Monday, April 15, 2013

Is Today the Day War Begins in East Asia?

Today might be the day war breaks out in East Asia, for this is the “Day of the Sun,” the most celebrated holiday of the year in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Day of the Sun commemorates the birth of “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung on April 15, 1912.
Some have speculated that on this auspicious day Kim Jong-un, the young dictator of North Korea and grandson of Kim Il-sung, will make a daring show of power, following up on recent threats hurled at South Korea, Japan and the United States.
But as it is already evening in Pyongyang, which is 14 hours ahead of where I am posting this (in CDT), perhaps Supreme Leader Kim (b. 1983/4) has decided not to carry out his threats, at least not today. And if not today, maybe not at all. Maybe it has all been bluff and bluster after all. Let’s hope so.
Kim Il-sung’s birthday marks the beginning of the first year in the current North Korean calendar, so today is New Year’s Day, Juche 102. Actually, the beginning of Juche 102 was also celebrated on January 1, as the country uses both the Gregorian and their own unique calendar. But April 15 is celebrated more elaborately.
“Juche” is the Korean name for Kim Il-sung’s political thesis, which declares that the Korean masses are the masters of the country’s development. According to Kim, the Juche idea is based on the belief that “man is the master of everything and decides everything.” That doesn’t sound very religious, at least in the usual (Western) sense of the word.
Yet, “Just one more religion?” is the title of an April 7 online posting of The Economist. That article points out that according to, Juche is the 10th most widely followed religion in the world, with 19 million adherents. (By comparison, Judaism is 12th with 14 million adherents worldwide.) But Juche is likely the largest religion most people have never heard of.
Those who follow The Economist closely may know a little about Juche. And some few may have heard of the book “Juche: A Christian Study of North Korea’s State Religion” (1999) by Thomas J. Belke. As quoted in The Economist, Belke states that Juche is a religion because it “has a comprehensive belief system, holy places, distinctive customs” and also because “it displaces other religions.”
Juche is certainly not a religion in the same sense that the so-called “world religions” (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) are. But it can be argued that it is a religion in the same way that Marxism, Stalinism, Maoism are, or have been, religions.
As the picture shows, Kim Il-sung and his family are highly venerated in North Korea. But ancestors are widely venerated in East Asia, and deep bowing is common even before living people, especially those of high rank. But does veneration and bowing indicate the existence of a religion, or religious worship?

If Juche is a religion at all, it is what might be called a secular religion, for it seems to lack any sense of the transcendent. It is much more like an ongoing personality cult, one that demands loyalty and subservience to Kim Il-sung and his descendants by the North Korean people. As such, it is a powerful ideology that elicits legitimate concern by the nations of the world—for it might not be all bluff and bluster.
Let’s pray that today’s Day of the Sun celebration does not include the launching of missiles aimed at South Korea, Japan or U.S. territories, which would likely start a war in East Asia.


  1. What a remarkably informative column! Thanks, Leroy.

  2. I confess I find Kim Jong-un much as cartoonists are depicting him...a spoiled, bully of a boy lacking the emotional maturity to lead a country. On television, he looks like a boy playing army.

    He may boy to his grandfather, but he strikes me as someone who also wants to be bowed to...and the deeper, the better.

    I don't envy the likes of John Kerry and our military leaders, as well as other SE Asian leaders trying to calm the situation and be prepared for a potentially frightening situation.


    P.S. It occurs to me Kim Il-sung was born the same day the Titanic sank

    1. Thanks for your comments, David -- and thanks for pointing out the Titanic sank on the same day. I had forgotten that, although a year ago today my blog posting was about the Titanic sinking exactly 100 years earlier.

  3. Leroy: Thanks for you blog. It was very informative. I share your concern that Kim Il Sung not precipitate a conflagration.

    It's hard to undertand how the world looks through North Korean eyes.

    1. Bob, thanks for your comments. It certainly increases problems when we as individuals and especially as a country seldom try to see what the world looks like through the eyes of those who are the "enemy."

  4. Thinking Friend Daniel O'Reagan writes from Louisiana:

    "You can trust the communists to be communists. This is all a propaganda show for local consumption so the young Kim Jong-un can show himself a great military leader to replace his father, and all of the military generals he fired, and replaced with his own yes men. He stood up to the United States. That makes him a great leader in the eyes of the North Koreans.

    "However, the United Sates and South Korea are going to have to modify their strategy. Having all kinds of American military hardware on his border is provocative, no matter how you slice it."

    1. Thanks, Dan. I think especially your second paragraph emphasizes an important point.

  5. Well, April 15 was also the 100th anniversary of the US income tax, Patriots Day in Boston, and the latest running of the Boston Marathon. Here we are worrying about what North Korea would do with its missiles, while something far more prosaic wrought terror in Boston. Then an old-fashioned industrial accident in West, Texas killed and maimed even more. Meanwhile the US Senate decided doing absolutely nothing was the right policy for gun control, Gabby Giffords and Sandy Hook notwithstanding.

    My mind is numb. Apparently North Korea is feeling that way, too, because they now are hinting they might talk. Perhaps when we are all feeling down would actually be a good time to try it.