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North Korea, Juche and “sacred war”

[ by Charles Cameron ]

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 Adherents.com 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 Junche 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…

9 Responses to “North Korea, Juche and “sacred war””

  1. Bryan Alexander Says:

    Another useful comparison might be Saddam Hussein’s Islamic phase.  Combining secular state/party w/popular religion, the blood Quran, etc.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Bryan:
    The difference as I understand it is that Kim Il Sung and Chairman Mao were both erecting a fusion of religious "patterns" (deification, immortality) within an atheist, overtly irreligious matrix — whereas Saddam was co-opting Islam as such.
    But where do we put Saparmurat Niyazov, the late President of Turkmenistan, in such a scheme?
    Here’s an extract from a briefing to the Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom back in 2005:

    Suppose that the president of the United States were to write his own holy scripture, his own book of personal reflections on spiritual and moral issues which he then ordered the rest of us to treat as if it were a sacred text. Suppose that the Republican National Committee were constantly proclaiming that this book is on a par with the Bible or the Koran. Suppose that the Department of Homeland Security were constantly pressuring clergy of all religions to display it in their places of worship and to quote from it in their sermons. Suppose that the No Child Left Behind program included a requirement that every schoolchild study these presidential scriptures in depth, memorizing passages and writing essays about them, at the expense of class time formerly spent on subjects like history and science. I realize that this sounds like some sort of sick joke, but it is an exact description of the personality cult enforced by Turkmenistan’s dictator Saparmurat Niyazov.
    We can safely predict that someday after Niyazov’s death his two-volume collection of "spiritual thoughts," the Rukhnama, will take its richly deserved place alongside the collected speeches of Leonid Brezhnev. But in the meantime Niyazov’s government is destroying cultural and educational opportunities for an entire generation of young Turkmens. It is also forcing both Muslims and Christians to commit what serious religious believers can only regard as blasphemy. 

  3. Larry Dunbar Says:

    Wow Charles, you’re a meme unto yourself. You kind of make what Dr. Barnett does seem real. Good work! "The difference as I understand it is that Kim Il Sung and Chairman Mao were both erecting a fusion of religious "patterns" (deification, immortality) within an atheist, overtly irreligious matrix" On the other hand, Kim II Sung and Chairman Mao were very different. Mao was creating an insurgency, while Kim II Sung was creating an incumbent force. In a way, I believe the insurgent force is very much alive in China, while the incumbent force is under flux in North Korea. When China says it doesn’t export revolution, I think they are speaking truth. Maoism can only function as an insurgency, building revolution internally, through the force it creates externally. North Korea is just the opposite. It can only function as a revolutionary force externally, because the insurgent force is almost non-existing. This must be why I have seen connections between and Ahmedinejad of Iran and Kim of North Korea. They both represent external revolutionary forces. In that way, the relationship of North Korea and China must represent a balance of forces. Iran must also be looking for an insurgent force similar to that of China. Maybe it hoped to have one in the Shia in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or even Hamas in Palestine. An incumbent force has a hard time developing velocity in its movements, but develops a great potential for movement because of its leaders.

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Larry:
    I am really only focusing on the use of religious rhetoric here, trying to clarify one tiny part of a far larger geopolitical puzzle. I am not talking strategy.
    Thus, when I said:

    The difference as I understand it is that Kim Il Sung and Chairman Mao were both erecting a fusion of religious "patterns" (deification, immortality) within an atheist, overtly irreligious matrix…"

    I was only talking about the difference in religious rhetoric. 
    When I hear the words "holy" or "sacred" attached to the word "war" my ears prick up, because it’s my sense that greater fervor attaches to fighting "sacred" or "holy" wars — "jihads" or "crusades" — than we might think.
    So the question of what a Korean general or politician means when he makes use of the rhetoric of "sacred war" seems important to me, and since I don’t speak Korean, I am doing my best to understand the usage given the tools at my disposal.
    I am happy to have others, who understand the geopolitical context, or other aspects within it, exploring the same topic from their own perspectives — but my personal focus is limited to the issue of whether the phrase "sacred war" on contemporary North Korean leadership lips is a clarion call — or a tired old metaphor grazing contentedly in its field.
    In a word: should we take the "sacred" part of that phrase seriously?

  5. david ronfeldt Says:

    often what’s deemed sacred (but not necessarily holy) in such societies are land and lineage, esp if heritage extends way back in time.  i know too little about n. korea to say so about it, but this pattern is quite common among tribal and tribalized societies.  it may even apply to our civil war; for some parties, their fight was sacred, but not necessarily holy.  or so i gather,

  6. zen Says:

    Interesting. Building on David’s comment, there seems to be something about totalitarianism that evokes a yearning for protean-totemistic mythologizing. Among the forgotten early Nazi leaders, a political success in his time, was Walther Darre, Hitler’s food and agriculture Reichminister who introduced agrarian romanticist "blut und boden" ideology into Nazism and removed smallholding farmers from capitalist markets by making land tenure inalienable. Himmler’s fascination with psuedo-pagan and racial mythologizing is of course, well known, which he combined with Darre’s ideas about virtuous Germanic peasantry in his vision for the SS in "the East". See Albert Speer’s Infiltration.

  7. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Mr. Ronfeldt:
    Good catch on the distinction between the sacred and the holy, although historically (and etymologically) the words are quite related.  Still, the entire debate (such as it is) depends upon our ideas of the sacred/profane or holy/unholy.  If the distinction turns upon whether these words describe innate qualities of things or are mere ascriptions describing personal evaluations of and relationships to things, then the "sacred" may be considered idiosyncratic (even if socially common) whereas the "holy" may be thought of as describing things divine in origin.  Of course, there will be many who say that the latter is indistinguishable from the former:  i.e., that there are no things divine in origin; or else, that all things are divine in origin and our interpretations of what is and what is not holy are idiosyncratic nit-picking.  DPRK’s leaders, and similar leaders throughout history, may be promoting a custom-built sacredness; but we could say that other nations of different construction have done similarly (so that, "The Founding Fathers" and "The Constitution" and so forth are America’s sacred beings/texts.  Most Americans wouldn’t call them holy, however, and some might in fact set them against the Holy Bible insofar as sacred American freedoms produce results contrary to the dictates of the Holy Bible, from their point of view.)   Agreeing somewhat with Larry above, at least to the extent that I’ve been able to understand his p.o.v. in this and other recent threads, I think that the attempt to label DPRK leadership, or WikiLeak leadership, etc., as particularly susceptible to erroneous mythology, sometimes appears to be an attempt to distinguish between "false" and "true" concepts of the holy; or, that accentuating the one side while ignoring other, different examples closer to home, seems to be an ideological program for elevating peculiar, perhaps idiosyncratic, sacredness.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    I don’t think the idea is original to this particular article, but today I read the following from Colin Wells, writing a piece called How did God get Started?

    let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that we could wave a magic wand and make everyone on the planet forget everything they know about religion. At the same time, we can erase every word of religious scripture, along with all religious representations in art and literature. The idea is to imagine a state of total religious amnesia, so that we’d all be starting from scratch. If we wiped all religion away, anthropology suggests, it would rapidly reappear in new yet familiar forms—but probably without monotheism, assuming that history is any guide. Religion in the broad sense clearly represents a human instinct, since we find it in all human societies.

    I’m interested in the fervor, the rapture, the intensity that religions and quasi-religions can muster, and wonder whether the particular configurations that include the wishes of a tribal or national deity, a universal deity, or a secular ideological commitment wield equal power in this regard.I’m trying to see where holiness/sacredness is felt, not where it "belongs".

  9. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "In a word: should we take the "sacred" part of that phrase seriously?" Yes, and I think David R has got it right, "it is the land stupid", not calling you stupid, just substituting the phrase that Bill Clinton used in: "it’s the economy stupid". More accurately it is the environment that first writes our "source code" into what becomes us, so this would  be most scared, in my opinion. When the leaders say, for instance, they are going to use nukes to keep invaders out of Korea, they mean both sides of the DMZ. The nukes are for both sides to use in the game they play between each other. A deadly game to be sure, but a game none the less. Luckly the South got it right this time, but then it is mostly the skill of those who play the game and hopefully there was no luck involved. It may be that in South Korea they fire their Generals who do it right; in the USA we promote our Generals who do it wrong.

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