Photo by KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images

For the love of Juche

Inside the sad world of North Korea apologists

Artillery Row

In an age where information is all around us, North Korea — or as supporters like to call it, the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) — remains largely unknown. This should come as no surprise, given the totalitarian nature of the regime. With outside news organisations banned, North Korea is a “black box”.

The little we see comes from extravagant ceremonies or YouTube documentaries based in Pyongyang for those willing to take a supervised “holiday” to the country. Of course, these “documentaries” are limited in their scope. They become little more than regimented travel diaries, and the sparse information we do have is susceptible to being misreported.

Despite this dearth of information, most of us, when asked about North Korea’s government, would describe it as a monstrous regime. More has been written on the country since the arrival of covid and the total lockdown of the country led to a flurry of stories reporting on the escalating clampdown by the regime. Reportage is fraught with the threat of violence and the potential for misinformation. Navigating through these dangers requires relying upon those brave enough to secretly communicate with the outside — or turning to harrowing defector testimony that describes the almost unimaginable horrors of the so-called “hermit kingdom”.

Some of those who have braved escaping the sealed off country have written memoirs. Books such as Escape from Camp 14, The Hard Road Out or Dear Leader present narratives of life from polar opposite positions in the country. Despite their differences, the feeling of isolation, desolation, surveillance and fear runs through the memoirs. The testimonies are both inspiring for their bravery and devastating in their description of a poverty stricken country and a regime ruling with an iron fist.

In 2014, institutional backing for these testimonies was acquired via the United Nations’ commissioning of a report into human rights in North Korea. Following around 240 confidential interviews with more than 80 witnesses and survivors, the report was damning in its indictment of the country:

Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity. These are not mere excesses of the State; they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded. The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.

For some, the North Korean regime has been unfairly characterised. Surrounded by nemeses on all sides, the victim of “Western propaganda”, it is a paradise on earth which only the chosen few know about. To supporters of North Korea, the DPRK is not a regime unparalleled in its abuses — rather it is unparalleled in its love for their citizens. This article is about them: how such people came to believe in the DPRK, why they believe in such an obviously monstrous regime, and what the community is like.

There are two forms of support for the DPRK: the unofficial channels of the internet and the more official KFA (Korea Friendship Association). The KFA regularly organises trips to North Korea, meets in person, and functions as an organisation dedicated to cleaning up the tyrannical regime’s image as best they can. Run by Alejandro Cao De Benos, who is currently wanted by the FBI, it has 15,000 members across the globe. It is the official link between the regime and its supporters in the outside world.

Typically, they see the outside world as a hostile force, depending upon North Korean propaganda for their belief system and explanations for the country. Dermot Hudson, the head of the UK KFA, simply regurgitated DPRK talking points and used his “experience” on tours of the country as evidence for his assertions. Just one example of this can be found in Dermot’s explanations of the concentration camp system run in North Korea.

The imperialists claim that there are hundreds of thousands of people held in camps in the DPRK, such camps would have to be massive and with a huge number of guards but I did not see such a thing in the DPRK countryside. Moreover, the DPRK is very peaceful and calm you rarely see emergency vehicles rushing through the busy streets. If it what the imperialists say about “human rights” and “forced labour camps” in the DPRK was true, then you would say police or security personnel on the streets arresting many people and putting them in lorries to go to “labour camps” or “concentration camps” but I saw no such thing happen.

As can be seen by this KFA picket in 2019, the UK arm of the KFA looks closer to moribund than brimming with activity. Dermot Hudson explained to me they may get up to 20 people to attend online meetings for the entire UK — hardly a stunning turnout. One of the few in the protest that day was an undercover documentarian, rather than an actual member.

Dermot’s nostalgic feelings for a long gone system of communism can be seen in interviews explaining his lasting affection for the regime. Hudson’s self-described move towards the hermit kingdom is not unlike those of others who perhaps never quite fitted into their own communities. The KFA is but one plank of support for the regime outside of the country itself, though. There is another community — just as hostile to the outside world and defensive of its positions — that supports the North Korean regime.

This second, far more interesting community is online. The people making up this community are sometimes accomplished, with qualifications and careers that defy the stereotypes of weirdo jobless losers. Online, supporters of North Korea are a highly disparate group occupying one another’s bubbles of information exchange, immune to outside discourse disputing their assumptions and quick to passion if they feel challenged.

The pro North Korea world is not unlike the country itself

The movement, small as it is, struck me as not dissimilar from QAnon or those who support white supremacy and fascism. This is not only because there is a contingent of racists and fascists who admire North Korea’s ethnonationalism, but also because of how such groups maintain their existence — or rather, struggle to. The pro North Korea world is not unlike the country itself: shrouded in mystery, defined by its cynicism of the world around it, and deeply secretive — filled with fissures and personal conflicts.

The secrecy of the community makes it difficult to penetrate or know the people to whom you’re speaking. Most, if not all, use pseudonyms online to hide their true selves, making it impossible to verify their identities. I was also asked by everyone who I spoke to who I was and what publication I was writing for. This was understandable, given their views, but it also reflects the deeper lack of trust in the community itself. This activity is not limited to Twitter identities but extends to meeting places such as Discord servers. The Songun Study Group where fellow travellers gather, for example, is closely guarded with “vetting procedures” before you can enter the forum:

A screenshot of a chat Description automatically generated

The secrecy and isolation do not stop there, but also include the media they consume. Rather than relying upon regular news channels, DPRK supporters use more insular networks. Benjamin Weston, for instance, claimed to keep a “neutral” stance on North Korea that acknowledged the complexities of the country in a way that other countries didn’t. When I asked him what the complexities actually were, he failed to respond any further. This was common amongst those who support the regime: when questioned, they either ignore you or become defensive.

Given his former position as Koroyo tour manager and now the international submissions coordinator for the Pyongyang International Film Festival, it is difficult to see him as anything other than an apologist for the regime. His YouTube channel simply states “facts” without adding the necessary context. In his film on “rebuilding North Korea”, for example, he fails to note that it was the North who first invaded the South.

This type of circular informational loop meant discarding the accounts of those who had escaped as merely “enemy propaganda”. Even those who I talked to and liked on a personal level would follow a confused line of thinking that only made sense in a parallel world. This type of thinking inevitably creates a distance between mainstream society and the person holding the belief. This is not only because of the revolting nature of such a belief — denying the reality of concentration camps is revolting, no matter how nicely you do it — but also because it is incomprehensible to those not in the same informational loop.

The people I spoke to openly admit to hiding their politics from colleagues, friends and loved ones for fear of the professional and social consequences. Supporters of the DPRK pretend to support local politicians and causes whilst really engaging with a much more radical set of ideas.

Whilst those who I spoke to tried to downplay the significance of hiding their beliefs, it must take a toll. Politics when you exist on the fringes requires both interest and dedication. It is hard to imagine a “part time” or ambivalent supporter of the DPRK, which necessarily involves distrusting all sources of news grounding us in our world. One fascist supporter of the DPRK, who goes by the name of “Kugel” on Twitter, simply labels this an exercise of camouflage. Perhaps for some this is true, but creating fake accounts, hiding the news you consume, and engaging in a long running deception must wear on you with time:

As for my family, I only hide my extremist, and by extreme I mean I can’t say round everyone up and shoot them. I can get away with saying deport all immigrants. I don’t pretend to have views I do not have when around them, I just become less revolutionary and the extremism is dictated by them. Outside of that, I will discuss politics with whoever is willing to listen. I tend not to discuss it with close friends as: one, its boring and two, they are often taken back with what I say and haven’t read any theory, so it becomes an argument of emotion rather than logic.

Despite their existing in this closed off political world, the search for a tight knit community seen in other extremist movements was not to be found. Those who I spoke to did not report much of a community beyond merely “backing each other up on twitter”. When I asked “John Frum Chicago” about it, this reply came:

I don’t necessarily know that I would consider us a “community”. Maybe in the loosest sense of the word. It’s always nice to have somebody back you up when you (for instance) tweet something that gets a lot of blow back from people who just regurgitate 24 hour news points. It’s a pretty good feeling to have somebody swoop in with sources to validate your argument. I find that people who support the DPRK tend to do so from a more logical, fact based standpoint

Rather than creating an organised movement to project their beliefs and to recognise commonalities, the DPRK fan club is diffuse. Oliver Jai, a researcher on Japanese-DPRK relations based in Kyoto, argues there is so much infighting amongst the different factions. Few of the online groups last long or make much of an impact. Ironically, the supporters of such a totalitarian regime appear to be deeply divided. The combined differences in approach, from open fascists to Marxist Leninists, may on the surface bring together extreme ideologies, but it weakens any chance for making genuine communal ties.

What is the ideology that is able to bridge what should be an unbridgeable gap between Marxist Leninism and National Socialism? Its name is Juche. According to one expert on the DPRK, Juche is not fit to be labelled an ideology. Instead, it is a mixture of autarky, mysticism and ethno-nationalism — jumbling together a bizarre concoction of beliefs uniting completely opposite ends of the political spectrum. Having waded through some of its supposed depths, even as a political theorist — or perhaps especially as a political theorist — I recommend no one else should suffer the pain of doing so.

For some in the community, Juche appears to be a significant attraction. Given the focus of intellectual reasoning amongst those I spoke to, Juche, or rather the appearance of an ideology, gave a spark of superiority to those who had “done the research”. Supporters such as Modernmarxist05, John Frum Chicago and “Kugel” had either read the “works” of Kim Il Sung and found some sort of inspiration, or they were able to couch their reasoning in it. The feeling that they acquired from this little known “philosophy” was perhaps one of a sense of rare knowledge, which helped cultivate a feeling of superiority.

I guess my opinions on Juche came from talking to North Koreans and listening to their opinions and also reading the Works of Kim il Sung himself. What brought me to be a Marxist or more specifically a Marxist-Leninist is studying it for the past year in depth and also regarding dialectics as a science rather than an opinion.

I think the spirit and will and struggle of the people of the DPRK in rebuilding their country after it was destroyed cannot be spoken of highly enough and I think that the guiding principles of Juche enabled them to do so.

I read Kim Il-Sung, his selected works stuff like that. Videos, essays, general chit chat with those who consider themselves supporters of Juche.

There was a theme extending throughout discussions on the DPRK — the feeling that the world was wrong, and they were right. One supporter, called “DJ Haze” on Twitter self-described as an “infoholic”. One of the most prominent supporters of the DPRK on Twitter, called Natalie Everhart, explained her rise to prominence as being the result of the minoritarian reach of such claims. It must be powerful — intoxicating even — but it also made some very defensive when questioned about it. Experts on Korea, such as James Kaizuka, have found that those who support the DPRK become easily confrontational when actively challenged. Others, such as Oliver Jai, point to a relationship between conspiracy theorists and DPRK supporters precisely because they are not just unwavering in their beliefs but in their ability to pour gasoline on information, calling it “propaganda” and “disinformation”.

Despite the mountains of evidence surrounding them, and the world yelling that they are wrong, this group of people is unwilling to admit they may be incorrect. One expert stated that people like Natalie Everhart perhaps come by their beliefs because they feel ostracised for their identity and imagine a paradise elsewhere.

When I spoke to those who did believe in the regime, they offered various reasons for their position. Some spoke of their mistrust in the US following the invasion of Iraq, leading them down a rabbit hole where they stopped trusting anything in the media at all. Their critical thinking has been hijacked and stuck in a circular loop where the only things they believe are from those sources either paid by the regime or uncritical of it:

I mentioned earlier I’m critical of anything I hear that sounds too fantastical. Well that goes even more so for anything any defector has to say. That’s not to say all defectors are automatically liars, I’m just not going to take everything they say as Gospel and suspend critical thinking.

Their denials of the crimes of the regime made me question how deeply they really believe it. I would argue one reason for the defensiveness is that deep down they know the propaganda they read is precisely what the outside world says it is. Admitting one error, and a second, and a third would lead to the unravelling of the entire belief system, though. If you remove one card, then it all comes crashing down.

We all harbour hopes for a perfect form of existence

The emotional pull of totalitarian systems of thought and regimes can be strong in true believers. Promising paradise on earth, compared to our more common and admittedly imperfect system, surely stimulates the imagination. We all harbour hopes for a perfect form of existence. For some who see the poverty and imperfections in our current system, and who may experience political deficiencies in their personal lives, the promise of perfection must be alluring.

This pull is not limited to North Korea but can be seen, for example, in Malcolm Caldwell’s tragic and ultimately deadly love affair with the Khmer Rouge. Caldwell is a prominent example of how easy it is to be lured into the ideological honey trap of regimes that commit the worst atrocities imaginable, if you are only willing enough to buy what they are selling.

Over the years, previous supporters who have visited the kingdom have come to harm. Supporting such an entity perhaps makes for a fun cosplay as a revolutionary, performing online under an anonymous account, but the reality can be much more dangerous than getting banned from Twitter. Those who have suffered rightly have little time for those who deny their experiences. Jihuyn Park, a defector who now resides in the UK, argued that those who are “supporting North Korea from abroad are either ignorant of true democracy or wicked individuals hiding behind a fake mask of peace, pushing innocent people to their deaths”.

In a strange way, I feel for many of those who support this regime. They have isolated themselves and hide online in their anonymous communities. I cannot forget the words of the brave defectors who have escaped, though. Their stories, and those of the Korean people imprisoned in their own country, will be and should be the ones who are remembered. The anonymous DPRK supporting community won’t even belong to the dustbin of history, as they are too cowardly to show themselves for who they really are.

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