The Historical Roots of Defensive Fundamentalism in North Korea: Maurizio Riotto

By | April 03, 2013 | No Comments

Koguryo Statutes

Koguryo statues on vigil in Hwanghae province, DPRK. |  Photo by iban_ch, August 2011, via Flickr.

In this guest contribution, Aaron McNichols reminds those caught up in the daily media overload that there is no small amount of historical continuity to North Korea’s foreign policy, particularly its relationship with China. Drawing upon the work of Italian Koreanist Maurizio Riotto (Naples University of Oriental Studies), McNichols shows how the age-old strategy of “defensive fundamentalism” still guides contemporary decision-making in the DPRK. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

The Historical Roots of Defensive Fundamentalism in North Korea

by Aaron McNichols

With an eye toward Korea’s past tribulations with large foreign powers, scholars have described a longstanding “defensive fundamentalism” on the peninsula that continues to affect China’s relationships with both Korean states today. Defensive fundamentalism refers to a “minor” entity, such as the Joseon tributary state, trying to establish its own identity by following a higher moral standard than the dominating entity. Using defensive fundamentalism, we are able to trace the tensions between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) much further back than the DPRK’s recent nuclear tests.

From Sadae to Ricci: Historical Background | After annexing Korea in 1910, Imperial Japan confidently assured the Korean people that their society had been incapable of progress and development over the five hundred years of the Chosun dynasty (1392 – 1910). If one identifies pre-colonial Korea purely by its tributary status, subservient to the Ming and later Qing dynasties of China, then this assessment may seem appropriate.

Evidence from the Chosun period shows us however, that Korea’s motive in accepting tributary status was based on protecting the individuality of the people. This was an objective for which the ruling monarchy was prepared to submit to harsh demands from the Chinese authorities. Koreans were offered up for human sacrifice until 1435, and the power of the Ming dynasty meant that no one could object.[1] However, the Chosun monarchy achieved its objective, as China held off two Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s.

Korea’s pro-China policy at this time was referred to as sadae, the act of serving the great. Culturally, it fit the Confucian values that the Chosun monarchy was using to justify its rule, as China was viewed as the center of the Confucian world order at that time.[2] However, this view was shaken when Christianity gained a strong following in Qing China in the late eighteenth century.

Ricci Macao

Matteo Ricci, one of the first Jesuits to enter China from Macao.

Around 1770, a Korean envoy to China brought home The True Doctrine of the Lord of Heaven by Matteo Ricci.[3] Most Chosun intellectuals and government officials rejected the new religion as a threat to Confucianism. The most controversial issue was the Confucian ritual of ancestor worship, an act Christians considered to be prohibited by the first commandment. Korea remained committed to what became known as Neo-Confucianism while Christians in China soon received legal protection and became free to expand as a result of unequal treaties between the Qing dynasty and Western powers.[4]

What this indicates is that Neo-Confucianism became so ingrained in Korean national identity that any perceived threat to its continuity helped to distance the country from China. This mindset provoked an internal crisis in 1801 when a Chinese priest, Father Chou Wen-mo, offered himself up for punishment for his activities in Korea.[5] Although the Chosun monarchy knew full well they needed permission to administer justice on a Chinese citizen, the priest was beheaded and no notification was sent to China.

Protecting National Identity with Defensive Fundamentalism: An Age-Old Strategy in New Times | The fact that Korea remains divided today means that the notion of thriving cultural sovereignty will be irreconcilably different in the North and South. The theory of defensive fundamentalism provides insights into how North Korea defines its independence. The primary exponent of the theory, Dr. Maurizio Riotto, explains:

 It is a fact that nowadays North Koreans consider themselves the only “authentic” Koreans, because they [think] South Korea has been “polluted” as a colony through its contact with the West and with the US in particular.[6]

According to Riotto, China’s move towards state capitalism has produced the same effect, with North Korea now determined to achieve a Confucian socialist paradise to display its own moral superiority. Dr. Riotto highlights the characteristics of the North Korean state that show that its original establishment was not an unprecedented epidemic brought about by Soviet interference, but rather a return to familiar Korean traditions after Japanese colonization. He continues:

A Confucian country is a secular one where all land is owned by the king (and then by the State) as a Communist country is. In the absence of an official religion, illustrious men are idolized and worshipped. The founders of a dynasty become taejo. They are honored as gods and time is calculated from the establishment of the dynasty itself.

Riotto’s model of defensive fundamentalism is defined by North Korea’s preoccupation with preserving national identity above all else. This is the reason for the sole deviation from Confucian ideals identified in his paper: the Songun policy.

Riotto presented his paper at Trinity College, Dublin, in front of a Korean student community that had adorned their study space with a map of the entire peninsula. For a group concerned with promoting Korean culture internationally, Riotto’s conclusion was not fitting with the goal of reunification. He concluded that the North Korean elite views China as the most dangerous threat to their country’s sovereignty.

“They’re afraid of becoming like Tibet,” he told his audience. “I do not think the West understand that isolating North Korea places it in the hands of the Chinese.”

Breaking “Protocol:” An Offensive or Defensive Maneuver? | During the final years of his life, Kim Jong-il broke diplomatic protocol when he visited China three times within twelve months.[7] The August 2010 meeting with Chinese President Hu Jiantao bears special significance, as it took place in Changchun, the capital of China’s Jilin province. Korean history identifies this area as the site of the ancient Koguryo Kingdom, one of the Three Kingdoms inhabited by the ancestors of the Korean people. In particular, DPRK national identity is rooted in the belief that Koguryo was fiercely independent and a pure defense for the Korean nation against foreign invasion.

The PRC claims that Gaogouli, the Chinese name for Koguryo, was inhabited by an ethnic minority during an era of national disunity, but had always been a Chinese provincial state. This disagreement has consequences far deeper than what can be safely included in school history textbooks:

Should North Korea collapse and China step in, such a historical claim could potentially be used to legitimize a future annexation of the Northern half of the Korean Peninsula.[8]

This is the same way that China justified its claims over Tibet, Xinjiang, and other ethnic minority regions. It must be pointed out however, that China’s defensive interests in this northeast region are likely a far more pressing concern for the PRC elite than any expansionist ambitions. The possibility of millions of North Koreans crossing into China after a regime collapse has led many to believe that China is uneasy about reunification. This reasoning gains more credence when one considers Riotto’s fear over South Korea; that its entry into the sphere of the West distances it from the goal of Korean unity. Displaced North Koreans are bound to view Jilin Province as a more natural shelter than the Westernised South. They are already told that it is their original motherland.

Because of this possibility, it is doubtful that North Korea’s most recent nuclear test will significantly affect China’s willingness to economically sustain the Kim regime. Indeed, a Reuters report published two weeks after the test indicates that China is going ahead with increased investment in the Rason Special Economic Zone without any delay.

The Case for a Dividing Strategy: Politics and Driving Wedges | Returning to our focus on defensive fundamentalism in North Korea, it is China’s political alignment with the rest of the UN Security Council that will characterize the North’s public response. A North Korean tour guide explained their mindset in no uncertain terms to a member of a South Korean humanitarian mission in 2004:

For us in North Korea, the thing that really matters is politics. The economy is nothing compared to politics. We are ready to endure hunger and sacrifice our lives for politics if necessary.[9]

This remarkable usage of “politics” rigidly associates the term with a moral obligation. We can investigate the significance of this further by referring to Cheol and Sang[10], who assert that North Koreans find the solutions to their modern problems by referring to past victories. Kim Il-sung’s anti-colonial efforts in the former Koguryo region are credited with being solely responsible for Korea’s liberation. Recognising the strength of this legacy, Kim Jong-il took advantage of Neo-Confucian tradition to become the “funeral host” after his father’s death. He demonstrated his ability to lead North Korea by showing filial piety towards Kim Il-sung and staying true to his policies.

Kim Jong-un’s youth and underdeveloped personality cult means he will be even more dependent on this tactic remaining effective. His primary strategic objective now must be preventing the United States and China from cooperating in their approach to North Korea. If China continues to publicly oppose the North’s activities that breach UN sanctions, North Korea can choose to portray China in the same way that it portrays South Korea; an adversary only by its association with the United States. DPRK state media have already begun suggesting that China is becoming susceptible to US influence in the UN Security Council. This portrayal can go together with North Korean attempts to spread distrust in Sino-US relations, built on the legacy of past success in straining US-ROK relations.

Kim Il-sung enjoyed one such success in 1973, when North Korea first began to dispute and violate the Northern Limit Line (NLL). When the first North Korean naval vessels began crossing the line that year, the United States-led United Nations Command did not recognize these intrusions as a violation of the Korean Armistice Agreement, while South Korea did. As a result, the United States was concerned that South Korea may react too strongly to the intrusions, while South Koreans began doubting the United States’ commitment to the US-ROK Alliance.[11]

Clash at Sea: Future Confrontations Near the NLL | The Yellow Sea will continue to be a flashpoint for such division, since joint US-ROK naval exercises in the area bring the American military closest to Beijing. A North Korean ship needs only to violate the NLL and then seek safe passage through Chinese naval boundaries for Sino-US cooperation to diminish. Such a reckless attempt would leave China in a highly precarious position, but it is not absurd to think that they would have little option but to shelter an aggressive North Korean vessel for the sake of avoiding a serious naval clash.

If Kim Jong-un is focused on achieving the grand effect, a fresh provocation in the Yellow Sea must be next on his agenda. It’s a move that could damage every alliance in the region, but for the isolated North, alliances are made to be broken.

Aaron Mc Nicholas is an undergraduate student of journalism at Dublin City University. He has contributed articles to One Way Japan ( and blogs at Communication Japan (

Further Reading

Maurizio Riotto, “Defensive Fundamentalism in Korea From History to Literature,” (paper presented at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, January 23 2013).


1 Yuan-kang Wang. “The Chinese World Order and War in Asian History,” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the American Political Science, Toronto, Canada, September 3-6 2009).

2 Mansourov, Alexandre Y. “Will Flowers Bloom Without Fragrance? Korean-Chinese Relations,” Harvard Asia Quarterly 10, no.3 (2009).

3 Kim, Andrew E. “A History of Christianity in Korea: From Its Troubled Beginning to Its Contemporary Success,” Korea Journal 35, no.2 (1995): 34-53.

4 Xinzhong, Yao. “Success or Failure? Christianity in China,” History Today 44, no.9 (1994), accessed February 27, 2013,

5 Hara, Takemichi. “Korea, China, and Western Barbarians: Diplomacy in Early Nineteenth-Century Korea,” Modern Asian Studies 32, no.2 (1998): 389-430

6 Riotto, Maurizio. “Defensive Fundamentalism in Korea From History to Literature,” (paper presented at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, January 23 2013).

7 Ikegami, Masako. “China-North Korea: Renewal of the ‘Blood Alliance,’” Asia Pacific Bulletin 158 (2012), accessed March 2, 2013,

8 Jones, Alisa. “Nationalizing the Past: Korea in Chinese History,” Journal of Northeast Asian History 6, no.2 (2009): 103-139.

9 Heonik, Kwon. “North Korea’s politics of longing,” Critical Asian Studies 42, no.1 (2010): 3-24.

10 Cheol Hyun Jeong and Sang Hoon Lee. “Cultural Policy in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” East Asia 26, no.3 (2009): 213-225.

11 Michishita, Narushige. North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008 (Routeledge, New York: 2010). See esp. pp. 61, 83. 

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  1. And from the China side: John Garnaut.

    And Garnaut (who nails the essential point in this audio file….recommended) and Pinkston in an ABC interview yesterday.

  2. I’m trying to remember when a Koreanist has been interviewed in my country’s press, when it comes to North Korea.

    An international television station (Austrian-German-Swiss) interviewed a South Korean campaigner some time ago, but she hardly seemed to speak her mind – she did say that she would like to see more sophisticated coverage on North Korea, though.

    Me too.

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