The Importance of Confucian Values to Kim Jong Il’s System: Nicolas Levi on North Korean Ideology

By | August 28, 2012 | No Comments

Confucius as the Elephant in the Room: Zhang Huan’s “Q Confucius” in Shanghai (not Pyongyang) | Via Asia Society

Is the heavily-touted concept of “Kim Jong Il patriotism” indicative of a deepening of North Korea’s ongoing ancestor worship, or is it a container for whatever reforms or retrenchments the regime feels necessary?  Rather than parsing the somewhat torrential writings on this subject in Rodong Sinmun and elsewhere, perhaps it would be useful to look back a bit further, and to gague today’s developments by looking back at their predecessors. Dr. Nicolas Levi therefore describes how Kim Jong Il took Confucianism to new levels in the DPRK, and contributes to the ongoing debates over the ideological underpinnings of Kim family rule in North Korea. The full text of the 18-page essay, originally presented at a conference in Seoul, is available in pdf. at the bottom of the page. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

The Importance of Confucian Values to Kim Jong Il’s System

by Nicolas Levi

In this article, I proposed an approach that assumes the presence of Confucianism (유교) and Neo-Confucianism (성리학) in North Korean ideology especially during the Kim Jong Il (김정일) era[1]. I would like to prove that North Korea can be at least partially seen as the modern revival of the Choson Confucianism in terms of ideological phenomenon[2]. North Korean elites, especially Kim Il Sung (김일성) and Kim Jong Il reinvented and manipulated various forms of Confucianism because they wanted to legitimate their domination.

To understand the North Korean society, its history and its way of functioning, it is rather essential to look at it from the North Korean historical point of view, searching consequently for what dictates people’s lives. It has to be note that North Korean politicians operate under conditions of a specific rationality, created by their Chuche ideology[3] (주체사상).

Given the intense and complete immersion in this ideology, North Korean elites do not consider all possible alternatives that might be available to decision-makers in other countries. Although North Korea’s political doctrines may appear at least strange to Westerners, as far as it represents a contemporary expression of thought that are deeply embedded in Korean history (i.e. events related to the Japanese occupation, consequences of the Korean War, unfinished conflict with South Korea). The Chuche ideology that was developed by Kim Il Sung was also basically coming from the traditional Korean political thought. Kim himself has acknowledged that he drew the term and idea of Chuche from Korean scholars taking inspiration from Confucian ideas[4].

Therefore Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism constitute a strong basis for the North Korean Political Scheme. I will try to demonstrate that the Kim Jong Il regime not only exhibited multiple Confucian aspects but also emphasized them in comparison with the Kim Il Sung regime.

Full paper text (18 pages) as pdf.: Levi on Kim Jong Il Confucianism, ICKS 2012

Preferred citation: Nicholas Levi, “The Importance of Confucian Values to Kim Jong Il’s System: A Comparison with Kim Il Sung’s System,” paper presented at “On Tradition and Transculturation,” 8th Worldwide Consortium of Korean Studies Centers Workshop, ICKS in Seoul (Korea University).


[1] Due to a lack of credible information, it’s a great challenge to determine when started the Kim Jong Il’s era. I made the hypothesis that Kim Jong Il started to rule (at least partially with Kim Il Sung) in 1970 when he was nominated to the position of deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Korean Workers Party (조선로동당)

[2] The North Korean society is often described as being Confucian or Neo-Confucian. It seems that this system has borrows a lot from the ideology known as “Legalism” which was adopted by the Wei State of the first Chinese emperor. In the 14th century, Confucian scholars were buried and all books of philosophy other than legalist tracts were burnt. This doctrine implemented during the China’s Ming dynasty (1364-1644) is a re-interpretation of Confucian teachings.

[3] The Chuche Idea is a political thesis of Kim Il-sung which says that the Korean masses are the masters of the country’s development. According to ideologists, the Chuche is based on the idea that “man is the master and decides everything.”At the beginning (the term of Chuche was used for the first time by Kim Il Sung in December 1955), the Chuche Idea was formulated as principles that the government uses to justify its policy decisions. As key assumptions of this ideology, we can quote the strong military posture and self reliance on economic issues. Further information [in] Michael Breen, Kim Jong Il: North Korea’s dear leader who he is, what he wants, what to do about him, John Wiley&Sons (Asia) Pte Ltd, Singapore 2004, p. 67-70.

[4] Interview with a DPRK defector realized in October 2010. For security reasons, the identity of the defector is not revealed.

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