Now we come to the more paradoxical part of this, that it appears that the influence of Confucianism may actually be stronger in North Korea than in South Korea, even though the official suppression of Confucianism is much stricter and harsher in the North than in the South. The DPRK shares with the ROK a Confucian respect for education, even if one might well question the quality of that education in many subject areas in the North, given the emphasis on ideological indoctrination in KimIlSungism, which is supposed to have replaced Confucianism as official doctrine in the DPRK. In both societies there has been a loosening officially of rules imposing traditional Confucian relations in families, with the DPRK perhaps having more vigorously emphasized the liberation of women than in the ROK15, although it is the ROK that has become the first to have a woman as the national leader. In any case, both continue to show the traditional Confucian view of family relations in society in important ways, with the role of families in the chaebol of South Korea and the emphasis on dynastic succession for the leadership of North Korea.
The case for arguing that the DPRK is more Confucian than the ROK involves its apparently following two aspects of Confucianism quite strongly that appear to have little or no hold in the South. One is the isolationism associated with the self-reliance policy of juche (or chuch’e), arguably the central tenet of KimIlSungism16 that distinguishes it from the versions of Marxism-Leninism found in the former USSR and in the past in Maoist China. This isolationism makes North Korea very much resemble the old “Hermit Kingdom” of the late Choson in its last centuries. It can be argued that during the Park Chung-Hee period there was some degree of isolationism, particularly in its forbidding of any foreign direct investment into the ROK, along with a degree of protectionism.17 But this has mostly faded away now and was never remotely as extreme as the isolationism evident in the DPRK.
The other is in its strongly anti-mercantile attitude, noted in the quotation above by Shils (1996) regarding the views of Confucius and Mencius that merchants were “small men” whose conduct was simply unimportant for society more broadly due to their excessive focus on profits rather than knowledge or ethics. This was long the element of traditional Confucianism that outside observers (Weber, 1968) identified as the key to how Confucianism might hold back economic development relative to such religions as Protestant Christianity or even Islam. Clearly, this attitude is completely gone in the ROK, along with pretty much all other predominantly Confucian societies such as Japan and Taiwan, and even increasingly in the Peoples’ Republic of China, where a revival of Confucianism has been countenanced openly, presumably to emphasize its emphasis on respect for hierarchy and order. But China has largely eliminated its anti-mercantile attitude despite some recrudescence of it among harder line remnant Maoists. Only in North Korea does one still find a strongly anti-mercantile attitude as one would have found in many of these nations in the 19th century, along with the peculiarly Korean isolationism.
Cumings (1997, p. 413) highlights how long and deeply entrenched this perception of a stronger Confucian influence in North Korea than in South Korea has been:
“The resonance with Korea’s past means that the DPRK often impresses foreign visitors precisely in its cultural conservatism: a Japanese visitor old enough to remember prewar Japan remarked on the similarities he found in the ‘antiquarian atmosphere’ of North Korea…The antiquarian aspect of this regime thus extends to an elite that has the same sense of birthright and entitlement as the old yangban (and for a minority that travels abroad, a life of world class privilege). There is a yawning chasm between the elite prerogative and the difficult daily lives of nearly everyone else.”
As it is, study and discussion of the underpinnings of ideology and policy in these matters has advanced in more recent years as certain materials became available after the 2000 diplomatic opening between the two Koreas. This reconsideration has also revived attention to earlier work that had been mostly ignored on the topic. Crucial to this reconsideration has been the publication of Song’s (2010) Human Rights Discourse in North Korea: Post-Colonial, Marxist, and Confucian Perspectives. She emphasizes the links between North Korean attitudes on social and political issues and those from the Choson period, particularly regarding the Sirhak period of “practical learning” and the Tonghak uprising. While these were arguably variants of traditional Korean neo-Confucianism, they also took it seriously, with parts of the Sirhak being clearly a modification of it that became entrenched as part of the orthodoxy. Post-colonial discussion appeared after 1945 and Marxist influence became important after 1948. However, the revival of Confucian influence appears to be associated with the appearance of the “Our Style” view of human rights (urisik in ‘gweon) under Kim Chong Il in 1995, the year after his father’s death, arguably the main ideological deviation he made from his father’s doctrines, with the revival of more traditional attitudes toward women a part of this (Levi, 2012). According to Song, while this involved some recognition of outside views of human rights, including even some discussions of the work of Robert Nozick (1974), the emphasis remained on the duty of the citizen to the leader and loyalty to the party, with rights ultimately to be granted by those authorities rather than being inherent in individuals. Realizing this has led to an ongoing reevaluation of the intellectual role of Confucianism in North Korea, with this influence appearing to grow under the new leader Kim Chong Un, who has used it for political purposes not all that different from in China, to reinforce respect for the centralized leadership (Kang, 2011).
The emphasis on the Sirhak and Tonghak ideas was particularly useful for the North Koreans according to Song as they both supported peasant rights against the ruling yangban elites and also an emphasis on materialism and science.18 Indeed, the youth wing of the ruling party in the DPRK claims direct descent from a group formed by the Tonghak rebels in the 1890s. The regime is able to maintain its condemnation of Confucianism as a whole (which was particularly emphasized during campaigns in the 1970s under Kim Il Sung), but draw on these reformist Confucian ideas to support current nationalistic approaches. Song summarizes the recent DPRK views on Confucianism as follows (Song, p. 73):
“First, Confucian influence over the formation of rights think in the DPRK included: (i) the role of the ‘virtuous’ ruler for his country and people, particularly in the area of people’s material well-being; (ii) the passive form of granted rights rather than the active form of claiming rights; (iii) citizens’ duties in return for granted rights; and (iv) the ultimate goal of achieving collective unity and social harmony by emphasizing the roles and duties of both the ruler and the ruled. It is significant that ‘virtuous politics’ is the term used under Kim Jong [Chong] Il’s ‘our style’ of human rights. The family was the basic social unit but maintaining a stable family also implied significant responsibilities for each member of the family…the DPRK government employed familial images depicting the entire society such as the parental leader, motherly party, and thus, by implication, citizens as children.”
Kim Il Sung had used Confucianism to support his insistence on following the Soviet and Maoist model of socialist realism in art, with Confucianism emphasizing how art should reflect the ethical code of society (Howard, 1996, p. 172). Kim (2010) further explicates how North Korean art involves a systematic blending of socialist values with Confucian ideology and imagery. This is exemplified in the national symbol of a Chinese calligraphic brush standing between a hammer and sickle. Miller (2003, p. 31) reports that the Chinese viewed Kim Il Sung as “a person with Confucian virtues,” even as they criticized him for these, particularly when he engaged in elaborate rituals honoring his Christian parents.
Cumings (2004, p. 134) notes earlier South Korean scholarship that emphasized how closely the North Korean model followed the ideas of the codifier of Chinese neo-Confucianism from the 12th century, Chu His (Zhu Xi), quoting Lee (1976, p. 130):
“What has happened in North Korea for the last quarter of a century may be summarized as a transformation into a new Confucian society or family-state that is well integrated as an extension of filial piety, expressed through strong loyalty to its leader. To some extent, then, it may be said that the society Chu Hsi had dreamed about has materialized in Communist North Korea.”
Curiously, Song takes this further. Even as she emphasized the important role of traditional Korean neo-Confucianism, especially as modified by Sirhak and Tonghak influences, on North Korean idedology, she sees the personality cult in that nation as moving well beyond Confucianism to something else. This would be something closer to a “supernatural shamanism,” especially when one considers that increasing emphasis on such fantastic elements as the increasingly racist emphasis on how the Kims and the Koreans as a whole are supposedly descended from Tangun, supposedly himself the son of a bear and a god, with Kim Il Sung having claimed to have discovered the site of Tangun’s grave. While there is much racial and cultural pride in South Korea, one does not find this sort of claim being asserted there, which is something revived from the days of the Confucian Choson Hermit Kingdom.