Challenges to Reform in North Korea: Structure, Agency and the Constitution of the Selectorate

By | July 22, 2013 | No Comments

The Juche Tower is not the only real-world manifestation of state ideology. | Image: Will De Freitas

The Juche Tower is not the only real-world manifestation of state ideology. | Image: Will De Freitas

Reports of economic restructuring and the influx of new media has led many analysts to ask how and under whose terms will North Korea change. Overlooked, it would seem, is the initial question of whether the society is indeed likely to change. In the following paper from the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of the Yonsei Journal of International Studies, James Burt raises a key question: have such changes rebalanced the North Korean state and society in any palpable way? 

By refocusing the lens on the ideology permeating society and away from material factors, we might come to understand a different sort of relationship between agents and structures. Using Anthony Giddens’ Structuration Theory as a means to explore North Korean society, Burt answers his question in the negative. At its current state, the embedded nature of Juche precludes the types of change predicted.

Indeed, it is ideology that is the adhesive element to North Korean society. Like other social ideologies embedded in contexts elsewhere, Juche permeates not only the structure of North Korean institutions (both social and political), but also enforces and is reinforced by the actions of the agents within the structure. If the “agents in society who hold truly transformative power” are the North Korean “selectorate,” then no North Korean agent can “retreat fully from their knowledge, their identities and their learned ideological bounds.”

But what about the cracks and the small but noticable rips in the seams? If the routinized rules are stable throughout the daily reproduction of Juche in everyday life, then what accounts for the transformation witnessed on the ground level? Are they insignificant anomalies on the periphery that will not affect the center? At what point will the imported technology, information, and marketization be incorporated into the shared understanding of the entire society? Perhaps these anomalies to Juche can compound as part of a new movement of the ideology of the society. Given the closed nature of North Korean society, such answers are hard to come by. Whatever the case, Burt gives Pyongyang-watchers and theorists alike plenty to think about. — Darcie Draudt, Assistant Editor

Challenges to Reform in North Korea: Structure, Agency and the Constitution of the Selectorate

by James Burt

Inside North Korea, Juche ideology functions as the sole “legitimate Weltanschauung.” Signifying a distinctive philosophy of social life, Juche is communicated through a set of implicit and explicit rules that help to constitute meaning and sanction social conduct in day-to-day life. In Giddens’ terminology, Juche ideology is one of North Korea’s “more enduring features of social life.” Open to a plethora of translations, Juche can broadly be defined as the “essence of self-determination” (from the Chinese character ju, meaning rule, and che, meaning essence). Whether Juche stems from, or even masquerades as, the Confucian logics of self-defense and sovereignty, Marxism-Leninism, anti-colonialism, Korean race-based nationalism, or even Kim Il-sung’s understanding of Woodrow Wilson’s concept of self-rule is debatable. One certainty, however, is that Juche’s durability owes much to the ongoing interplay between institution and agent.

Evidently, the failures in the practical application of Juche are glaring—but we must always bear in mind that ideology exists in the “memory traces orienting the conduct of knowledgeable human agents.” Hence, structures will exist both within and apart from the material world. For this reason, the application of Juche in North Korean policies should be seen as distinct from the application of Juche within the practical consciousnesses of North Korea’s agents. In this vein, the restrictions that Juche imposes upon the selectorate can be viewed as “more ‘internal’ than exterior,” and rather than being limited by material factors, are born from a tacit knowledgeability of structural constraints and negative sanctions. Here, structural constraints refer to the limits that an agent’s knowledgeability imposes upon their perceived choices for action; while negative sanctions refer to the limitations placed upon choice and action by other agents that exercise power, which may range from “the mild expression of disapproval” to “the direct application of force or violence.”

Considering these constraints upon autonomy, are North Korea’s selectorate able to reform the meaning of Juche? Despite enabling the selectorate’s domination within society, no North Korean agent—from Kim Jong-un down—is immune from the cognitive pushes and structural pulls of their social—and in this case, ideological—environment. Even those who are frequently exposed to competing narratives and philosophies—such as Jang Seong-taek, Kim Yong- nam, or Choe Thae-bok—cannot retreat fully from their knowledge, their identities and their learned ideological bounds. Theories of cognitive consistency demonstrate that agents will, more often than not, discount dissonant information that runs contrary to their beliefs. This intrinsic human preference for consistency not only buttresses belief, it also results in the hardening of belief. As such, no amount of foreign travel, material goods, access to media, or inflowing capital is likely to induce a mass ideological-rethinking within North Korea’s selectorate.

View all of “Challenges to Reform in North Korea: Structure, Agency and the Constitution of the Selectorate” here.

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  1. I’m going to share the link to this article with my small group communication students who will be studying structuration theory next week. Here is one quote regarding the theory from our textbook that I find especially relevant to Burt’s intriguing piece above: “Even if a group looks very stable and conservative, it is because members are acting in such a way to create the same group structure over and over, creating an appearance of sameness and stability. However, underlying this is a constant process of change” (Poole, 2003, p. 48). During structure development, groups most often acquire rules and resources from other groups instead of creating their own, but they fashion them to meet their own needs (pp. 53-54). Juche, as Burt points out, has its roots in a few rules and resources borrowed from other institutions, and juche many need to slowly and quietly evolve in order to maintain the appearance of a stable state. What a fascinating application of structuration theory!

    Poole, M.S. (2003). Group communication and the structuring process. In R.Y. Hirokawa, R.S. Cathcart, L.A. Samovar, & L.D. Henman (eds.), Small Group Communication Theory & Practice: An Anthology (pp. 48-56). New York: Oxford University Press.

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