With heavily saturated colour palettes, Soviet-style depictions of the North Korean leader and dizzying numbers of dancers swirling about one another in perfectly choreographed movements, North Korean spectacles are truly fascinating.
These elaborate productions appear absurd in their opulence and are often the only encounter the rest of the world has with the seemingly impenetrable East Asian nation. Within North Korea, however, these large government-sponsored events are used to express the Juche ideology that defines the North Korean identity. While global audiences may interpret the events as displays of governmental strength, they also serve as key demonstrations of the power of Juche as a unifying force for the North Korean people.
Composed of the characters for “master” (주) and “body” (체), Juche is defined by the DPRK’s website as “the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything.” This “man-centred world outlook” has been characterised as distinctly North Korean, but it can be traced back to a deeper history.
“Contrary to common misunderstanding, Juche is not a neologism that North Korea created,” says Suzy Kim, associate professor of Korean history at Rutgers University. “It was a term used throughout the colonial period when Korea was ruled by Japan (1910-45) to denote the importance of maintaining one’s subjectivity and sense of self at a time when its [Korea’s] national identity was all but being erased by the Japanese.”
Juche has become the central ethos of the North Korean government. Drawing from traditional notions of Koreanness, Juche is employed to unify the North Korean people behind the supposed successes of their government. Parades and massive public spectacles are one way North Korean leaders use Juche to display power.
Western opponents of North Korea, like the United States, often read these parades only as elaborate displays of military power. While demonstrations of military strength are one function of government spectacles, this understanding ignores how parades play into the relationship between the North Korean people and their government.
“Much of what goes on in North Korea is for North Korea itself, contrary to what outsiders might think,” says Kim. “Military parades are not just purely military – the whole event is geared toward expressing national pride, whether through military strength, the displayed bond between leader and people (as when the leader and people wave at each other during the parades) or the traditional dress worn by the women,” says Kim.
Non-military participants perform dances in unison, hold up placards to form large-scale images of DPRK symbolism and sometimes perform the foundation story of the country. The result is, quite literally, awesome.
Each moment is an exercise in patriotism, unified through actions and a sense of what it means to be a citizen of the DPRK. As depicted in the BBC 4 documentary North Korea: A State of Mind, non-military participants spend hours every day preparing to create perfectly synchronised performances that represent a synchronised state of mind.
While military service is part of the North Korean experience, Juche relies primarily on a close link to traditional culture. This is why women in the parades are often dressed in ceremonial clothing styles that date back centuries – to long before Korea was split by the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).
“In historical terms, it is perfectly understandable why a postcolonial state like North Korea came to use Juche as its main political ideology as a way to signal the importance of maintaining national identity, autonomy and independence,” says Kim.
Life under the rule of foreign governments – first during the Japanese occupation and later as part of the Soviet sphere of influence – led to a desire for a tangible sense of Koreanness. Juche as an identity-driven ideology is used to give North Koreans ownership of their past. Large-scale performances of national character are intended to unify experiences and expressions of Koreanness in the DPRK.
Key to that unification is a devotion to the North Korean leader, always a central figure in public spectacles. Functioning as protector of the North Korean people, Kim Jong-un and his predecessors have often opted to remain outside of global politics, earning the country its reputation as insulated and openly uncooperative.
Because of actions by North Korean leadership, Juche is cited as a reason for the country’s poor diplomacy. While the DPRK often uses Juche as a reason to employ protectionist policies, Juche does not dictate that the country remain diplomatically isolated.
“Self-reliance is not the same as self-sufficiency,” says Suzy Kim. “Juche is not incompatible with maintaining good relations with the international community, despite the way it is often misunderstood by outsiders.”
It is easy to write off large-scale spectacles as no more than a dictator’s indulgence, but this practice is not unique to the DPRK. During the early 20th century, it was common for Western powers to put on similar performances of national pride.
The practice even persists today. On 14 July, France holds an annual Bastille Day Parade to commemorate the unified action it took to ignite the French Revolution. On 4 July, parades take place all over the United States featuring depictions of American presidents and cultural performances to celebrate American independence from Great Britain. Each event aims to unify the audiences behind a sense of what it means to embody their national spirit.
While freedom-of-speech protections allow citizens of France and the United States the ability to speak out against their respective governments, they also adhere to a semi-Juche ideology that idealises patriotism. This is not, of course, to suggest a moral equivalence between Western governments and that of North Korea, which operates a brutal gulag and in the 1990s presided over a famine that killed perhaps 3 million people.
Clearly, Juche as a concept of national pride is not without its problems, but if outsiders want to peel back the layers on North Korea, we should try to understand the ideology. Rather than assuming the nation is completely shrouded in mystery, we should respectfully consider the North Korean people’s conception of their identity, which involves more than just being subjects of a one-party state. Perhaps if the world can understand this, it could help improve global relationships with the DPRK.