Rumors that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is either dead or gravely ill have made me reminisce about the three trips I took to Pyongyang as part of my previous professional assignment. In one of those trips, we were taken to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, a vast edifice housing the embalmed remains of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il.

I thought it was clever that the place was called a palace rather than a mausoleum. The two deceased leaders have never really left the North Korean state: the elder Kim remains officially in office as the country’s “Eternal President,” while his son remains the party’s “Eternal General Secretary.”

The palace was a sprawling complex unlike anything I had seen. It was even more impressive than the humongous Great Hall of the People on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The Chinese Great Hall was an imposing structure, designed to inspire among its visitors a profound sense of awe towards the mighty Chinese state. The North Korean temple was somehow similar, but more. It had an eerie aura that appeared designed to evoke some sense of solemn tranquility. It was almost mystical.

When I visited the place, there were throngs of locals who were also paying a pilgrimage. My local interlocutor said they came from the countryside on community-organized tours – kind of like a hajj of sort. Wearing the same simple but formal attire punctuated by the familiar breastplate containing images of the deceased Kims, the visitors were all made to organize themselves in straight lines, as if they were schoolchildren. I tried to smile to some of them, but they did not smile back.

We were carried by a slow walkalator through a lengthy hallway that brought us to the palace entrance. It may have been almost a kilometer long. At the end of the walkway, we moved through a conveyor that cleaned the soles of our shoes. Inside the main building was a cavernous hall with imposing statues of the deceased leaders. We ascended upon a grand staircase towards the leaders’ chambers. At the entrance, there were anterooms with industrial blowers not unlike the disinfection chambers that often greet visitors to science laboratories. Their subliminal message seemed unmistakable: we have to be clean in the presence of the eternal leaders.

In a lighted glass coffin in the middle of the dark room, flanked by four honor guards, lay in state the remains of Kim Il Sung, father of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We were made – or requested, as my guide framed it – to bow before the preserved corpse. All of these rituals were repeated when we went to the chambers of his son and successor, the Eternal General Secretary Kim Jong Il.

I closely examined the faces of all the other North Korean visitors that visited the palace with me that day, including our own liaison officers who had probably accompanied countless foreign visitors to the same shrine before. I was trying to see hints of any feeling other than genuine reverence. I could not find any.

I grew up imagining that the North Koreans would take the first opportunity to overthrow the Kim dynasty if given a chance. Three years of interactions with informed interlocutors knowledgeable on North Korean affairs, along with the three trips I made to Pyongyang, dispelled this notion. It was clear to me that the avid devotion of the North Korean people towards their leader, though no doubt demonstrated by each citizen to a wide range of degrees, was more or less authentic.

A friend of mine, a Japanese journalist with unparalleled expertise on North Korea, once told me that acknowledging the authenticity of this public devotion is a good means to establish genuine friendship with a North Korean contact. “If it’s one of the Kims’ birthday, congratulate them. If Kim Jong Un dies, condole with them,” he advised. He said this courtesy would be appreciated whether the person is a true believer or not. Indeed, most of my friend’s North Korean contacts are pragmatic businessmen who are not naïve about their country’s politics. Not all Catholics practice the faith, but all of them respect the pope.

North Koreans grow up with pictures of the two Kims in their living rooms. At school, they are taught about the innate goodness of the Dear Leader, who is said to descend from a precious bloodline emanating from the sacred Mount Paektu. Having grown accustomed to revering the Kim dynasty, it is not a surprise that some economic refugees from North Korea have willingly returned to their old country. Skeptics would call this brainwashing, but in a way this is not too different from how individuals grow up in, say, Christian or Islamic cultures. No matter how secularized they become – indeed even if they become atheists – their morality would always be influenced by the theology of their early religious formation. After all, it is human nature to hold on to the norms and values of one’s culture.

The Dear Leader as the brain of a single-hearted organism

For North Korea, these norms and values underpin the legitimacy of the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the country since 1948. The premise of this legitimacy finds expression in a novel ideology called juche. Roughly translated as “self-reliance,” this ideology emphasizes the values of national independence, economic self-sustenance, and strong national defense. Juche insists that these three elements can only be achieved through unity under a single, absolute leadership.  

This unabashedly nationalist undertone represents a glaring dissonance with orthodox communist ideology, which is internationalist in nature. The ultimate goal of communism, after all, is the withering away of the state. Some argue that the North Korean ideology is not really Marxist but a Korean adaptation of State Shinto, the Japanese religion that preached the inherent superiority of the Japanese race and the divinity of its emperor. Like the Japanese militarism of the 1930s, they argue, the North Korean system promotes racial purity and worship of the father-leader. This is a clever but incomplete analysis.

Strictly speaking, juche is a quasi-communist ideology. It is an offshoot of Marxism in the same manner that Arianism is an offshoot of Christianity. Unlike State Shinto and Confucianism, which are premised on some preordained cosmic order, both Marxism and juche reject the metaphysical. They insist that the material world is the only reality in the universe. How they proceed from this fundamental premise, however, is starkly different.

For orthodox Marxists, the only source of reality is matter. Plant, animal, and man all emanate from matter. Even human society is nothing but a manifestation of matter. Proceeding from this premise, Marxists believe that matter inevitably moves by law of inexorable necessity and through a perpetual conflict of forces towards the final synthesis of a classless society.

Juche, on the other hand, is fundamentally humanist. It rejects the Marxist emphasis on materialism, arguing that man can control material forces if he is able to muster enough strength. While Marxists are resigned to the inevitability of the historical process, juche posits that man can subdue matter and drive the forces of history. This can be achieved if man becomes self-reliant, and if the masses are to be engaged in “single-hearted unity.”

The phrase “single-hearted unity” dominates the talking points of all North Korean officials in the same manner that “praise the Lord” intersperses the language of every evangelical preacher. According to juche, the revolution can only be actualized if the masses “throw their lot with one another” and form a “single socio-political organism.” This single organism consolidates the masses, the party, and the leader. Its brain is the suryong, roughly translated as “the great leader.” Under this theory, the masses are not supposed to think for themselves, but instead to think through the suryong. This can only work, of course, if the suryong exhibits unassailable attributes.

Conveniently for North Korea, the suryong came in the person of Kim Il Sung and his children. From womb to tomb, North Koreans learn that the dynasty that Kim spawned has been flawless and incorruptible, a model for everyone to emulate. When people say that Kim Jong Un can claim legitimacy because he looks like his grandfather, they are not kidding. The young leader’s mandate is derived from the fact that he carries his grandfather’s genes. The more he can demonstrate that, the more he can lay claim to being the brain of the North Korean organism.

Juche, Songun, and Byungjin

As the brain of North Korea, Kim Jong Un thought for himself indeed. In the three years that I closely observed North Korean affairs, I saw the impressive way with which he consolidated power and then shifted major policies. His reforms represented the third transformation of North Korea.

His grandfather’s imposition of juche represented the first transformation. This new ideology represented a break from both the Soviet and Chinese interpretations of Marxist thought. It was designed to establish uniform leadership. During Kim Il Sung’s rule, the North Koreans had an economy more advanced than that of the south. Thanks to generous Soviet aid, the North Korean conception of their country as a socialist paradise could be reconciled with reality to some degree.

Things changed by the time Kim Jong Il succeeded in 1994. The Soviet Union and the eastern bloc had collapsed, depriving Pyongyang of crucial economic lifeline. South Korea had become a first world country, and its influences began to creep into the north. Since it had become difficult to hide North Korea’s economic regression, the narrative had to change. It was in this context that a corollary doctrine to juche was introduced. Songun, or “military-first,” was adopted as a guiding policy. According to its premise, the North Korean misery – millions died in a three-year famine that has since been euphemistically labeled as “the Arduous March” – was caused by threats from imperialist powers. To defend the North Koreans against these threats, Kim Jong Il pursued the ultimate deterrence: nuclear bombs. To put it crudely, the bomb became more important than food. This was North Korea’s second transformation.

Kim Jong Un took over at the young age of 28. His youth made him think long-term: how to sustain the regime for the next fifty years, or until the time he reaches the age of 78. Naturally, he concluded that something had to be done about the economy. In this context, juche and songun further evolved to include the concept of byungjin, or “two priorities.” Under byungjin, the military, particularly the state nuclear force, was to be prioritized along with the economy. In 2019, this was further modified. North Koreans were told that they had already reached success in creating a state nuclear force. The time has therefore come to focus only on the economy.

At first glance, it would appear that Kim Jong Un wanted to become North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping. Deng transformed China by introducing his policy of “reform and opening up.” Observers of North Korean affairs, however, have called Kim’s policy “reform without opening up.” Under the new policy, Pyongyang shifted focus to “economic construction,” but there was to be no political reforms. Still, the message was well received. Kim Jong Un told his people that they should never again go hungry.

But these reforms have caused some minor disruption in the political order. Kim Jong Un enhanced the role of the party politically, and of private business economically. These upended the primacy of the military establishment, which dominated those spheres under the songun line. To be sure, the military is firmly under the control of Kim Jong Un’s leash. In the event that the Dear Leader’s health falters, however, it is not unlikely for this leash to loosen.

It is in this context that I view the potential news of Kim Jong Un’s untimely passing as an unwelcome development. The absence of a suitable offspring makes it difficult to smoothly maintain stability in the event of a premature transition. Given the requirements of juche, the intuitive successor would be the suryong‘s sister, the propaganda chief Kim Yo Jong. If she successfully succeeds, it would be a milestone for North Korean women. Given the political dynamics created by recent reforms, however, her success is not completely assured.