Missile tests by North Korea and a war of words with the United States have opened the world’s most secretive state to closer global scrutiny. Media pundits are deriding the North as a famine-stricken wasteland of coerced mourners. They say it is led by an unstable maniac, all of this actually serves to display the west’s age-old ignorance of North Korea’s governing philosophy.

In 2011, it was reported that North Koreans who didn’t show grief over the death of “The Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il were subject to punishment. This story quickly spread around the world. It justified beliefs that hysterical North Koreans showed flooding tears on camera because of bayonets in the backs, rather than because of real grief. But was it true?

The grief of the people was real and sincere, even if scenes were contrived for television audiences. But where does such sincerity come from?

The answer is Confucius, whose teachings from the fifth century B.C. guided China’s political fortunes into the twentieth century, and continue to guide North Korea’s through the twenty-first.

North Korea functions under founder Kim Il Sung’s philosophy of Juche, or self-sufficiency. At its heart, Juche is a mix of classic Confucianism and modern communism.

Philosophically, North Korea is the real Korea. South Korea has done away with its Confucian principles in governance and to a degree in culture. By contrast, North Korea continues the principle of the ancient “Hermit Kingdom”. Real hard data on Korea did not emerge until after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. At that time, Japan forcibly opened the Hermit Kingdom. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the North closed up again, theoretically for self-preservation.

It is a highly paternalistic society and their leader is indeed a fatherly figure. This is why people cried genuine streams of tears for Kim Jong Il. We saw this public mourning earlier in 1994 when Kim Il Sung died, and the entire country went into mourning for 40 days. His death coincided with natural disasters. According to the Confucian worldview, this is a sign that Heaven and the Divine were in mourning for “The Great Leader.”

The state and society are at the whim of fate. It bends as a reed, as Confucius taught, and cannot forcibly change history. This is partly why they refuse to call for outside aid in times of trouble. The other reason is to show no weakness to enemies who surround them. Again, the Confucian belief is that China was the only civilized country. The Korean kings and their successors in North Korea adopted this view, that barbarians surround the country.

The Confucian order of society demands a top-down approach to governance. Most people are peasants or menial laborers and therefore bound to obey their leaders unquestioningly, much today as it was 2,500 years ago.

There is no sign that Juche or Confucianism is weakening in the North anytime soon. So, keep a look out for shooting stars on the Young Leader’s birthday, January eighth. They are a sure sign that the Real Korea’s dynasty has not lost the mandate of Heaven.


Sidney Petron is a historian and political analyst situated in New Haven, Connecticut.

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