The relationship between juche and policymaking becomes clear when one digs more deeply into its precise meaning. Although it originated as a general call for self-reliance,juche was soon defined in terms of three critical realms, demanding "independence in politics, self-reliance in the economy, and self-defense in national defense." In each of these fields, juche insisted on an assertion of North Korean exceptionalism and a rejection of all external forces.

In the political realm, it called for chaju (independence), in which North Korean leaders governed without constraint from outside pressure or internal challenge. Economically,juche called for charip (self-sustenance), which required a largely self-contained economy based on domestic workers using domestic resources to satisfy domestic needs. In international relations, juche advocated chawi (self-defense), a foreign policy based on complete equality and mutual respect between nations as well as the right of self-determination and independent policymaking.

Juche, simply, demanded the people subordinate themselves to the state, and the state in turn would advance their collective interests in accordance with the uniqueness and majesty of Korea, and always in pursuit of greater economic, political, and international independence.

By justifying the position of the suryong (single leader) and uniting the people behind him,juche successfully advanced Kim's interests. However, by closely associating the government's legitimacy with its successful pursuit of juche, Kim had opened the door to potential disaster. When he triumphantly achieved juche, North Koreans would perpetuate and even embrace his rule. But if the pursuit was unsuccessful, the most fundamental justification for the regime would appear violated.

Kim's government thus expended much energy throughout the Cold War to demonstrate itsjuche to the people. Yet, there were inevitably times when internal problems became so obvious that even Kim could not hide them. Such times demanded that he find, or even manufacture, evidence of juche elsewhere.

When considered within this framework, Kim's tendency to behave more aggressively when he seemed to be at his weakest makes sense. Unable to deny economic and political instability that suggested his government was not acting in accordance with jucheprinciples, Kim redoubled his efforts to demonstrate his strength and independence in the third juche realm, foreign policy.

In fact, if one was to plot three graphs––one charting evidence of economic turmoil in the North; one charting the level of political instability and even opposition to Kim Il-sung within the DPRK government; and one tracking the provocative actions of the North against the U.S. or South Korea––the similarity between the rise and fall of the three graphs over the past five decades would be striking.

A Pattern Emerges

Tracing the history of DPRK-American relations based on the new records from the former Communist-bloc states seems to validate this pattern.

From the mid-1950s until approximately 1964, North Korean society was awash in evidence of political and economicjuche. The Five-Year Plan established in 1957 actually achieved its economic targets in four years. Especially significant, particularly in the sense that it offered clear signs of juche, was the growth of local industry, which produced an estimated 100% of the nation's soft drinks, wine, and beer, along with over 90% of bean paste and soy sauce.

Politically, Kim Il-sung consolidated power and ruled with an iron fist, having purged his largest power rivals by 1957 and expelled Chinese troops in 1958. Kim thus appears to have had less need for evidence of juche in his international relations during this time, a fact that was reflected in the country's less hostile behavior.

Starting in the late 1950s, the DPRK made a number of proposals ostensibly designed to move the peninsula towards peaceful reunification. In the early 1960s the emphasis shifted towards encouraging direct North-South talks on cultural and economic links. Such plans went nowhere, but the fact that diplomatic proposals, rather than bullets or vitriol, were emanating from the North was an obvious sign that the tensions and provocations that had marked the preceding years had lessened.

Soon, however, the situation reversed itself, as the second half of the 1960s represented a significant setback to Kim's efforts to demonstrate his juche. Nowhere was this more evident than in the economic realm. Shortages in food, power, and housing were ubiquitous, and the seven-year plan had to be extended to ten years to meet its targets, many of which still went unrealized. North Koreans, reported one source in 1967, "are starving and leading a miserable life."

Kim blamed the problems on American aggression and attributed much of the shortcomings to the need to prepare for an impending attack. "There has been a very intense campaign among the people concerning preparation for a potential war," wrote an East German Embassy official to Moscow, in a message that attributed this campaign to "mostly propagandistic reasons."

Kim faced growing internal challenges to his policymaking authority at the same time. During the mid-1960s, a group of moderates emerged to demand greater spending on light and consumer industry, and a decrease in the amount of resources devoted toward encouraging rebellion in the South. In response, a more hard-line wing rose to the fore, supporting a greater emphasis on military and defense spending and a focus on heavy industrial development.

Kim first sided with the hard-liners, launching a series of purges of the moderates in 1967, but soon reversed course and ousted many of the leaders of the more militant faction. Overall, these purges offered dramatic and obvious signs of political instability, as almost two-thirds of key local government and party posts were vacant by 1968.

Kim responded to these internal problems by increasing his international provocations, which began in 1965 and brought the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war in 1968. Clearly just as Northern economic and political stability had dissipated, the more tolerant and passive North Korea of the late 1950s had vanished as well.

In the early 1970s the situation again reversed itself. These years saw a brief stabilization in the critical domestic areas and a corresponding shift away from aggressive behavior towards the Western bloc. The wave of purges in the second half of the 1960s had eliminated potential threats to Kim's regime, thus offering him political juche, while signs of economic stability emerged as well, including a major, across-the-board pay raise issued in 1970, and a noticeable increase in exports.

At the same time, Kim reversed his aggressive policies towards the West. The number of known sea and land infiltrations across the parallel by the North fell from 144 in 1969 to 20 in 1972, and soon the New York Times wrote of Kim's "new flexibility," his "friendly gestures," his "wish to end isolation," and even of "the new spirit of Panmunjom."

In 1971, Kim agreed to participate in inter-Korean Red Cross talks in Panmunjom, sparking the first face-to-face talks between the sides in two decades. Quietly, other diplomatic channels were pursued, including a series of secret talks between high-ranking representatives from each government that culminated with the release of a Joint Communiqué on July 4, 1972, a date that itself suggests a lesser animosity towards the Americans.

Once again, the pattern was clear: an internally stable North Korea did not need to manufacture provocations in order to prove its ability to act independently, and thus just as quickly as it had begun, the campaign against the United States and South Korea came to a close.

Juche and the West

How contemporary American policymakers use this knowledge is, of course, another story, one to be told by future historians. The past, however, does not suggest reasons for optimism.

Throughout the Cold War, American officials generally discounted the possibility that North Korean actions were premised on North Korean imperatives. Instead the tendency was simply to lump the DPRK into a larger Communist conspiracy, embracing a one-size-fits-all model that usually attributed North Korean actions to the larger Cold War struggle, and discouraged any detailed examination of DPRK values and traditions.

After the Cold War, American policymakers could no longer point fingers at a global communist menace but they often clung to the fiction that China could control North Korean behavior, although recent releases from Communist archives suggest otherwise.

Other American policymakers have largely abandoned the effort to make sense of the country, simply dismissing it as evil and incomprehensible. Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ) has spoken of "North Korea's insane leadership," and Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz declared, "I'm more profoundly skeptical of North Korea than of any other country—both how they think, which I don't understand, and the series of bizarre things they have done."

Yet, this historical survey of U.S.-DPRK relations suggests that Pyongyang's behavior was only "insane" and "bizarre" when viewed through a Western lens, which refused to see the importance of the juche ideology in DPRK policymaking. Contemporary policymakers would thus be wise to consider their diplomatic approaches to the North in conjunction with this defining reality of the nation's existence.

Doing so, for example, might encourage them to see the recent wave of harsh rhetoric against the newly elected government of South Korea not as a prelude to greater confrontation but as a reflection of the overwhelming DPRK hostility towards sadaejuui(submissive service to the great power), which they see in South Korean president Lee Myung-bak's more pro-American stances.

It might help them to realize that while the Chinese do have some limited influence on the North, the DPRK's need to preserve an image of independent policymaking all but negates that influence during times of crisis.

It might encourage them to realize that the failure of Kim Jong-il to begin the process of publicly attaching juche to his heir, something his father had done for decades before his own death, does not bode well for political stability in the immediate future considering the rumors of Kim's current health problems.

And it might encourage them to recognize that North Korean insults and provocations—even the nuclear saber rattling—are directed more towards their domestic audience than their diplomatic opponents, and reflect a need to compensate for other shortcomings rather than an intention to provoke a larger international crisis.

But regardless of how the lessons of juche are applied by American policymakers, the most important thing they can do to better position themselves for successful diplomatic engagement with the North is to recognize that although the Cold War has ended, the leadership in North Korea and the ideology that justified its rule remain.