Confucianism in North Korea

Confucianism had a great influence on the development of the North Korean Juche ideology. Some authors believe that this ideology is more a teaching of Neo-Confucianism than Marxism, and that the position of North Korea is closer to an imaginary Neo-Confucian kingdom than to Stalin’s Russia, but that is not true.

During the Korean Yi dynasty, Confucianism took such firm roots that Korea became the most Confucian state in the world, which was especially true for the nobility who declared themselves the main bearers of Confucian virtues. [The Far East and Australasia 1975-76, n.d.] Confucianism is exerted such a strong influence on Korea, that a large part of them, often unconsciously, remained Confucians, even if they were communists. However, the statement that North Korea is a “Confucian kingdom” rather than “Stalin’s Russia” ignores the obvious – that the North Korean state is in many respects organized according to the Soviet model, that its political and military apparatus function according to the Stalinist principle and that despite everything, its ideology is based on Marxism and Leninism.

Almost all Far Eastern countries are still guided by the ideas of Confucianism and adapt and interpret it in their own way, so that North Korea is no exception. Unlike Taiwan or Singapore, where their leaders sought to rule according to the principles of Confucianism, North Korean leaders say nothing about Confucianism, which has been forced out of schools and largely forgotten today.

Many Confucian virtues are cultivated in North Korea, but they are not presented as Confucian, but as communist. Many of the qualities that communism ascribes to itself are essentially Confucian virtues. A North Korean is still a Confucian to a good extent, regardless of the fact that he or she does not know what Confucianism is about, most of the time they have not even heard of it at all.

For Koreans, of all the virtues: zhen, shu, hsiao, chung and li, the virtue of li – the virtue of good governance in the family and the state – was partly the most acceptable, and partly the most imposed. In the context of virtue, everything revolves around the father in the family and the ruler in the state. Respect for this virtue is shared by everyone on the Korean peninsula. Neither the democratization of South Korea nor the communistization of North Korean society have erased the traditional habits of the Korean population. Since virtue refers to good governance towards the family and towards the state, the question arises, if a person has to make a decision, who will he give priority to. In the North Korean film “On the Green Carpet” (from 2000), the dilemma about which component of the principle is more important – towards the family or towards the great leader, is portrayed as follows: the main character should participate in the celebratuin of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, but that day his mother dies, so the family members ask him to stay at home, but after a short thought he decides to take part in the manifestation. This film makes it clear that respect for a great leader is predicated on respect for a parent.

The Chinese neo-Confucian philosopher Cho Chun taught that the state is like a body, and the cells of society are like blood vessels. According to Cho Chun, the body needs a good doctor, and the state needs a good leader. Under his influence, in Korea and in earlier centuries, the opinion became established that like a body that has a heart and a brain as its central organs, so the state should have a leader who will represent the heart and brain of the state. Kim Il Sung, like the old Confucian philosopher, explained that “every country, like every human organism, should have all its organs.” In one speech, Kim Il Sung noted that “the center of the party is like the heart.” Both the heart and the center of the party, if they function properly, give life, the heart gives blood to all parts of the body, and the center of the party gives a healthy impulse to the entire party organization.” [ “On strengthening the Guidance of the Party…”, n.d, 431-]

The most important neo-Confucianists in Korea, Te Gye (1501-1570) and Jul Gok (1536-1584) gave new political content to Confucianism by raising the ruler to the highest level, one step to heaven, which has survived as a way of thinking in Korea until today. Korean communism mostly took over that element of Confucianism that advocates obedience to the ruler and that unquestioningly, bypassing Manci’s line of Confucianism that advocates disobedience to a bad ruler or Confucius’ hatred of tyranny. A great leader is infallible. He is the ideal ruler. He collected all the best Confucian virtues and thus achieved the most ideal possible virtue – Zen. This highest virtue includes qualities such as: humanity, love, cordiality, helpfulness, understanding, respect, loyalty, kindness, modesty and nobility. All these virtues were attributed to Kim Il Sung, and they are Zen virtues. The rulers, according to the interpretation of the followers of Te Gye and Jul Gok, had a mandate from heaven for great thoughts, because in their heads the source of wisdom and the spark of the deepest philosophical reflection is born. The fact that Kim Il Sung also received wisdom from heaven is presented by North Korea as an unquestionable fact.

The Neo-Confucian tradition imagines the state as a universe in which the smaller celestial bodies revolve around the larger ones, starting from Confucius’s statement that “a government that stands on the right principles is like the Morning star which will remain forever in the sky while the others revolve around it”.

In North Korea, this was interpreted as meaning that everyone in the country should turn towards the Sun, that is, towards the great leader. The sun has always been of great importance to Koreans. A number of Korean states have had direct or indirect connections with the Sun in the past. Joson was the land of morning freshness, Koguryo the land of the shining Sun, and Koryo the land of the bright morning Sun. Koreans were often called sons of the Sun. The personification of the ruler with the Sun is also part of the Korean tradition. Chumong, the legendary founder of Koguryo, was said to be the son of the Sun, and the Sun was mentioned in one context or another alongside the names of all the other rulers of the Koguryo dynasty.

The Sun also became synonymous with Kim Il Sung and one of the most important symbols of the Korean communist revolution. In North Korean literature, one can read that the partisans first called Kim Il Sung Han Byol (One Star) because they hoped that he would lead them as a guiding star on the path to freedom. Considering that the star, in their opinion, is less important than the Sun, they named him Kim Il Sung, which means “To whom you will beat the Sun” or “Future Sun”. [Genaro Carnero Checa, n.d, 50.]

Kim Il Sung’s loyal group persistently referred to the great leader as “Sun”. Among them were poets. One of them, Pek In Jun (died 1999), wrote the song Salute you The Sun already on August 15, 1945. Kim Il Sung soon received the epithet Great Sun in a poem published in July 1946. In an interview from 1946, Kim Il Sung’s wartime comrade called him the “Sun of the Revolution”, pointing out that all his guerrillas revolve around him like the Sun, that his love is like the Sun’s, so that “our soldiers when they see him have the feeling that they would gladly die for him.” [ Bruce Cummings, n.d,] Kim Il Sung is also said to be “a man as big as the Sun” [ IB, April 4, 2000], while his smile is said to be like Sunbeam.

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