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What is North Korea’s juche ideology and why is it linked to its response to COVID-19?

If something has characterized North Korea in more than seven decades of history, in addition to the totalitarian command of the dynasty kimis his determination to seek self-sufficiency and distrust everything that comes from abroad.

As the then-new coronavirus pandemic began, Kim Jong-un rushed to lock down the country.

To prevent the entry of the virus, it closed and reinforced its borders, prohibiting the entry of people and non-essential items.

“They expected to maintain that isolation for a few years, until the end of the global pandemic,” Andrei Lankov, director of the specialized portal, tells BBC Mundo. NKNews and considered one of the greatest experts on North Korea.

The self-confidence of the regime reached such a point that it rejected offers from China and the Covax mechanism to vaccinate its population against covid-19.

In fact, has not given a single dose among its 25 million inhabitants.

But the virus entered North Korea and this week there has been an explosion of cases.

Today the infections exceed two million and the government has reported 65 deaths, although it is believed that there could be many more.

Kim’s strategy of betting on radical isolation and refusing vaccines has not come as a surprise to those who know North Korea and the ideology that governs the state well: the juche doctrine.

What is juche?

Pronounced “sweet” (in Korean 주체) the word does not have an exact translation in Spanishwhich is why it is usually defined as “self-sufficiency” or “self-confidence”.

The existence of North Korea since 1945 (although it was three years later when it was officially established as a state) is linked to the figure of the “eternal president” Kim Il Sung who, sponsored by Stalin, founded the country and ruled it until his death in 1994.

Kim Jong-un’s grandfather formulated the word juche for the first time in the 1950s and imposed it as state doctrine in the following decade, when North Korea was a small -although strategic- exponent of the communist bloc in Asia in the shadow of the two giants: the Soviet Union and China.

“Kim Il Sung envisioned three specific applications of the Juche philosophy: political and ideological independence, especially from the USSR and China; economic independence and self-sufficiency; and a viable national defense system,” explains academic Grace Lee in a Stanford Magazine article on East Asian issues.

Kim Il-sung himself defined juche as “being the master of revolution and reconstruction in one’s own country,” which includes “rejecting dependence on others, using one’s own brain, believing in one’s own strength, displaying one’s revolutionary spirit.” of self-sufficiency and solving problems by oneself”.

His son Kim Jong-il (who ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, but since the 1970s he was monopolizing great power in the state) is credited with having perfected and consolidated the Juche doctrine.

North Korea is also characterized by the personality cult of its leaders. Portraits like the ones in the photo (of the founder Kim Il-sung next to his son and his successor Kim Jong-il), as well as statues, are omnipresent in the country. GETTY IMAGES

The second of the Kim dynasty confirmed that the internationalist vocation of world communism did not go too far with North Korea and proclaimed “Korean-style socialism”.

Thus, the State underpinned its particular ideology that fuses Marxism with the isolationist, Confucian, and feudal tradition of pre-Japanese-occupied Korea of the early twentieth century.

Korea was in those days known as “the hermit kingdom” for its rejection of trade with other countries and his extreme distrust of everything foreign.

The Juche Tower in Pyongyang, one of the main monuments in the country with 170 meters high, was built in 1982 to pay homage to the ideology that governs North Korea.  GETTY IMAGES

The Juche Tower in Pyongyang, one of the main monuments in the country with 170 meters high, was built in 1982 to pay homage to the ideology that governs North Korea. GETTY IMAGES

Foreigners no thanks

And, more than a century later, that distrust persists.

“The country has assumed the juche medical policy as a preventive method” for covid-19, Professor Nam Sung-wook, a specialist in North Korean studies at the University of Korea in Seoul, assures BBC Mundo.

“The policy from the beginning has been to block and prevent the entry of foreigners. North Korea has historically been that kind of country and their mentality is to prevent those ‘terrible’ foreigners from entering with that virus”, explains, for his part, Daniel Tudor, author of the book North Korea Confidential.

In fact, the mistrust of everything foreign during the global health crisis not only explains the closure of borders, according to experts, but also also the rejection of vaccines.

“Their logic is clear: they did not want to invite foreigners, whom they saw as possible spreaders of the disease, and without the assistance of foreigners it is impossible to carry out a vaccination campaign on a large scale,” says Andrei Lankov.

Professor Lankov also points out that North Korea lacks the necessary capital, equipment and experience to develop a vaccine of its own, or at least to do so without the help of foreign technicians.

The truth is that with its anticovid policy of total isolation and without vaccination, North Korea launched a risky “all or nothing” bet.

Kim Jong-un brought together the members of the Political Bureau of the Workers' Party in the midst of a health crisis this week.  KCNA VIA REUTERS

Kim Jong-un brought together the members of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party in the midst of a health crisis this week. KCNA VIA REUTERS

Had the virus not entered, the country could remain a rare exception in this pandemic that has caused more than 6 million deaths worldwide.

But, if he entered, and this is what has happened, it was feared that the consequences could be devastating.

North Korean state media have so far reported 65 deaths, but experts question that number.

“The number of deaths they report is greatly underestimated. Only if we take into account the normal mortality rate of omicron, should be at least 1,000″, indicates Lankov.

In addition, there are other factors that could increase deaths, such as the poor health status of part of the population due to endemic food shortages, serious shortages of medical supplies or the precarious state of hospitals.

juche and hunger

The mountainous regions far from the capital are the ones that have suffered the most from food shortages since the

The mountainous regions and remote from the capital are the ones that have suffered the most from food shortages since the “hard march” of the mid-1990s to date. GETTY IMAGES

BBC Mundo also spoke with David S. Hong, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Stanford University and a member of the pediatric neurosurgery development program in Pyongyang.

Asked about North Korea’s radical anticovid strategy, Hong considers that it is “largely attributable to the juche ideology.”

“It is a country that does everything possible to maintain self-sufficiency, even when facing famine they try to manage it themselves”.

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the socialist bloc, North Korea suffered a serious economic crisis known as “the hard march” and to which between 500,000 and 2 million deaths from hunger are attributed.

The country never fully recovered from that crisis and to this day part of its population suffers from lack of food.

Despite its isolationist policy, in the past decades the regime gradually authorized the entry of some organizations such as the Red Cross or the World Food Program (WFP), which maintained active programs to combat hunger in the country.

In the 2000s international agencies began to work in North Korea.  In the photo, from 2002, children from Kangwon (in the south of the country) attend a class with World Food Program cookies on their desks.  GETTY IMAGES

In the 2000s international agencies began to work in North Korea. In the photo, from 2002, children from Kangwon (in the south of the country) attend a class with World Food Program cookies on their desks. GETTY IMAGES

Dr. Hong says that both the WHO and non-governmental organizations are looking for ways to assist North Korea in the current health crisis, although he is not sure if the regime will accept the help.

“The North Koreans may not want to accept it because they think it might affect their strategy, and they may see it as a way that a foreign country might try to take advantage of them in another way,” he says.

“They are very concerned to see what the motivations of foreigners are, what is the intention that can hide for a foreign country to help the North Koreans.”

Source: Elcomercio

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