Juche: North Korea’s State Religion
Juche permeates all aspects of the North Korean society. Juche is most often thought to be a socio-political ideology. In reality, Juche is a religion, and North Korea’s 25 million adherents make Juche the world’s fifth largest religion after Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
As a political ideology, Juche enshrines Marxist dialectical materialism while claiming not to. As a form of religiosity or devotion, Juche was very intentionally modelled after Christianity. Instead of God the Father, Juche worships Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea who died in 1994 yet continues to rule today as North Korea’s “Eternal President” and official head of state. Juche teaches North Koreans that upon death, they will be reunited with Kim Il-sung and live with him forever. Instead of God the Son, Juche worships Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, who until his own death in 2011, reigned as his dead father’s surrogate. And instead of God the Holy Spirit, Juche worships Kim Jong-soko, the mother of Kim Jong-il and the wife of Kim Il-sung.
Juche requires North Koreans to bow daily to the three Kims’ portraits (above), which must hang on the “best” wall of their homes. Neglecting proper care of the portraits is a capital crime and North Koreans are praised for rushing back into burning homes to save the portraits of the three Kims. The death of Kim Jong-il in 2011 led to the accession of his son, Kim Jong-un, who is expected to eventually replace his grandmother in Juche’s holy trinity.
Why would a newly minted State religion be intentionally modelled after Christianity? Before it was ruled by Kim Il-sung, North Korea was the site of an early 20th century Christian revival. So many Christians lived in and so many churches dotted Pyongyang, the present North Korean capital, that the city was even called, “The Jerusalem of the East.” The son of Christian parents and the grandson of a Christian pastor, Kim Il-sung was intimately familiar with Christianity and witnessed Christians choose martyrdom over worshipping the Japanese Emperor during Japan’s 1910–1945 colonization of Korea.
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 utilized the religion’s power structures, spiritual terrorism structures (fear of divine retribution and eternal damnation), got rid of the mythic principals and replaced them with actual Heads of State. This is akin to Zoroaster (c. 1500 BCE) having crafted the first monotheistic religion in support to justify and rationalize the absolute centralized power of the ‘ascendant’ ruler. Zoroaster’s teaching about individual judgment, Heaven and Hell, the Resurrection of the body, the Last Judgement, and everlasting life for the reunited soul and body, among other things, became borrowings in the Abrahamic religions.
The only real spiritual rival Juche has is traditional, native North Korean shamanism, which competes for the hearts and minds of North Koreans at every level of society. Even the top government North Korean elites consult shamans, primarily as fortune tellers and seers, sending famous diviners back home from the capitol in limousines loaded with expensive gifts for the shaman and family. Kim Jong Un is known to have planned his speeches and public appearances according to the auguries given him by shamans.