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North Korea: the Politics of Unconventional Wisdom.

By Han S. Park. New York: Lynne Rienner, 2002. 193 pp.

Han S. Park, one the leading scholars of North Korean politics in the United States, has written an important and original book on ideology in North Korea. This book is a useful alternative to the typical representation of North Korea, especially in the United States and other Western countries, as simply a brutal, repressive, and inexplicable dictatorship. Brutal it may be, repressive it certainly is, but North Korea can and should be explained. Park examines the evolution, function, and application of North Korea's juche (self-reliance) ideology with great insight and clarity. Park may be the most frequent visitor to North Korea from the United States, certainly the most frequent academic visitor, and brings to this study firsthand knowledge of life in North Korea that no amount of document-reading or parsing of North Korean publications can match. Only by understanding juche, according to Park, can we understand why North Korea behaves as it does, or indeed why North Korea even exists today when all other socialist regimes have either disappeared or become fundamentally transformed. North Korea is an "anomaly," and there has probably been no more important time to try to understand this anomaly than today, when the United States and North Korea appear on the brink of military confrontation.

Taking a phenomenological, political-culture approach, Park suggests that there is an underlying rationality to North Korea's "unconventional" behavior and mindset. Juche, Park argues, is not merely a political ideology in the typical sense. Rather, it is a system of values, a way of life, indeed a kind of religion. As Park puts it, "North Korea has developed an ideology that is comparable to a form of theology and a society that exhibits many characteristics of religious fundamentalism" (p. 4). After all--although Park does not say this directly--fundamentalisms have been growing in popularity around the world for some time, whereas secular socialisms have all but disappeared as ruling ideologies. And juche could perhaps be seen as part of a global trend in the rise of fundamentalist religion. Juche might also be usefully compared to the astonishing rise of evangelical Christianity in South Korea, another comparison Park's logic seems to suggest but is not carried out in this book.

The book is divided into three "clusters" of chapters: on concepts and methodology, on the evolution of juche, and on specific policies and behaviors deriving from juche. In my view, the second section, especially chapters 3 and 4, is the most interesting and insightful. Park reminds us--and we cannot be reminded often enough--that North Korea is no typical Marxist-Leninist state. Nationalism, anti-imperialism, Korean familism, and spirituality have been more important, in the long run, than Marxism-Leninism in shaping juche as we know it today. The human-centered, spiritual aspects of juche are a particularly striking contrast to Marxist-Leninist materialism. The North Korean cliche that "man is the master of all things" (p. 33) suggests a voluntaristic, mind-over-matter attitude quite at odds with Marxian determinism. This is related in turn to what Park calls "spirituality," by which he means North Korea's stress on "consciousness" (uisiksong) as the driving force of society and history. There is in juche even an explicit concept of life after death, both in the sense of the individual living on through the collective and the Great Leader who "lives forever with the people" (pp. 37-39). And as if to complete the connection between Kim IL Sung and Jesus Christ, North Korean calendars since 1997 have dated years from Kim Il Sung's birth, not Christ's. Thus, A.D. 2003 is Juche 91.

As Park points out, North Korea has many of the key elements of a religious society: the charismatic leader, the holy scripture, the sacred mission, eternal life as the ultimate reward, and even a "God" of sorts, in the image of a perfected human being (pp. 46--49). But do North Koreans "really believe" this quasi-religion? Park tries to put a number on the "true believers" in juche theology, based on the number of party members (15 percent of the population), members of the Socialist Youth League who have undergone rigorous ideological indoctrination, and others, leading him to conclude that at least 20-30 percent of North Korea's 22 million people are genuine juche-ists (p. 39). This figure is impossible to prove or disprove. Park's descriptions of North Korea's ideological education, the isolation of the society, the lack of observable dissent, and so on add up to a reasonable argument for a high proportion of "true believers." Those who put their faith in quantitative social science will not be satisfied, as survey numbers and the like simply do not exist for North Korea. Yet the kind of interpretative social science found in this book gives us insights that numbers cannot produce. By the numbers, North Korea should have disappeared years ago. If North Korea is still here, after economic disaster, famine, and the loss of nearly all its socialist allies, it cannot be primarily because of material factors.

Given the anomalous nature of the North Korean regime and the unique set of historical, cultural, and political circumstances in which juche has evolved, what are the chances that North Korea's current ideology or, for that matter, the regime itself will continue much longer? Ten years of the "collapse" predictions have turned out to be false thus far. Park concludes that the political regime of North Korea can continue for some time into the future as long as: (1) the distinctive domestic and international environment around North Korea is largely preserved; and (2) the deprivation of basic human needs and rights, especially food and life, is overcome in the near future (p. 178). Park implies that change in North Korea will ultimately have to come from within. External pressure will only make the regime more inflexible, more fundamentalist, and more prone to react with force. This is a point to which those who advocate "regime change" in North Korea should pay careful attention.

Charles K. Armstrong, Department of History

Columbia University
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Author:Armstrong, Charles K.
Publication:Journal of East Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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