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December 20th, 2011
12:17 PM ET

My Take: Kim Jong Il and the danger of deifying leaders

Editor's Note: R. Albert Mohler, Jr., is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world.

By R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Special to CNN

There are no atheists in dictatorships. The death of North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il underlies a basic fact of earthly politics: when a political regime denies any transcendent supernatural reality, it deifies itself.

The communist regime that has been in control of North Korea for over half a century is officially atheistic, following the example of its first protector state, the Soviet Union.

Like the Russian communists, the North Koreans sought to expunge any trace of Christianity or other religious faiths. But make no mistake, this does not mean that the Pyongyang regime did not believe in worship.

To the contrary, the North Korean regime mandated worship, the worship of its own supreme leader.

As Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis explained, North Korea’s founding dictator Kim Il Sung “was allowed to build a Stalinist state, with its own cult of personality centered on himself, at just the time when Khrushchev was condemning such perversions of Marxism-Leninism elsewhere.”

The North Korean cult of personality goes far beyond anything Josef Stalin could have envisioned. Kim Il Sung became known as the Great Leader, the nation’s protector, gifted with supernatural powers.

The Great Leader was said to be able to control the weather with his moods. Kim was credited with saving the North Koreans from “flunkeyism,” or subservience to foreign powers.

All this was backed up with an ideology known as “Jucheism,” which demands total self-sufficiency and isolation for the Korean people. As journalist Jasper Becker observed, Jucheism “served a useful purpose by establishing a national church of Communism” in North Korea.

Indeed, Kim’s regime turned completely inward, eventually forbidding even the reading of works by Marx and Stalin. Kim Il Sung was recast at the center of cosmic history. In Becker’s words, “At this point the propaganda began to veer into the realms of madness by presenting Kim as the Christ-like savior of Korea.”

Kim Il Sung came to be considered a god. He was the “iron-willed brilliant commander,” the “Fatherly Leader” and “the leader who unfolded paradise.” The calendar was reset to start with his birth year. His birthday replaced Christmas. Children were taught to give thanks to the Fatherly Leader before eating meals.

North Koreans were subjected to coerced indoctrination, especially through the schools. They were told that Kim Il Sung was immortal and would never die. Thus, they were unprepared for his death in 1994.

As veteran reporter Barbara Demick recalled about the shock around the death that Kim Il Sung “wasn’t merely the father of their country, their George Washington, their Mao, he was their God.”

Next in line came Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung’s son and chosen successor. Once he had consolidated power, the cult of deification went into full swing. Kim Jong-Il was the deified “Dear Leader” whom North Koreans were commanded to adore and follow.

Like his father, Kim Jong Il constructed a cult of personality that defied imagination. His birth was claimed to have been accompanied by supernatural special effects, heralding his arrival as the infant of destiny.

What did North Koreans receive from the hands of their “Great” and “Dear” leader? Year after year of disastrous harvests followed by starvation. The North Korean regime is among the most paranoid on the planet, and human rights organizations consistently place North Korea’s regimes among the world’s most repressive.

The hermit kingdom of North Korea is largely dark at night, starved of electrical power, and yet the regime has been determined to develop nuclear weapons.

There are important lessons to observe here. A big one is that officially atheistic states are never so atheistic as they appear. Something or someone will be worshipped and acknowledged as ultimate.

If the worship of God is forbidden, the state may well turn its own dictator into a deity. This transforms the leader and the regime into objects of devotion and worship. The state is then beyond all rational critique and consideration.

In other words, citizenship is transformed into idolatry. History records the tragic legacy of idolatrous states, led by despots who range from ancient kings to warlike emperors and delusional Fuhrers.

The worship of the North Korean leaders is not all that different than what the philosopher George W. F. Hegel envisioned when he hoped for the emergence of an authoritarian state that would be “the march of God in the world.”

Friedrich Nietzsche would later reduce the vision for that state to a single individual, an iron-fisted strongman.

Now, Kim Jong Il has been revealed to be, like his father, mortal after all. Waiting in the wings is his own son and chosen successor, Kim Jong On. The North Korean regime has already started the process of deifying Kim Jong On as the third “Fatherly Leader” of the North Korean people.

I expect the consequences to be as disastrous as they were under his father and grandfather.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • North Korea • Opinion

soundoff (765 Responses)
  1. Kim Jung Un

    Now if Kim Kardashian would hurry up and die the world will be free of evil Kims.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      R'amen!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  2. Ben

    And not more susceptible Jen. I was suggesting that it would be easier for an atheist to implement such a tool.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Jen

      Only a pyschopath or a psychotic person would implement such a "tool" to control a populace, regardless of that person's belief or lack there of. What you are actually suggesting is that atheists are less moral because they do not fear imaginary punishments.
      This is not only completely offensive, is it not supported by the statistics. Non believers comprise 12% of the U.S population but less than 2% of prison populations. They are less likely than believers to cheat on their spouses and and have lower divorce rates, lower violent crime rates and lower STD rates.
      However psychopaths do exist naturally and the only way that I see to prevent them from using religious nonsense to manipulate populations is to have populations with sufficient critical thinking skills to dismiss religious ideas entirely.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Diana

      Um... Hitler wasn't an atheist. He was Christian. Wow, that's embarrassing on your part.

      December 21, 2011 at 3:53 am |
  3. mabear87

    What a sad state of affairs that any leader would be revered as a god and the people crynig in the street must be the millionaires who are afraid of losing their money Oh, were Joen Boehner and Cheney there too? Obviously the public was brainwashed much like the evangelicals in America who cannot think for themselves.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Crocker

      You mean the Kool-Aid drinking Democrats don't you? They are the reason we are in the fix we are currently in. So thank your fellow Democrat.....

      December 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • cja

      I wonder if they were are brain washed as you say. Do we haven any independent way to know if the average person in NK actually beleives that the Kims are god-like.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  4. RCnelson

    Some day the people will rise and squash this little dung beetle into the dirt, then they will probibly go after themselves. What a fitting end!

    December 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • James

      You're talking about the author??

      December 20, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  5. Crocker

    Re: My Take: Kim Jong Il and the danger of deifying leaders. It should be DEFYING leaders.... Both get you the same result.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  6. Ed

    A Christian theologian extolling the dangers of dogmatism, deification, and faith in, and submissiveness to authority? While offering his own versions as the very solution?

    Irony is dead.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Crocker

      Nah, there's plenty of irony left to go around – trust me on that one.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Cando

      Your point?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • cja

      Of course, ask him. He will say "All religion is false, except mine." That is they all say.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  7. Old Man Winter

    I see the author lacks all the honesty one could wish.

    He constantly attempts to hammer his assertion that the regime in North Korea is "atheistic" yet contradicts himself at every turn as he shows the religion of North Korea is religious in nature, terms, methods, and scope.

    Would someone please tell this idiot what the definition of atheism is? He seems rather stupid.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  8. Nancy Myers

    Always dangerous to worship a person. They have this nasty habit of letting you down or the ultimate, dying on you.
    Amazing that a whole nation would fall into this trap.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Crocker

      Here is the problem with Man: Ultimate power corrupts ultimately.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  9. seattle

    This guy is southern baptist. I have nothing to offer to hear his opinion. Can we get someone thats LESS crazy than the dictator he's talking about please, for some analysis? THANKS.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  10. Marie

    I miss Christopher Hitchens! He would have written a great article on this topic. It's really sad to watch how the North Koreans have been brainwashed, but it is not far from what happens in Christianity and other religions.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • bringoutyourdead

      You toss hitchens on a cart with kim jong II with pitchforks and they will both be the same. They always were.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • come on man

      How do you know your not being brainwashed...

      December 20, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  11. Barry G.

    Kim Jong Il certainly didn’t believe in the high ethics and values that the God of the Bible demands. He certainly didn’t believe in being wise, just and compassionate, as the God of the Bible is and demands of his people; and, he certainly didn’t believe in loving your neighbor, or doing unto others as he would have others do unto him.

    Rather he followed a selfish pagan concept of religion.

    How sad for the poor people of North Korea, who suffered and starved, while he lived in comfort and wealth.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Colin

      Kim Jong Il certainly didn’t believe in the high ethics and values that the God of the Bible demands."

      You mean like murder, ra.pe, genocide and the complete subjugation of women? And don't bother denying it. I have the citations here.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • lorne

      A huge number of people were murdered throughout history by the followers of your Bible, in many cases because they were not Christians like you. A lot of hypocrisy and self righteousness in your opinion methinks.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  12. Change

    Now, here's their chance to rejoin South Korea and become one nation once again like Germany. If they did so, they'd become one powerful and proud Republic of Korea. I just hope they do it and make the world and themselves proud. I know its easy to say but as they say, where there is a will there is a way.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Crocker

      It would take either the cooperation or non interference from the military for any chance of success. Not sure that's gonna happen any time soon...

      December 20, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  13. James

    This guy throws a nice counter point to all those people commenting along the lines "I have ne respect for people that can't stand up for themselves" or even worse "Why don't they get rid of their fake god and get saved by the real one". The few North Koreans that have attempted to go against the Kim regime or have managed to escape the country are the "atheists" of North Korea. They are the one's that realize they've been fed a load of crap their whole lives.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      It's hard for religious people to accept facts. They prefer miracles and deceit.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  14. Billy

    Dear Albert,

    Before you point fingers at other cults you should look at the one you joined. The SBC is fundamentalism filled with hate.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  15. kimjong

    This happens to be a sad week for the atheists, they lost two of their deities!

    December 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Lang

      Look at them shedding all those crocodile tears..

      December 20, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Crocker

      Let's hope Ablinanutjob (or however you spell it) is next.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Atheism is self worship and these 2 dieties they lost are forever LOST in ETERNITY.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Your rant proves nothing but your fear of the truth. Atheists, by definition don't believe in the supernatural. Kim proclaimed to be of supernatural origins.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Atheism is not self worship, maybe you should find a dictionary. It is the absence of worship.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • John D

      Yeah, Christopher Hitchens LOVED Kim Jong-Il.

      ...You probably haven't read him, but if you did, you'd know that one of Hitch's favorite metaphors for heaven was "a sort of celestial North Korea," where your thoughts and activities are monitored day in and day out by the "Great Leader" and his son the "Dear Leader."

      No one should have to be told that atheists are not a monochromatic group with any particular goals in mind.
      Ayn Rand was an atheist, and so was Karl Marx. Do you think the two of them could agree on the color of an orange?

      Atheism is not associated with any particular political philosphy; it just denotes a lack of belief in diety.
      Heck, technically, Buddhists are atheists.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Joseph

      Do you see the contradiction in what you just wrote? i.e., atheist–deity.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  16. Betty

    How is North Korea "atheist" if they believe Kim Jong Il is God? That doesn't make any sense. It's just a different religion. This writer says that North Korea sought to expunge all religious faiths, but what this writer means is that North Korea sought to expunge the particular faith he believes in. This somehow makes them "atheist," according to him. But the North Koreans certainly had their own faith, and the worship of Kim Jong Il as a supernatural power is not that different from the worship of Jehovah or Jesus as supernatural powers. It seems that some Christians call anything that is not Christian "atheist."

    December 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • James

      Agreed. It never ceases to amaze me that the people that laugh the most about the things the North Koreans believed about Kim Jong Il usually are people that believe some pretty outrageous stories themselves. Which is more believable a -38 round of golf or walking on water and raising from the dead??

      December 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • matt

      very well said, its like a lot of these people here think they know what an atheist is and they are completely wrong. atheism has nothing to do with believing in worship, god's superpowers, etc that's exactly the opposite of what atheist are about. some christian pastor or whatever whom probably couldn't pass a science class and believes evolution is a hoax writes an article for CNN about north Korea's evil dictatorship and tries pinning it on atheism!!! damn i hate the liberal media or any media.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Charles Stewart

      Well, under Christianity you have the choice to worship God or not. I don't think the people in North Korea have that same choice.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Greg

      @Charles. No, they both have a choice, and they both face similar threats for not worshipping. Torture and/or death. Kim just can't keep up the torture after death.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • James

      Charles, Christianity tends to be very unaccepting of those that don't "choose" to believe as they do. Ever heard of the Spanish Inquisition?
      Fortunatly, the founding fathers did all they could to prevent relgions being forced on to people. The credit for the "choice" lies with America not Christianity.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  17. Barry G.

    You mean like the evil gods of pagan mythology?

    December 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  18. John D

    I'd agree that the political system in place in North Korea approximates a religion.
    As a matter of fact, I've seen it described as a sort of extreme or perfected form of Confucianism.

    It's false to suggest, though, that all secular states trend in the direction of pseudo-religious personality cults.
    Ideally, a secular state, by maintaining a position of neutrality on metaphysical matters, permits individuals to worship according to their conscience while declining to use the power of the law or the public purse to advance or endorse any particular religious viewpoint.

    The United States comes close to that ideal, notwithstanding the tireless efforts of a vocal and monied "evangelical" minority seeking to bore holes though the wall separating church and state.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Richard

      Awesome post!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  19. Crocker

    Gods? Only in dictatorships. The actual word should be despot.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  20. Scriptured

    18 For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. Romans 1:18-20 ESV.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Crocker

      I wonder if God even cares sometimes when you see what Man does (and has done) to Man.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Betty

      "It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies." - Mark Twain on the Bible

      December 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.