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Nam Center for Korean Studies Colloquium Series: North Korea's Juche Myth, and the West's Juche Fallacy

Wednesday, January 14, 2015
12:00 AM
Room 1636 School of Social Work Building


For 50 years, the near-unanimous consensus in North Korean studies has been that Kim Il Sung’s Juche doctrine is central to ideology in the DPRK, if not necessarily central to the state as a whole. In his lecture, B.R. Myers sets out to refute this consensus. While the myth of Kim Il Sung’s brilliant doctrine has done great service for the regime at home and abroad, Juche itself is a mere showcase construct, formulated in the 1970s to enhance North Korea’s stature abroad. Such decoy doctrines are common among ultra-nationalist states, just as innocuous decoy platforms are common among far-right parties in pluralist societies. At no time has Juche functioned as an ideology inside the DPRK, where leader-biographies occupy the central role in the party canon. The West’s misinformed view of the doctrine as a Korean-nationalist argument for radical self-reliance could hardly be further removed from the unobjectionable humanist cant — “Man is the most precious being in the world!” — that fills its key texts. As the country opens up to tourism, more and more Pyongyang-watchers realize that Juche plays no significant role there, wrongly take this for a new development, and conclude that ideology itself must be in rapid decline as a force in policy-making. Hence the dangerously patronizing notion, now popular in expert circles, that North Korea is a “reactive state,” responding on an ad hoc basis to American signals. In his talk Myers will run through the strange history of the Juche myth, explain the vast difference between North Korea’s “back-stage” and “front-stage” propaganda, and call for more study of the race-based ultra-nationalism that Juche was designed to conceal.        


B.R. Myers was born in the USA and educated in Bermuda, South Africa and Germany. He specializes in the research of North Korean ideology and propaganda, a subject on which he has written for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. His book Han Sorya and North Korean Literature (1994) was the first English-language history of North Korean culture. He is also known for “A Reader’s Manifesto” and other essays on literature and animal rights in The Atlantic. His latest book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (2010), has been translated into five languages. Myers is an associate professor in the international studies department at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. He is now finishing a book aimed at refuting the academic consensus that Kim Il Sung’s Juche plays a central role in North Korean ideology.

This program is also made possible in part by a Title VI grant from the US Department of Education.
Brian Myers, Dongseo University