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To understand North Korean society, it is essential to look at it from the North Korean point of view, searching for what dictates people's lives. North Korean decision-makers operate under conditions of bounded rationality, created by their ideology. Given the intense and complete immersion in this ideology, North Korean elites do not consider all possible alternatives that might be available to decision-makers in other countries. Although North Korea's political doctrines may appear exotic to Westerners, they represent a contemporary expression of strains of thought that are deeply embedded in Korean history.

Confucianism had been both the religion and ideology of the state for centuries. Yi Dynasty Confucianism was not only a philosophical and ethical system but also a cult of the family. Everyone was expected to show filial piety towards their parents, ancestors and the king. Participation in family sacrifices helped link the individual to the monarch, who was considered the 'father' of the national community. Traditional Korea, in other words, was a 'Family-State' that equated loyalty to the king (patriotism) with filial piety.

Neo-Confucianism, the dominant value system of the Chosn Dynasty (1392-1910), combines the social ethics of the classical Chinese philosophers Confucius (Kong Zi, 551-479 B.C.) and Mencius (Meng Zi, 372-289 B.C.) with Buddhist and Daoist metaphysics. One of neo-Confucianism's basic ideas is that the institutions and practices of a properly ordered human community express the immutable principles or laws that govern the cosmos. Through correct social practice, as defined by Confucian sages and their commentators, individuals can achieve self-cultivation and a kind of spiritual unity with heaven (although this was rarely described in mystic or ecstatic terms).

Neo-Confucianism defines formal social relations on all levels of society. Social relations are not conceived in terms of the happiness or satisfaction of the individuals involved, but in terms of the harmonious integration of individuals into a collective whole, which, like the properly cultivated individual, mirrors the harmony of the natural order.

Neo-Confucianism in Korea became quite rigid and conservative by the mid-sixteenth century. In practice, the doctrine emphasized hierarchy in human relations and self-control for the individual. The Five Relationships (o ryun in Korean; wu lun in Chinese), formulated by classical Chinese thinkers such as Mencius and subsequently sanctified by Zhu Xi and other neo-Confucianist metaphysicians, governed proper human relations: that "between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be righteousness; between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young there should be proper order; and between friends there should be faithfulness." Only the last was a relationship between equals; the others were based on authority and subordination.

Throughout traditional Korean society, from the royal palace and central government offices in the capital to the humblest household in the countryside, the themes of hierarchy and inequality were pervasive. There was no concept of the rights of the individual. In the context of the wider society, a welldefined elite of scholar-officials versed in neo-Confucian orthodoxy was legitimized in terms of the traditional ethical distinction between the educated "superior man" or "gentleman," who seeks righteousness, and the "small man," who seeks only profit. This theme was central in the writings of both Confucius and Mencius.

Confucianism and neo-Confucianism as political philosophies proposed a benevolent paternalism: the masses had no role in government, but the scholar-officials were supposed to look after them as fathers look after their children. In the Chosn Dynasty, status and power inequalities, defined precisely within a vertical hierarchy, were generally considered both natural and good. The hierarchy extended from the household relationships of fathers and children through the intermediary relationships of ruler and ruled within the kingdom, to Korea's subordinate status as a tributary of China.

Following Ch'oe Su-un's Tonghak movement in 1860, countless new religions appeared in Korea. Tonghak means "Eastern Learning" and as the name implies, it was an Eastern religion embodying the Korean spirit, in opposition to Christianity which had come from the West. Tonghak's central teaching was embodied in its Kaebyok (Opening) ideology. Kaebyok was a cosmic chronology which claimed that a new era was beginning. In the West, cosmic changes typically signaled a conclusion, but in the East, they represented a new creation or "iKaebyok."

The Tonghak Movement provided a Korean version of the East-West polarity. Ever since gunboat diplomacy forced Asian states to open ports to Western trade, many East Asian's have tended to view modernity as a cataclysmic clash of civilizations. When viewed through the prism of the "East-West polarity," recent history was a struggle for domination by two diametrically opposite forces, the West (America and Western Europe) and East Asia. In the indigenous Tonghak religious movement "reject the foreign (West)" became a rallying cry for a Confucian-style reform of the state and society. The Tonghak definition of the West included a rapidly modernizing Japan that was beginning to encroach on Korean sovereignty.

According to Tonghak, Kaebyok heralded the advent of a new utopia which would be centered around the Korean Peninsula and its people. Tonghak ideology thus fostered a nationalistic faith that culminated in the Tonghak Rebellion - a defining event in Korea's modernization. Moreover, Tonghak played a pivotal role in maintaining this nationalistic consciousness, leading up to the March First Independence Movement of 1919.

Taking President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points as an article of faith, the March 1, 1919, Movement staged one of the world's first and largest non-violent demonstrations against the Japanese occupation. Japanese colonial authorities responded to these demonstrations with characteristic brutality. America refused to become involved, and many Korean intellectuals turned away from liberal democracy to Marxism as the only hope for Korean liberation.

Tonghak's Kaebyok ideology later became the philosophical model for Korea's new indigenous religions, such as Chungsan-gyo and Won Buddhism. During the 1930s, these religions were already referring to themselves as "Korean Folk Religions," and they continue to do so even today.

After Korea was colonized by Japan in 1910, Korea's ancient culture and national identity reappeared in the guise of these nationalistic religious movements. These became the central forces in the struggle against the occupation. The Tonghak religion, which had by then been renamed Ch'londo-gyo, headed the March First Independence Movement, and thus became the fundamental domestic force behind the anti-Japanese struggle.

Another new religion by the name of Taejonggyo moved its headquarters to Manchuria where it became the main procurer of recruits and funds for anti-Japanese guerrilla forces. In fact, Taejonggyo coordinated the famous Ch'ongsan-ri attack in south-east Manchuria in which resistance fighters crushed a vastly superior Japanese force. It was also the leading organization in Korea's provisional government in Shanghai. In his Kaebyok teachings concerning the advent of a new cosmic order, Kang Chung-san had predicted the eventual downfall of the Japanese. His followers, having faith in his religious prophecies, were thus able to find courage in the face of Japanese tyranny.

Academic circles, centered around so-called Korean studies (i.e. Korean history and language), traditional arts and mass media, formed the second force behind Korean nationalism. By the late-Choson period, a national enlightenment movement, which combined nationalist ideologies and faiths, had already formed outside the scope of Confucianism. This movement first manifested itself as a religious movement, but then appeared as a diverse intellectual movement promoting awareness of Korean culture's unique identity. Key spokesmen for this movement were Shin Cha'e-ho (1880-1936), who promoted an enlightened, nationalistic perspective within historical studies, and Chu Shi-gyong, who promoted Korean language studies.

The central objective of the nationalist movement was not so much a rejection of Westernization, but the advancement of national identity. Hence, its primary objective was to achieve independence from Japan. Yet the movement knew that in order to obtain political autonomy, it first had to promote Korea's cultural independence. For this reason, the nationalist movement demanded, before anything else, the preservation and restoration of Korea's traditional culture. Within this context, the religious movement, which emphasized the sacred character of Korean culture, and the intellectual movement, which sought to advance Korean studies, formed a complementary relationship. Thus, theories of ancient Korean history as exposed by nationalist historians became the philosophical foundation of the indigenous religious movements of the early twentieth century.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a dictatorship under the absolute rule of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP). Kim Il Sung led the DPRK from its inception until his death in 1994. Since then his son Kim Jong Il appears to have had unchallenged authority. Kim Jong Il was named General Secretary of the KWP in October 1997. In September 1998, the Supreme People's Assembly reconfirmed Kim Jong Il as Chairman of the National Defense Commission and declared that position the "highest office of state." The presidency was abolished leaving the late Kim Il Sung as the DPRK's only president.

Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il continue to be the objects of intense personality cults. Even after Kim Il Sung's death, his cult of personality and the glorification of his family and the official juche ideology remained omnipresent. The cult approaches the level of a state religion. In 1997 the Nodong Shinmun newspaper announced that the class indoctrination program would be intensified after Kim Jong Il assumed the office of General Secretary of the KWP. The program was being administered by the KWP's basic-level organizations in all areas of the country. The program stressed two points: That the Kim Jong Il leadership blesses the people, and that the people must do their best for the economy.

The cadre began to crack from within, as seen with the defection on 12 February 1997 of Hwang Jang-yup, an intellectual architect of the North's Juche ideology. North Korea undertook successive efforts at nationwide mobilization, as exemplified by events such as the "Arduous March, "the "Desperate March for Socialism," and the "Second Round of Chollima Movement."

The goal of indoctrination remains to ensure loyalty to the system and leadership, as well as conformity to the State's ideology and authority. The necessity for the intensification of such indoctrination is repeatedly stressed in the writings of Kim Jong Il, who attributes the collapse of the Soviet Union largely to insufficient ideological indoctrination, compounded by the entry of foreign influences.

Indoctrination is carried out systematically, not only through the mass media, but also in schools and through worker and neighborhood associations. Kim Jong Il has stated that ideological education must take precedence over academic education in the nation's schools, and he has also called for the intensification of mandatory ideological study and discussion sessions for adult workers.

North Korea is potentially the most volatile part of the world, propelled by concepts as Juche (self-reliance), Kibun (spirit), and Cheymyon (saving face). There is great diversity in Korean character as expressed in day-to-day human relations. There is, on the one hand, the image of Koreans as self-controlled, deferential, and meticulous in the fulfillment of their social obligations; on the other hand, there is the Korean reputation for volatility and emotionalism.

An important value is known as the concept of "face." The concept of face is an extremely important and means "I am not going to do anything to embarrass anyone else." In the concept of "face," individuals who disagree with someone will not argue face to face. They will get an intermediary, who will intermediate between two people, so the disagreement can be resolved to avoid direct conflict. Any personal failure is a loss of chemyeon both to the individual and to those groups in which he is embedded. But there is no civic obligation to an anonymous community which does not engage their chemyeon.

A Korean value is the concept of "Kibun." "Kibun" is based on a Korean word which means "to feel." This concept is very similar the Chinese value of "face." It's basically they will not do or say anything to make another person upset. The close equivalents of Kibun in English are mood, feelings, and state of mind. The maintenance of one's Kibun produces an inner, peaceful environmen. Other persons are required to assess a person's Kibun so they can meet their needs and communicate effectively. This unique assessment is called nunchi [Neunchi]. Kibun is easily disturbed, as when a young person shows irreverence to an elder.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2021 17:11:42 ZULU