed with him and appreciated his leadership. Others, as class enemies, were silenced, purged, and sometimes even "liquidated," or murdered.

“However, by the late 1950s, the strong Confucian and antiforeign mind-set of the North Korean people had created a powerful community that was able to put itself back together and march grimly toward a better life. To understand North Korea it is also important to think about what the North Koreans didn’t experience. In their closed society they never experienced the postwar economic boom that created the rich material culture of the West. In their information-controlled society they never read the books or saw the movies or heard the music that shaped the contemporary Western world. Since few North Koreans learn foreign languages and few foreigners speak Korean, there was very little discussion or exchanging of ideas with anyone but the Chinese Communists and a few Russian advisors.

Kimilsungism, Juche, Ambitious Promises and the Succession of Kim Jong

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: Over time Koreans created a society and culture with a variant vocabulary, their own version of history, their own standards of right and wrong, and their own national goals. A good example of this is the fact that when Kim Il-sung grew old, he appointed his oldest son Kim Jong-il to succeed him as leader of the ruling political party in North Korea and tagged him to become president later on. Even the North Koreans' best friends, the Chinese, thought this bizarre, since Communists elect their leaders from within the party. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“To have Kim Il-sung act like a king and anoint his son crown prince was a violation of basic Communist (and modern) ideas. However, if one recalls that the North Koreans learned their lessons about politics from traditions that reach back to the Korean monarchy and the Japanese imperial system, it suddenly seems less strange. In the process of reaching for supreme power in North Korea, Kim IIsung had to defeat a number of rival Communist challengers. This struggle took many years, and during that time Kim gathered around him a tightly knit group of supporters and relatives who were committed to his success. As they protected him, they helped create a system in which loyalty to Kim Il-sung became the main qualification for advancement in government and business. For more than thirty years, the loyalty-to-Kim qualification remained in effect, leading to a system in the 1980s in which virtually everyone in any high position was there because of loyalty, first, and ability, second.

“To disguise this, the Kim group began with the idea oljuch'e ("Joo-chey"), which means "self-reliance." Kim Il-sung proclaimed Juch'e as a unique Korean formula for independence, not only from Japan, America, and the West, but also from the Soviet Union and China, which were challenging each other for leadership of the worldwide Communist movement at the time. Juch 'e means growing your own food, making your own tools and machines, and learning to do miraculous new things with what you already have. It also means having pride and not being jealous of others and other countries. North Koreans were ordered to study the Juch *e idea and to think of ways to put it into practice.

“Kim Il-sung's son Kim Jong-il began to write and teach about his father's Juch ye idea, and by the early 1980s he was making it part of a larger concept of what he called "Kimilsungism." Kimilsungism is the Great Leader's name run together, of course, but it is not so strange when one recalls that North Korea is full of things named Kim Il-sung, such as Kim Il-sung University. Kimilsungism is the reason for putting up huge statues of the Great Leader, for building great museums full of his possessions, for building palaces and mansions for him to visit, and, in short, for treating him like more than a human being, almost like a god. The reason is to glorify Kim Il-sung, of course, but it is also to give the North Korean people a figure on whom to pin their faith, almost in a religious sense. When times are hard, don't worry: Kim Il-sung is in charge. When failure looms, don't worry: Kim Il-sung will make it come out all right. Kim Il-sung was well aware of the burden that was put on him when he allowed himself to be spoken of as a god. In the late 1940s he once said that the goal of his regime in North Korea was to make it possible for his people to "wear silk clothes, eat meat every day, and live in houses with tiled roofs" (only aristocrats could afford tiled roofs in Korea under the monarchy).

“But progress was slow and in the early 1990s, just before he died, he once again said that North Korea was looking forward to the day when the people could "wear silk clothes, eat meat every day, and live in houses with tiled roofs." Saying that was an admission of failure, but it was also an admission of faith. At a time when the North Korean economy was shrinking following the collapse of Communism in Europe and North Koreans were being asked to cut back to two meals a day, he was telling his people to keep the faith. They should still believe in their own efforts and the ultimate triumph of the Juch'e idea. When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, his son Kim Jong-il was expected to take his place not only as head of the Party and commander of the army, but also as president of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In the West, certainly, a new leader would have emerged quickly because no one would have wanted the state to be without direction.

“In North Korea, however, Kim Jong-il stayed out of sight. He gave almost no public speeches and appeared very rarely. Though he kept his job as army commander, which his father had given him in 1991, he waited three years before taking his father's position as head of the Korean Workers Party and even after that the presidency remained vacant. In the West, people wondered if Kim Jong-il was sick or whether there was a power struggle going on. However, in North Korea there was a Confucian-style explanation. A proper son should mourn his father for three years, avoiding celebrations or any outright actions that call attention to himself and away from his dead parent. The explanation made sense only in terms of North Korea's special political culture. Many observers think that the best way to understand North Korea in general—as long as the present system continues there—is to think in terms of Kimilsungism.

Is Kim Il Sung Worship Supposed to Be a Substitute for Christianity?

"Kim Jong Il is above the country's law ... and in North Korea what he instructs is like Jesus Christ's words in the Bible," says Son Jung-hun, a human rights activist and devout Christian. since his brother's death.

Ed Pilkington wrote in The Guardian: For many North Koreans, “the only belief system to which he was exposed as a child was reverence, mixed with fear, for the Great Leader. When he was very young he was taught in kindergarten about the magical powers of Kim Il-sung, then supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Kim learned that the dictator was the smartest man in the world and that he was able to fly around the countryside keeping watch over all his children...The cult of the Great Leader left no room for Christianity, or any other organised religion. [Source: “Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America” by Joseph Kim, Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, October 18, 2015]

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Choi recalled the daily recitations of "Thank you, Father Kim Il Sung" required of children. But after studying with missionaries, she realized the extent to which "Kim Il Sung just replaced God's name with his own," she said. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2005]

“The North Korean regime is clearly worried about the corrosive effect of religion on its own ideology. A 2002 report by the ruling Workers' Party refers to Bibles along with "lewd and indecent material ... that the imperialists are sending to infiltrate our borders."Christianity is particularly threatening if only because it has been extensively plagiarized by North Korea's propaganda writers. For example, doctrine has it that Kim Jong Il's birth was heralded by a bright star in the sky, as in the story of Jesus' birth.

“North Korean defectors say that churches away from the capital were either destroyed or the buildings put to other uses, sometimes as movie theaters. To the extent that North Koreans know about religion at all, it is mostly through propaganda films that portray greedy, conniving missionaries trying to trick North Koreans.

Suzanne Scholte, the chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition and vice co-chair of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told The Christian Post: "Because the DPRK regime was set up so that North Koreans are raised to worship the Kims as their gods, there is nothing the regime fears more than the spread of Christianity.The knowledge of the one true God is the greatest threat to the regime." Scholte believes that North Korea's animosity toward Christianity came as a result of the fact that former supreme leader Kim Il-sung was raised a Christian and saw the power of the Christian faith in standing up to the Japanese occupation. "Kim set himself up as a god, perverting the holy trinity with Kim Jong-il as the Christ and juche as the Holy Spirit," Scholte explained. "North Koreans are taught from childhood to give prayers of thanks to their father, Kim Il-sung, to say a perverted version of the Apostles creed to their great leader, and to study their ideology in thousands of centers across North Korea." [Source: Samuel Smith, Christian Post, September 27, 2016]

Juche Beliefs

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: ““Though the leaders of North Korea have never claimed explicitly that Juche is a religion, it clearly has come to function as such in the lives of those who believe in it. Juche followers believe in the tenets of Juche with the same religious fervor as that displayed by followers of other religions, and they have the same expectation that their faith will be rewarded with immortality. Juche provides explanations of the meaning of life as comprehensive as those provided by other religions. Juche has commandments as obligatory and as wide-ranging as the moral codes of other religions. Juche has rituals that allow its followers to display respect for their founder with the same solemnity shown by followers of other religions when they worship their gods. And even though Juche denies the existence of gods, Juche writings have begun to refer to both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il with language that in other contexts would be interpreted as a reference to a supernatural being. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“The emphasis Juche ideology places on the leader's importance led to a growing apotheosis of Kim Il Sung from the 1970s onward. Already in 1967 he was being hailed as the father of the nation, and his mother was hailed as the mother of the Korean race. In 1972 a 20-meter high bronze statue of Kim was unveiled in Pyongyang; it has been a site for ritual displays of loyalty to Kim and his Juche philosophy ever since. Ten years later, in 1982, North Korea used more than 25,000 slabs of white granite to erect the Tower of the Juche Idea, which, at 170 meters, is slightly taller than the Washington Monument. Three years after Kim's death in 1994, the Tower of the Juche Idea was joined by a new granite tower, the Tower of Immortality, which proclaims, in golden letters stretching down its 92 meters, "The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung will always be with us." Also in 1997 North Koreans changed the way they name the years starting with the year Kim Il Sung was born. Under this new Juche calendar the year of Kim's birth, 1912, became Juche 1, and 1997 became Juche 86.

“After Kim Jong Il replaced his father as the actual head of the North Korean government (though the North Korean constitution states that Kim Il Sung remains the eternal president of the country, and the chairman of the parliament is the official head of state), he, too, was elevated far above the status of ordinary mortals. North Koreans are told that on the night Kim Jong Il was born, three stars suddenly appeared in the sky above his birthplace, and in subsequent years his birthdays have been marked by such supernatural events as the appearance of double rainbows above that same site. Kim Jong Il's purported birthplace, a log cabin on Korea's highest mountain, Mount Paekdu, has joined Kim Il Sung's birthplace in Pyongyang as a sacred site visited by pilgrims and newlyweds. Moreover, North Korean media have quoted Juche advocates calling Kim Jong Il "the only savior in the world" and even hanul-nim, an indigenous Korean term for the Supreme Being.

“The moral code of Juche reflects this emphasis on a godlike leader, using terms that resonate with overtones of Confucianism. When Kim Il Sung was alive, North Koreans were told that they could be truly happy only when their hearts were filled with filial love for him. After his death North Koreans were frequently reminded that the moral principles of the Korean people find their highest expression in a person's absolute loyalty to Kim Il Sung. Though the North Korean government denies that Juche is a religion, the Juche promise of immortality and the language that Juche devotees use to talk about the two Kims make it difficult to deny that Juche functions as a religion for millions of North Koreans.

Juche Social and Political Beliefs

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Social Justice: North Korea claims that a society governed by Juche thought will eliminate poverty, provide education for everyone who wants it, and protect human rights. The Juche concept of human rights, however, focuses more on national autonomy than on individual liberty. Juche education teaches students Juche ideology rather than how to think independently and critically. And the elimination of poverty by Juche thought in North Korea has been defined as equal access to whatever health care, housing, and educational facilities are available, whether or not individuals have any discretionary income. North Korea, therefore, criticizes societies that do not follow its Juche ideology as lacking true human rights, failing to provide a proper education, and masking poverty with an abundance of consumer goods. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006. Baker was a professor in Korean History and Civilization at the University of British Columbia]

“Political Impact: Given that Juche is enshrined in the North Korean constitution as its official ideology, it dominates political discourse. Moreover, because the words of Kim Il Sung, and increasingly the words of Kim Jong Il, are treated as sacred writ, it is tantamount to sacrilege to propose any major changes to government policies introduced in those writings. Significant political or economic reform is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. In addition, North Korea's relations with other nations are problematic because North Korea expects foreigners who visit Pyongyang, including official representatives of foreign governments, to participate in ritual displays of respect for Kim Il Sung, the founder of Juche thought.

“Controversial Issues: Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Juche is the insistence that human existence has meaning only within a sociopolitical community centered on one supreme leader, to whom all owe undying loyalty. Almost as controversial is the Confucian legacy of respect for hereditary status, which has allowed Kim Jong Il to succeed his father as the only one with the proper bloodline to correctly understand and interpret Juche thought. Juche thought per se takes no explicit position on issues controversial in other religious traditions, such as birth control or abortion. Juche writings frequently stress the importance of motherhood, and a woman who is still unmarried at middle age is viewed as abnormal. Kim Il Sung called for "making all women communist mothers and fine communist educators for the next generation."

Juche Members

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “No special articles of clothing serve to identify a Juche believer, with one exception. When Kim Il Sung was alive, loyal North Koreans pinned to the left side of their chests a badge with Kim Il Sung's picture on it. That badge can now be replaced by a badge with Kim Jong Il's picture on it. The size of the badge indicates the rank of the badge wearer. The larger the badge, the higher the party or government rank of the person wearing the badge. Nonbelievers are not supposed to wear either of the badges. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“There are no Juche clergy to preside over weddings or funerals. When a couple marries, they both swear their loyalty to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. After the brief wedding ceremony the newly-weds are expected to visit a nearby statue of Kim Il Sung, place some flowers in front of it, and then have their picture taken with the statue in the background. At a funeral it is common for mourners to cry out, "Though this body is deceased, the spirit of the revolution still lives."

“Compulsory classes on Juche thought are part of the curriculum at every level in the North Korean school system, from elementary school through university. North Korea has also attempted to promote Juche thought overseas. In 1988 it founded the International Seminar on the Juche Idea, which has headquarters in Tokyo but claims to have branches in more than 100 countries. Every year since 1988 such seminars have been held at various locations around the globe. North Korea also distributes booklets on Juche thought in Japanese, English, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese.

“The family, rather than the individual, is the basic unit of North Korean society, just as it was in Confucian times. North Korea also maintains the Confucian stress on such familial virtues as filial piety. Unlike Confucianism, however, Juche holds that loyalty to the paternalistic leader of the country takes precedence over filial obedience to a biological parent. In another departure from the Confucian past, men are not allowed to have more than one wife. Divorce is frowned upon today almost as much as it was in the past (except for cases of divorce from someone who is politically tainted). Moreover, though the Juche constitution of 1972 says that "women hold equal social status and rights with men," North Korea remains a patriarchal society, with men occupying the vast majority of the most powerful posts in government.”

Juch Sacred Places, Rituals and Symbols

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Because the North Korean government claims that Juche is not a religion, it erects no houses of worship in the usual sense. Students and millions of other North Koreans, however, have made pilgrimages to Mount Paekdu (on North Korea's border with China) to show their respect for Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and their Juche philosophy. These pilgrimages include visits to such sacred places as the alleged site of Kim Il Sung's headquarters during his struggle against Japanese colonial rule and the log cabin where Kim Jong Il is said to have been born. Foreign visitors to Pyongyang are expected to join North Koreans in paying their respect at various sacred sites around that capital city. Of particular importance are Kim Il Sung's birthplace at Mangyongdae as well as the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, which has been transformed into a mausoleum preserving the embalmed body of Kim Il Sung and is now described by North Korea as the sacred temple of Juche. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“South Korean sources report that North Korea has more than 35,000 statues of Kim Il Sung, before which devotees bow to show respect and loyalty. As of 2003 no statues of Kim Jong Il have been reported. North Koreans pay special reverence to two flowers: the Kimilsungia (developed in Indonesia in 1975) and the Kimjongilia (developed in Japan in 1988). Both are cultivated in special green-houses so that devout Juche followers can pay homage on such special occasions as Kim Il Sung's birthday (15 April) and Kim Jong Il's birthday (16 February). Pilgrims to Mount Paekdu trek to various trees around Kim Il Sung's pre-1945 mountain headquarters, which, it was announced in 1987, still bear slogans carved more than 50 years ago praising Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Typical slogans found on those trees include "Lodestar General Kim Il Sung, born of heaven" and "The bright star of Paekdu [Kim Jong Il] has appeared over our land."

“Given that North Korea claims that Juche is not a religion, it has no formal worship services or prayers. Juche believers, however, are encouraged to bow before statues of Kim Il Sung and to place flowers before them every year on the anniversary of his birth. North Koreans are also encouraged to visit such sacred sites as Kim Il Sung's birthplace and Mount Paekdu, which is officially described as sacred to the Korean nation. Moreover, North Koreans are mobilized in large numbers for "mass games" on special occasions, such as the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. These mass games involve thousands of people marching and dancing in unison to express their love for their country and their loyalty to its leader.”

Juche Leaders, Theologians and Cultural Impact

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Kim Il Sung (1912–94) is considered the founder of Juche thought, given that the Korean term juche was not widely used until he began using it to refer to his policy of political and economic self-reliance. Moreover, it was Kim Il Sung who had North Korea officially adopt Juche as its "monolithic ideological system." It is his son, Kim Jong Il (born in 1942), however, who is credited with clarifying the implications of his father's ideas in order to provide a comprehensive explanation of the role of human beings in the cosmos, including a promise of sociopolitical immortality for individuals. Kim Jong Il also expanded the range of Juche thought to encompass cultural performances, such as drama, dance, and music. His most influential philosophical essays are "On the Juche Idea," "On Some Questions in Understanding the Juche Philosophy," and "On Correctly Understanding the Originality of Kimilsungism." [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Scholars outside of North Korea recognize Hwang Jang Yeop as the person who turned Juche ideology into a full-fledged philosophy. He authored many of the articles attributed to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Before he defected to South Korea in 1997, Hwang had served as president of Kimilsung University, speaker of the Supreme People's Assembly (North Korea's parliament), and secretary of the ruling Worker's Party Central Committee. Hwang, who had majored in philosophy at Moscow University in the late 1940s, claims that in 1967 Kim Il Sung asked him to ghostwrite articles on Juche philosophy to be published under Kim's name. Later Hwang headed a research institute for Juche philosophy in the Organization and Guidance Department of the Worker's Party Central Committee. Hwang claims he defected because, among other reasons, Kim Jong Il had distorted Juche thought by placing too much emphasis on the role of a supreme leader.

“Government proselytizing of Juche would not have been so successful if Juche had not provided answers to the sorts of questions Koreans have traditionally asked religions to answer. For example, Juche has provided its own moral code emphasizing loyalty and obedience to the government and the ruling party to ensure that North Koreans do not have to turn to Christianity, Buddhism, or Cheondogyo for guidance on how to behave. It has depicted its founder, Kim Il Sung, as a paragon of wisdom and virtue, portraying him as superior in every way to Jesus, Buddha, and any other revered founder of a religion so that North Koreans do not have to look any farther than Kim to find someone to revere and to model their lives after. And Juche has created its own rituals so that North Koreans do not need to enter a Buddhist temple or a Christian or Cheondogyo church to join with others in communal displays of veneration for a power greater than themselves.

Juche has impacted North Korean culture in a couple of ways. First, because Juche began as an assertion of Korean autonomy, North Korean music, drama, dance, literature, and art are supposed to draw more on Korean aesthetic traditions than on foreign models. That means, for example, that Juche music is performed with modified traditional musical instruments in addition to such imported instruments as pianos. Second, the dominance of Juche thought means that all cultural productions must preach Juche ideals. Kim Jong Il's comment on drama is typical of what he has written about dance, music, literature, and cinema as well. He wrote that drama must inspire "the people of our times with the Juche outlook that man is the master of the world" and that it "plays the decisive role in transforming the world."

Cracks in Juche Beliefs

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It would be an overstatement to say there is a sizable religious revival in North Korea.With the possible exception of communist-era Albania, no communist country had managed to so thoroughly eradicate organized religion. But there is little doubt that it is seeping back in through porous borders and challenging the idiosyncratic doctrine of juche that reveres founder Kim Il Sung and his son, current leader Kim Jong Il, as gods. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2005]

"Juche as a worldview has lost much of its heavenly mandate because of the famine and the collapse of the economy," said David Hawk, a leading human rights investigator who recently completed an extensive study of North Korea for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent agency funded by Congress.

“In the study, to be released today, the commission found that the practice of religion is increasing inside North Korea, prompting a reaction from the regime. "Some North Koreans are testing prohibitions against religious activity," Michael Cromartie, chairman of the commission, said in a statement. At the same time, "there is renewed government interest in ensuring that North Koreans coming back from China are not 'infected'

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: Daily NK, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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