[Viewpoint] Juche and the North’s nuclear arms‘I spent 80 percent of my 23 years of upbringing to longing,” declared the late, widely loved poet So Chung-ju, whom many admirers frequently called by the pen name Midang, in his youthful days seven decades ago. One could not have grown solely by longing, but the quotation connotes the poet’s earlier trajectory of loneliness and destitution.
In self-containment, no country could today match North Korea. But at its inception, the socialist newborn completely relied on the Soviet Union and China, its ideological parents.
China saved the North from defeat during the Korean War (1950-53) while the Soviets contributed to its post-war prosperity through various forms of assistance. The North reached adolescence without much lacking under their care.
Then in 1965, the North suddenly declared self-reliance, or juche, as its official state ideology.
In borrowed words from Midang, the North pronounced, “From the time I turn 20, I will provide myself with 80 percent of what I need. ”
Even a lonely boy like Midang didn’t grow completely on his own. The poet said he had “a father who never comes” and “an ancient grandmother,” that constituted at least 20 percent of his life. North Korea too could not entirely go without economic aid and oil offered by its comrade countries.
But more than four decades have passed since so-called juche was declared.
The state that remains today stands largely estranged and oblivious to the sweeping changes taking place in the rest of the world.
It stayed impervious to the end of the Cold War and the ebbing away of socialism. It put on a brave face even after China, its strongest ally, chose to convert to a market-centered economy under the influence of Deng Xiaoping’s logic that “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.”
North Koreans even under mass famine could not disavow their “Dear Leader’s” dogma of self-reliance, because in doing so, they would disclaim the decades-old reason for the state’s existence. The system broke down, driving thousands of its people to death from extreme starvation.
In desperation, the country remained obstinate. Its conviction was dogged. It shouted its rallying cry louder to convince itself.
Forty-five years ago, the juche doctrine had been a political ideology, but now it is an irreversible reality. Forgoing the juche dogma would virtually mean the end of the legacy of the Kim family regime.
Standing at the threshold of the 21st century, the country suddenly broke ice and shook hands with its enemy over the southern fence.
But secretly, it built up military power under reinforced juche preaching, finally succeeding in producing nuclear weapons.
It had no other choice.
Nuclear power became its sole bargaining chip for survival and defense of the regime’s convictions.
An American special envoy will soon visit North Korea.
The agenda for bilateral talks will center on the North’s return to disarmament talks with four other partners, South Korea, Russia, China and Japan.
Washington will likely press for an immediate halt to the North’s nuclear program during the first high-level one-on-one talks with Pyongyang after President Barack Obama took office.
Pyongyang naturally will stay recalcitrant. Nuclear weapons have come to symbolize its military power and juche.
The nuclear power is now the basis not only of the North’s physical existence, but its spiritual existence, as well. Even if the North rejoins the six-party negotiations, the path to complete disarmament remains tumultuous. North Korea won’t sway until it gets compensated for abandoning the essence of its life.
Washington’s envoy will try to sell the “Grand Bargain,” a package of security guarantees and economic aid in return for an irrevocable halt in the North’s nuclear weapons program.
It remains doubtful whether North Korea will agree to the newly bundled offer of rewards in return for its lifeblood. Those at the negotiating table must remember that they face a different kind of bargaining partner.
This time, all the chips must be laid out on the table from the start, and quid pro quo playing must end. Our side must hint we can offer more and move faster than North Korea.
What matters is to end the North’s nuclear program once and for all. We cannot lose more than having to live under the shadow of atomic bombs. More important than material compensation are actions to fill the ideological void North Koreans would feel after losing their nuclear arms. They would have to find a new national priority while being assured their system remains tenable.
North Koreans must be given hope for new protection and faith to help them carry on.
*The writer is a professor on North Korean affairs at Ewha Womans University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Cho Dong-ho