Skip to content

North Korea’s Search for Totality

But behold now the glorious Freedom idea! That perfect and absolute Sovereignty of the sinless Messiah . . . contains the direct denial and challenge of all absolute Sovereignty on earth in sinful man; because of the division of life into spheres, each with its own Sovereignty.
                                            —Abraham Kuyper1

In early April, I participated in the Pyongyang Marathon, organized for the birthday of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung (1912–1994), founder of the Kim dynasty. He is the father of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il (1941–2011), and the grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong-un. Our tour departed from Beijing, my home base in East Asia. Truth be told, I wasn’t terribly interested in the trip’s athletic component. Rather, I thought the four-day trip was a great opportunity to observe the world’s most totalitarian society. Running was just part of the bargain.

To a sociologist like myself, totalitarian regimes are fascinating because true totalitarianism is as extreme as it is rare in world history. Simple authoritarianism is much more common. In an authoritarian regime the political elite is relatively pragmatic; they tackle only concrete political threats and require few resources to maintain themselves. A totalitarian regime, by contrast, uses every available means in pursuit of its utopian vision. In order to realize that vision, the political center of the regime attempts to extend its authority and ideology to all spheres of life, and it sees all resistance to its project—even well-intentioned calls for pragmatism and moderation—as politically hostile. Also, whereas authoritarian regimes often behave unethically, totalitarian regimes tend to reject the premises of individual ethics altogether. The totalitarian spirit seeks to overwrite these with a collective utopian project, one that demands absolute leader worship and the individual’s submission to totalizing political control and centralized guidance. Besides North Korea, examples of totalitarian regimes include Maoist China, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the First French Republic during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, and, most recently, the Islamic State caliphate. Present-day Saudi Arabia and China possess some totalitarian tendencies and can perhaps be labeled “semi-totalitarian.”

But let us turn first to the Pyongyang Marathon.

Straight through Pyongyang

The marathon ran straight through downtown Pyongyang, and began and ended in a full Kim Il-sung Stadium. There were North Korean and foreign runners, including professional athletes and amateurs. All along the wide boulevards we were cheered on by local residents, and the cheering crowds, purple blossoms, and pastel-colored buildings provided a surprisingly joyful scenery. My own athletic performance was no cause for celebration, however. There were several different distances, and I wobbled through the ten-kilometer “version” of the marathon, which is rather far from a marathon proper.

While waiting for my Swedish friend who ran the full marathon, I got pretty drunk with three elderly North Koreans at a small beer stand next to the stadium, which was still within the permitted area our guides had instructed us not to leave. I walked in, sat down at the only free seat, and joined in the drinking ritual, using a few Korean words and my experience with such festivities in China. From the confident manner of my drinking companions and the fact that we were in a privileged setting in downtown Pyongyang, I concluded that they must have been cadres.

Things went well at first, but the mood turned when a Norwegian from my tour group, who had sat down at the table next to us, began taking pictures of us. The guides had explicitly warned us not to photograph people without asking their permission first, and cadres in particular may not like being photographed in an intoxicated state by and with foreigners. One of the Koreans got angry and forced the Norwegian to delete the photos. His distrust then turned on me: did I also have pictures? I replied, “Not have” (eop-seo-yo), which, perhaps in combination with my messy, Boris Johnson-style hair, proved disarming enough. We resumed drinking.

The Humanistic and the Dehumanizing

The travel company I came with has been around since the early 1990s. In 2001, cofounder Nicholas Bonner brought the British-American journalist Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) into the country. Afterward, Hitchens wrote a scathing criticism of the North Korean regime and its apologists in Vanity Fair.2 When I had asked Mr. Bonner a few months earlier about Hitchens at a North Korea–themed event in a Beijing café, he had said that taking Hitchens had been “a mistake.” Bonner’s aim is not to apologize for the Kim regime but to show the human side of life in North Korea. Without such humanistic insight, one might all too easily conclude that it would be better to bomb the country into oblivion. Bonner recorded three thoughtful documentaries within North Korea and was one of the makers of the only feature film that emerged from a collaborative project between Western and North Korean filmmakers, Comrade Kim Goes Flying (2012). The film was a great, even unmatched, success in North Korean cinemas. Thus Bonner’s empathetic approach has borne some fruit, though he could have known that Hitchens, who was an avid reader of George Orwell and a staunch critic of authoritarianism, would focus on North Korea’s dehumanizing, totalitarian side.

When rereading Hitchens’s report from seventeen years ago, one notices how little has changed. In fact, in North Korea you often get the feeling that you have stepped out of a time machine. Images on walls and billboards are paintings or copies of paintings. There is no digital design anywhere. The grubby television screen in the revolving top-floor restaurant of the Yanggakdo Hotel—perhaps put there at the time of the hotel’s opening in 1996—looped a video of Kim Jong-il’s meeting with Deng Xiaoping in 1983. The whole country is stuck on replay, looping the liturgy of “Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism.” This is the institutionalized leadership cult around Kim Il-sung, to which first his son and now also his grandson have been added.

Our group—consisting of a dozen travelers accompanied by a British guide from the company and two Korean guides—got a tour through all the symptoms of a twentieth-century psychosis. During our visit to a middle school, we were first thrown into a room with stuffed animals for biology class, and immediately afterward were ushered into a classroom where silent, upright-sitting students had to serve us as photo objects. At first, they did not seem to react to anything we said to them in English and Korean, until someone from the group asked a child: “How old are you?” The class answered directly and synchronously, as if a button had been pressed: “We are thirteen years old!”

In yet another room a group of girls gave a dance and singing performance. In the end, we were synchronically waved goodbye by the forcibly smiling human puppets. I associate such objectifications with my experiences in China, where people also regularly reduce each other to use-objects and have little appreciation of autonomous individuality. Though I pondered the subject throughout my years in China, I am still uncertain to what extent this objectifying collectivism is Stalinist as opposed to being a legacy of an older East Asian culture. It must be some combination of those two. In any case, Westerners are too easily sucked in. We suddenly feel the urge to take photographs of North Korean individuals without asking their permission, as if they are mere objects. In our home countries, no one has to explain to us that this is indecent. It was reassuring, however, that I saw children chatting vivaciously when I peeked through a window into an unprepared class. Yet growing up there must be a curse.

Even creepier was the gigantic, windowless Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. The newly built museum is a haunted house full of wax figures of dead American soldiers and Orwellian lies. We walked over a dark forest path and through an underground shelter. A wind machine waved the clothes of a dead American. There was room for all sorts of simulated war scenes, but not for truth. A video and placards claim that the Americans had started the Korean War (1950–53). In reality it was Kim Il-sung, with Stalin’s tanks and logistical support. Most striking, however, is that the Chinese Communist comrades no longer appear in the story. The majority of the Northern armed forces and military dead were Chinese, but the solipsistic North Korean narrative pretends that Kim Il-sung singlehandedly defeated first the Japanese and then the Americans. One propaganda book speaks of the “iron-willed brilliant commander Kim Il Sung who defeated two strong enemies—the Japanese and the US imperialists—in one generation.”3

North Korea’s historiography is even worse than what I have seen in China, in Vietnam’s Military History Museum, and in the Yūshūkan war museum inside Tokyo’s notorious Yasukuni Shrine—all places where you find at least some facts amid all the infantilizing collective self-deception. I visited Yūshūkan two weeks before the Pyongyang War Museum, and the two proved a perfect pairing. At Yūshūkan, you learn that Japan had not occupied Korea but had rather always just defended Korea’s sovereignty against Chinese schemes; that it had allied itself to Nazi Germany and Italy only to safeguard international peace; and that Japan’s massive 1937 invasion of China responded to Chinese provocations and should be referred to as “the China incident.”

Ian Buruma’s masterful The Wages of Guilt compares Japanese and German postwar reflections on the Second World War. Though the German war crimes were of a more systematic, planned nature than those of the Japanese, it is stunning to observe the extent to which, in the post-war era, the Germans outdo the Japanese in self-critical reflectiveness and repentance. What initially surprised me, however, is that Buruma concludes that the reasons for the difference “are political rather than cultural.”4 He argues, convincingly, that the conditions of postwar occupation in Japan and Germany differed in ways that caused their memories of the war to diverge. He also warns, perhaps less persuasively, that the Germans do not have “a keener sense of guilt, or shame, than the Japanese,”5 which the “cultural” thesis would seem to imply. I would suggest that one thing speaks for the “cultural” interpretation, however: the pettiness that marks Japanese revisionist historiography is not confined to the Japanese Right, but rather shows up throughout East Asia in parallel, mirrored forms.

China’s official narrative, for example, make it seem as if the Communist Party chased the Japanese out of China, whereas in reality the Kuomintang was Japan’s strongest enemy in China. An even more crucial fact that tends to be downplayed if not denied, however, is that the United States defeated Japan and thereby saved the Chinese. The common counterpoint—which I hear not just from Chinese people but also from Americans—is that the Pearl Harbor attack rendered America’s full mobilization inevitable, as if this had been a mechanistic affair, requiring no real decision-making, still less moral considerations. In that account, there is indeed not much for China to be thankful for. But the United States could, in reality, just as well have reacted to Pearl Harbor with a more limited military strike or diplomatic reprimand. We should also not forget that Japan’s leadership decided to attack Pearl Harbor in reaction to the U.S.-led Western sanctions, which had cut off Japan’s oil supplies. The United States had pushed for those sanctions precisely because many Americans felt that Japan’s invasion of China was evil and needed to be contained. The big picture is thus that the United States saved China (and Korea) from the Japanese Empire for reasons that, to a significant extent, transcended narrow national self-interest. But try telling this to a contemporary Chinese citizen and you will tell her something that she has never heard before and that contradicts everything taught by the Chinese party-state.

There is a certain self-flattering infantilism, if not outright solipsism, to East Asia’s rival official historiographies, which at least in severity seems to have no counterpart in contemporary Western historiographies. There is certainly not a single post-Confucian East Asian country that even comes close to the truthfulness of (post-)Christian Germany. I suspect that the historical closedmindedness has much to do with the region’s traditional closedness. It is telling that, in no other world region but East Asia, countries have to go through such dramatic “opening up” phases to integrate with world society, or struggle afterward against such a distinct, seemingly natural tendency to close off again.

Still, North Korea’s distortions are in a league of their own. A museum that can write Mao out of the Korean War, just for the sake of solipsistic simplicity, can erase any truth. Would older North Koreans notice that he is missing from the story? Then again, from this story, all people are missing. The War Museum’s narrative is so dehumanized that it features no real human beings at all. You only have the mythological Leader, an abstract Korean hero nation, and foreign enemy collectives. Nowhere is there a realistic biography or a realistically explained decision or motive. Madness drips from the walls. When we walked out of the building after an hour, I was relieved to find sunlight still existed.

Juche and Confucius

The next perversion presented itself soon enough. We visited North Korea’s Bethlehem: the cottage where the Great Leader supposedly was born in 1912—or Juche year one in the North Korean calendar. The Korean guides literally called it a “holy place” in English, but in this manger never lay a true messiah. This false prophet did give us his “Juche philosophy,” however: some drivel about man, the cosmos, and national sovereignty. It is a bag of words on the level of a failed middle-school essay assignment, but in North Korea it is passed down the generations and considered humanity’s highest intellectual achievement.

And it comes with its own tower: the 170-meter-high Juche Tower, shaped in the form of a Pharaonic obelisk. I am not familiar with other philosophies that needed their own tower to impress: the Aristotelian Virtue Ethics Tower? the Spinozism Tower? Up we went in an elevator, however, escorted by a young and confident Korean elevator lady who spoke fluent English. While she talked to my Swedish friend, she exhibited behavior surprisingly similar to what outside North Korea is known as flirting—which was perhaps only fitting, given that we had just ascended an enormous phallic object. Still, it was daring from her side, given that any romantic connection to foreigners is strictly forbidden. The top floor offered a fine view over central Pyongyang.

In the bookstore, I bought a dozen translated books about Juche and the three Kims. All are impressive for their mindless bombast. Exposition of the Principle of Juche Idea opens as follows:

In the early 20th century, the sunlight of [the] savior it had groped for reached humanity at last. It was the birth of the Juche idea that illuminates the road of shaping destiny independently, putting an end to the history of human destiny full of subjugation and distress. This gave a rise to a new history. It was a beginning of emotional history in which the human beings can live with big dignity and pride for the first time in a millions years of human history.6

Kim Il-sung is perfect in every way and above all other leaders in world history:

He liberated the country deprived by the foreign force, repulsed the armed invasion of the imperialist allied forces and built the people-centered socialist country on his land. Human history does not know such a state leader as great Comrade Kim Il Sung.7

Yet you also come across subtler, more culturally interesting claims. When it is argued that Kim Il-sung was devoted to “the politics of love,”8 this might sound like mere empty flattery or creepy Orwellian newspeak, yet it is actually Confucian oldspeak. The classical Confucian notion is that the ruler should love his parents and ancestors like a good son and descendent, setting the right example for his subjects, who in turn are to love and serve their own parents, as well as, in extension, the parental ruler. The Confucian Classic of Filial Piety summarizes the ruler’s task as follows:

Confucius said, “If the Son of Heaven loves his parents, he will not detest the parents of others. If he respects his parents, he will not maltreat the parents of others. The Son of Heaven treats his parents with love and respect, leaving a great impact on his subjects with his ultimate virtue, thus setting a worthy example for the common people. That is the filial piety of the Son of Heaven.”9

The Confucian notion is that family and state governance are of the same nature, because the state is like a big family—an idea that Aristotle explicitly rejects on the first page of the Politics.10 In a harmonious order, the ruler furthers harmony in society by maintaining proper, harmonious relationships in his own life, while the subjects serve their own parents and the ruler as loyal, deferential children.

In this way, filial piety is at once the foundation of the family and the state, while the ruler’s filial piety is itself a means of governance: “Confucius said: ‘The wise king of the past governed his kingdom with filial piety.’”11 The hagiography of Kim Il-sung follows this Confucian model. One book chapter titled “An Utmost Devotion to Parents” celebrates his filial piety, which it presents as the foundation of his overall morality and love of the people. The tension with Marxism-Leninism is too obvious to ignore, however, even for Kim’s hagiographers, who need to explain how it is that this focus on filial piety is socialist and not traditionally Confucian:

President Kim Il Sung possessed a rarely found filial piety. This is of great importance in understanding his personality. In the East, from olden times, devotion to parents has been regarded as the most important principle of morality and all the ethics are thought to be rooted in it. . . . The President’s filial piety is mentioned here not in its traditional meaning because with him it is inseparably linked with his revolutionary character.12

Here the hagiographers have a two-part strategy: first, they suggest that the North Koreans whose parents Kim extends his filial piety to, are or were good revolutionaries. “His profound concern for the mothers of anti-Japanese martyrs is a continuation of his deep filial devotion to his own mother, I think.”13 Second, as I learned at Kim Il-sung’s supposed birth house, they claim that his parents were revolutionaries, so that his seemingly traditional filial piety was in effect also revolutionary.

Equally telling is that Kim Jong-il went through a three-year mourning period before formally taking up the position of chairman after his father’s death in 1994. In the Confucian tradition, three years is the maximum period a pious son is allowed to mourn his father. The Classic of Filial Piety states that, “The time for mourning should not be longer than three years.”14 All in all, the Kim dynasty in North Korea is much more traditionally Confucian than was Mao’s rule in China.

I began studying my new North Korean books on the last night of the tour. While the others in our group drank beer in the hotel bar, excitedly chatting about the rumor that the ladies in the hotel basement gave more than just regular massages, my Swedish friend and I were reading Kim books at the table next to them. At one point, our senior Korean guide came by. He was tipsy and somewhat abruptly grabbed the book I was reading, probably thinking that it was a foreign book I had brought with me on the trip. We could tell that he was looking for something to tease us with—a kind of playful taunt I recognized from my time living in South Korea. But just when he was about to kick in his little joke, he noticed that the book was North Korean and about the wise insights of the Leaders. Oops. In North Korea, jokes about the Leaders are not funny at all. He quickly put it away and grabbed the book my friend was reading. That one turned out to be about the Leaders too. He then went for the pile on the table, all of which were about Juche. We looked at him, wondering how he was going to get himself out of this one. “Those are great books!” he stammered, and he turned and walked straight toward the exit, defeated by the symbolic power of the Kim dynasty.

The Total Human and the Confucian Mandarin

North Korea is a land under the spell of the Total Human: the delusion that the Party elite and the highest Leaders in particular are good at everything, know all that is important, and unite all virtues. This myth serves to legitimize the totalitarian Gleichschaltung, for if the Leaders are omniscient and sinless, their ideology must be perfect and all-encompassing. It follows that there can be no legitimate independent authority outside of the official ideology, which means that the leadership cult must be applied to, and forced upon, every part of society and all spheres of life. The Leaders and in extension the Party are to provide total guidance in all social spheres.

Take the relationship to scholarship. Scholars are to function as a loyal army: “The Party and the state that regard education as the far-reaching plan for the future of the country have paid deep attention to training huge army of able intellectuals.”15 Academia has no autonomy in seeking and presenting truth, as academic findings can always be “corrected” by the assumed higher Truths descending from the political leadership.

Meanwhile Juche counts as the highest form of knowledge, while the Great Leader and his ancestors are the highest and ultimate authority on that subject, as Kim Jong-il explains in his book on Juche. He mentions an incident in which he had to correct a social scientist:

A social scientist recently sent me a letter in which he expressed his view on the Juche philosophy. A perusal of the letter led me to believe that our academic circles still lack a correct understanding of the Juche philosophy. The Juche philosophy is a new philosophy created by the leader. . . . But the social scientist who sent the letter considers the Juche philosophy to be something of a human philosophy. Such a view has also been expressed by some other social scientists.16

Those social scientists misunderstand Juche as a “human philosophy” whereas it is in fact the “perfect philosophical answer,” transcending the human level.17 Fortunately, Kim Jong-il can correct them, because He has a direct access to absolute truth. The force is strong in his family.

The reason why North Korean totalitarianism is so intense is that in North Korea the Stalinist one-party regime builds on the historical legacy of the Sinocentric Confucian mandarinate. Before the totalitarian Stalinist party-state model arrived in China and Korea, power had already for hundreds of years been concentrating in the Confucian mandarin elite. The Sinocentric Confucian system, in which mandarins were primarily promoted on the basis of their success in the Confucian exam system (as well as bribes and political maneuvering) created a society centered on one teacher-leader elite. What caused their rule to be so totalizing is that the mandarin was at once politician, bureaucrat, judge, philosopher, artist, businessman, and sometimes even military commander, embodying human excellence in all its forms. The mandarin was supposed to be the Total Human.

This ideology left little room for other societal systems and elites to flourish independently. Art historian James Cahill laments that in imperial China even paintings tended not to be considered fully legitimate if they were made by a professional painter on the basis of purely artistic principles rather than by a Confucian mandarin. As total exemplars, mandarins were also deemed the best painters.18 They were even seen as the highest military experts and often acted in the capacity of generals, based on the belief that their understanding of military matters was superior to that of military professionals without Confucian scholarly credentials. Consequently, there was, to a large extent, only one all-encompassing societal hierarchy, at the top of which stood a singular elite group. Though local governance was, as Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong explains,19 in the hands of local gentry who partly operated outside of the central command structure, their ideology was that of the mandarin officials who represented society’s unitary standard of prestige and legitimacy.

The heritage of the Confucian mandarins is the reason why totalitarian ideologies from Europe traveled so well to East Asia and even escalated beyond their European examples. Building on centuries of Confucian-bureaucratic centralization, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Kim’s North Korea were immediately more totalitarian in societal structure than communist regimes outside of post-Confucian Asia. To be clear: Confucianism was never a totalitarian ideology and China and Korea did not become totalitarian before the twentieth century. In the twentieth century, however, the ideological and organizational imports from Stalin’s Soviet Union formed a lethal combination with the Confucian-bureaucratic legacy which had left a flattened, emptied-out society—an ocean of farmers and villages lacking any powerful religious organizations, firms, or civil society associations. If you put a gigantic party-state into such an emptied social landscape, you will almost automatically end up with totalitarianism, because society lacks strong institutional counterweights. This double heritage—Stalinist and Confucian—makes North Korea the most totalitarian country on earth at present, but also the most enduring totalitarian regime in the whole of human history.

From Aten to Kim

The first totalitarian god-state might very well be the rule of pharaoh Akhenaten at his newly erected capital Akhetaten (1346–1333 B.C.). Akhenaten was the most totalitarian of the Egyptian pharaohs and an outlier in pharaonic history. In the fifth year of his rule, he unleashed a revolution. He declared himself the earthly representative of a new deity, Aten, the singular sun disk. He changed his name from “Amenhotep IV,” which had placed him in the traditional lineage, to “Akhenaten,” meaning “Beneficial to Aten.” And he targeted and eventually forbade the age-old tradition of polytheism, including the worship of head god Amon, mentions to whom were scraped not just off temple walls but also off private possessions such as scarabs.20 As sun worship, Atenism, was suddenly the only official religion, many priests found themselves without a legitimate cult. This ideological Gleichschaltung reduced the autonomous authority of the various priestly cults, who ran local government from temples throughout the kingdom.

Such a revolutionary break with the past required a new capital too. An entirely new city was erected; it was named Akhetaten, which means “devoted to Aten.” Meanwhile art also underwent a revolution. It became less formal, prominently featuring queen Nefertiti and the pharaoh’s family life, while depicting the pharaoh in a new style. In contrast to previous pharaohs (and the pharaohs after him for that matter), Akhenaten did not have himself depicted as a hyper masculine muscleman, but rather chose to present himself in a softer, even androgynous style. Some suggest this served to make him more total, allowing him to represent not just the masculine, but also the feminine.

The new regime in any case lasted only twelve years, when the priests killed Akhenaten and undid his revolution. Those twelve years represent, I believe, the most totalitarian episode before the advent of the modern world and its revolutions. Physically, not much remained of the city Akhetaten. Yet pharaoh Akhenaten had introduced humanity to the totalitarian temptation. Also, he eternally left us with beautiful stone-carved hymns to Aten—the singular sun god, giver of all life, understood only by the “sole one”:

You are in my heart,
There is no other who knows you.
Only your son. Neferkheprure. Sole-one-of-Re [Akhenaten],
Whom you have taught your ways and your might.21

Akhenaten’s failure was the tragedy of an impossible ideal. The Total Human is and will always be an illusion, because the reality of human accomplishment is torturously pluralistic. This is why complex, developed societies have a great deal of, what sociologists call, “status incongruence.” Status incongruence means that people simultaneously hold different positions in separate social rankings, as they have to earn their stripes in each category of prestige separately. A powerful politician might be nowhere near the top in the academic hierarchy; a prominent journalist could lack all artistic credentials; a rich businessperson might be unathletic or a mediocre partner; a top-level student is not entitled to later career success. If someone asks, “Who stands above whom?,” it is impossible to answer in general. You can only attempt to answer it in the context of a particular category or field or in relation to a particular skill or virtue, with it in turn being impossible to rank these fields, skills, and virtues in an uncontestable, absolute way. In result, there is an inerasable ambivalence to accomplishment and prestige.

Self-aggrandizing leaders and their aggrandizers experience such ambivalence as unbearable. They resent and rebel against the ineradicable plurality of human accomplishment, longing for the clarity of a total hierarchy. They feel that if a certain authority figure is good at and honored for something, and thus tops the charts in one prestige category, it would be impious to deny him the other forms of prestige. That is the totalitarian spirit. The totalitarian spirit tries to uphold the myth of Totality against a reality of disjunctive disparities, one in which prowess at respectively scientific, medical, educational, artistic, athletic, political-organizational, jurisprudential, martial, and romantic matters are to a large extent separately cultivated and should be separately evaluated. The totalitarian spirit wants status differences between people to be absolute, and it pretends the “higher ones” are higher in every category. Hence, Kim Il-sung must be a great philosopher and Kim Jong-il a top golfer.

The Totalitarian Spirit

There are multiple theoretical languages for describing what exactly it is that the totalitarian spirit rebels against, each telling part of the story. In the language of Aristotelian virtue ethics, it would be the natural plurality of the virtues. For modern sociology, it is the plurality of functionally differentiated fields or systems, such as law, parliamentary politics, business, science, education, religion, sports, and romantic relationships.

Ultimately, the totalitarian spirit derives from a rejection of the realities of life. It rejects an outside world in which we are confronted with the merciless demands of different virtues and standards of ethical worth, as well as—even more annoyingly—other people with varying opinions as to how we measure up. This world denies us our Totality by confronting us with all the different ways in which we are fallible, while also stripping us of the illusion that a perfect earthly leader will forever lovingly guard over us.

It is precisely because the totalitarian spirit is a “temptation” that we can relate to the North Koreans. We have that temptation in common. Although there are distinct political traditions and ideologies that go into North Korean totalitarianism, and while we in the West have greater resources for countering totalitarian tendencies, we Westerners are not fully free of the longing for Totality either. The desire for totalization is only too human.

1 Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” translated by George Kamp, in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, edited by James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 461–90. 467.

2 Christopher Hitchens, “Visit to a Small Planet,” Vanity Fair, June 2001.

3 Ri Jong-hwa, Exposition of the Principle of Juche Idea: The Building of a Thriving Socialist Country (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2014 (Juche year 103)), 35.

4 Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (London: Atlantic Books, 2009), Prologue.

5 Buruma.

6 Kim Song-gwon, Exposition of the Principle of Juche Idea: What Is the View of the Juche Idea on the World (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2014 (Juche year 103)), 1–2.

7 Ri Jong-hwa, Exposition of the Principle of Juche Idea: The Building of a Thriving Socialist Country (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2014 (Juche year 103)), 13.

8 Ri Jong-hwa, 12.

9 The Book of Filial Piety, Trans. Gu Danke, in Library of Chinese Classics (Beijing: China Translation and Publishing House, 2015), 233–97, 245.

10 Aristotle rejects the foundation of Confucianism—the understanding of the state as a large family—on the first page of book one of the Politics: “Those, then, who think that the positions of statesman, king, household manager, and master of slaves are the same, are not correct. For they hold that each of these differs not in kind, but only in whether the subjects ruled are few or many.” He argues that such a monolithic view overlooks plurality. There are different kinds of regimes in the world and in thought, as well as different kinds of parts within one society. Trans. C. D .C. Reeve (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett), 1998.

11 The Book of Filial Piety, 261.

12 Author unknown, Kim Il Sung: The Great Man of the Century, vol. 2. (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1994), 174.

13 Ibid., 187.

14 The Book of Filial Piety, 295.

15 Ri Jong-hwa, Exposition of the Principle of Juche Idea: The Building of a Thriving Socialist Country, 56.

16 Kim Jong-il, On the Juche Philosophy (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 2002 (Juche year 91)), 1.

17 Kim Jong-il, 2–3.

18 James Cahill, Pictures For Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

19 Xiaotong Fei, China’s Gentry: Essays in Rural-Urban Relations, translated and edited by Margaret Park Redfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).

20 Richard Landes, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 155.

21 Akhenaten, “The Great Hymn to the Aten,” translated by J. A. Wilson, quoted by Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 3 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 2:96–99.

Sorry, PDF downloads are available to subscribers only.
Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log In