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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. BadLuck

    You know, in America we call the same propaganda "Liberty and Justice for All" while our courts steal our rights and money by undue process... so judges and lawyers can pat themselves on their backs. Same thing... different name.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Myron

      You must be broke and mad!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Jason Z

      I hope you are an American. We need people like you to make the country stronger.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Don't forget purchasing forgiveness for your sins. Congress does that too. So does some church, but whatever. Totally not the same thing.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Jason Z

      That's right reasonably, complaining on CNN will fix it. great work. you are a Pioneer my friend. Dude, throw on your tight jeans, grab your iphone, get on your HUMpowered vehicle and go to city hall.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • Myron

      Material things are temporary. That why it is called currency, flows in at certain times and flows out at certain times. get used to it. Budget the money you have live within your means and stop trying to get every new gadget. Ohhh! BTW I'm American as well as times are tough for me too!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  2. Beth

    The writer seems to think North Korea was formerly all Christian. It was not. Christianity is huge in South Korea now but that was not the case in the north before the war. It was growing but not that large. There were native religions that were pushed aside as well but no mention of those in the article for some strange reason.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Myron

      Christianity has been there for a long time with the catholic missionaries of the 1500's. The Church was firmly established with Constantine in 300 – 400's so it's been there in Korea peninsula for over 500 years.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  3. angelika bertrand

    What scares the living hell out of me, is who is going to follow in his foot steps? I can't believe that we are closing our eyes, before this ? There is going to be trouble. And we know once when Stalin and Marx and Hitler were in power, what these ill dilussional people can do? I hope that our government will not look the other way. And I hope President Obama has the back bone it takes, to make sure Foreign Aid will discontinue. Let's for a change take care of our own people. There are hungry children in this country, who go to bed every night without a meal to eat! Our own military families who are struggeling to feed, and cloth and put housing up for their families. However, we need to watch. They have the biggest military that there is. And also does Iran. If these two nation get together and Russians Putin, than good night Western civilization!

    December 20, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • BadLuck

      Even more scary... how many more rights and money will American courts steal from innocent civilians while going unchecked?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Jason Z

      Here's an idea Badluck, why don't you get off your A and do something about it? you do have that right. Oh I know, your probably waiting for somebody else to figure it out for you. You're right. It's America thats screwed up, not you.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  4. Mike

    "...when a [insert anything here] denies any transcendent supernatural reality, it deifies itself."

    And with that, I can stop reading. The supernatural doesn't exist.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Jason Z

      You're so wise and smart. Thank you for pointing out your personal beliefs publically. I am sure everybody cares.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  5. africaboy

    Lucky the North Koreans! They know who is their dictator. Do you know who is your dictator in USA? I don't think so.
    A group of criminal gang oppressing everyone. Obama, Hillary & Co.
    I rather prefer to know my dictator than have ring of criminal and selfish acting in behalf. Obama, Bush, Hillary clinton are criminals serving their dictator bosses who don't know.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Brad

      Our poor have cable TV. Their poor eat grass and tree bark. Having a dictator doesn't seem all that good...

      http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/starving-north-koreans-forced-survive-diet-grass-and-tree-bark-2010-07-14

      December 20, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  6. Jason Z

    Look at these comments...

    I'll tell you what, you CNN commenters make it look like we are America the Godless. And I'm just coming from a page where you commenters were practically defending the 9/11 attacks. What is wrong with you people? Have we really lost our way this badly? No wonder everybody hates us. Godless, self-righteous, disloyal, lazy Americans. Go put on some tight jeans, buy an iPhone and talk about carbon footprints while figuring out why you think every basic American right is wrong. Pretend you really matter while he working man takes care of it. Our future looks very troubled. You people need to change your thought process before we lose this thing we call America, or just give Her away which I honestly think is ok with all of you..

    December 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Brrrnnnt.. Wrong answer. I will neither hand my America over to the Christian Reich, nor the Muslim Brotherhood. Supposedly we have a separation of church and state, but we only do so where convenient. Just because I'm agnostic does not make me a heartless, nor evil person, nor am I lazy. So please keep your self-righteous generalizations to yourself, thank you very much.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • marsmotel

      Why? Because we do not believe in your incredibly tunnel minded views. Religion is the crutch for the weak minded. You are part of the weakness that has become the lazy American. You pray for good thing, I make it happen. Why don't you put your book down and go do something about it.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  7. Colin

    I will not only kill people who do not believe what I say in various ways, such as drowning, smiting, plagues and horrid diseases, but I also torture them for all eternity. Who am I?

    (a) Kim Jong Il

    (b) Joseph Stalin

    (c) Adolph Hitler; or

    (d) The loving Christian god

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

      e) Sarah Pailn

      December 20, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Kim Jing IV

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=TXtVzj9y-bo

      December 20, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Myron

      Three of them wiould kill you instantly while One gives you a choice! Guess which one?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Jason Z

      What the hell do you know about anything? It's called faith, you make it seem like it's Taboo. So people have a God, why is that so terrible to you?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Myron

      I'm just responding to the choices given...Which I do know....we read them, right?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • ForSure

      I am seeing a dead man from the very words in your quiz you created. Eternal is eternal so remember that. It will be painful. I hope your love for Satan benefits you on earth. Even Satan fears God.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  8. Cando

    I worship my great leader because he staves me to death. Just where did he get his heart problems? From his rich diet. Feast for him, and familne for his subjects. True example of the sheep.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  9. Eric

    I agree completely with the author. There is definitely a parallel with someone like Kim Jong Il promising riches and prosperity while using 1/3 of the GDP of his country for the military, causing mass starvation, and the pope going to Africa and telling impoverished and poorly educated Africans not to use condoms while there is an HIV epidemic and population sizes that cannot be supported by their resources. In all these cases these leaders, religious or deified, simply peddle their baloney in order to strengthen their power and domination over their unfortunate followers.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Cando

      The guy was a whack job, no doubt about it.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  10. Colin

    I am the Judeo-Christian god. I am supposedly infinitely wise and just. One time, I was really mad at a political leader. He had a group of my people hostage and would not release them. What would be the just and fair thing for me to do?

    (a) appear before him and demand that he release them

    (b) simply release them myself, given that I am all powerful

    (c) perform a quick miracle to help Moses prove himself; or

    (d) prevent him from releasing them by hardening his heart and then hold him responsible for my actions, but then punish thousands of innocent people for what I made him do and murder lots of first born children who had nothing to do with the situation.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Mmmm...lamb's blood. Best part of Easter.

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

      D!!! It's D!!!!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Felix The Navidad

      Pharaohs soul was long dead before the process began. Multiple generations were given grace to receive the blessings of God and refused.This did not happen in a vacuum, it spanned hundreds of years.You know so little of which you speak.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Myron

      You were spoiled as a child...but I'm guessing

      December 20, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  11. Heil Mohler

    How ironic that someone named Mohler who is probably descended from Nazis, is an Evangelical Baptist – one of the most racist conclaves in the USA today.
    Is he a member of the KKK? Probably.
    Does he sound jealous of North Korea's racist religion? Yes.
    Does he propose his own brand of racist religion? Yes.
    Is he stupid? Yes.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  12. CJ in ROK

    Funny how the writer mentions religion was absent in the USSR under Stalin. Pure BS! Stalin got to power by using the Russian Orthadox church to spy on it's own citizens and was quite religious himself. The writer needs to go back and read what really happened in Russian history not what the US propaganda machine/ brainwashed Christian evangelical wants you to know. We look to North Korea and it bears little resemblance to true Communism of any form but rather a severe military dictatorship with a WORSHIP of the immortal Kim Ilsung as the holy spirit of the North Korean people. R. Albert Mohler, Jr hasn't ever had to work with North Korean refugees? I think not!!!! I have! And I can tell you that from first hand knowledge that the majority of NK refugees have been told to think in this manner. So, you see it is as a state based on religious ideology despite what our writer has us believe, This only further proves the point that religion is pure poison.
    R. Albert Mohler, Jr is a member of a Religious organization himself, so indeed he is a complete hypocrite by daring to write such a depthless article with so many glaring errors.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Myron

      We're all part of religion whether organized, atheists or agnostic they all follow a set of beliefs and worship something something natural or supernatural or seen or unseen!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  13. Oleg

    Sure, as long as you admit that's what all established religions have also done, sometimes with approval from their God, more often not.

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

      The Church established hospitals... so are the hospitals bad too?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  14. Reasonably

    When – on the fifth day – a bloated and pron-satisfied Kim Jong Il is ressurected from his missile bunker shall we all repent?

    December 20, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  15. eyeson

    Let's Christen the American Church of Atheists. All you pretty much need is a group with a world view to be regarded as a religion according to our government. Scientology does not worship any God. (no, they do not worship Hubbard).

    December 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  16. serana

    The people could never value the greatness of God, even though the 7 universes and earth are folded within His grasp.
    (Koran). We cannot even comprehend the vastness of our smallest and innermost universe

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

      Sure we can... it's called science. You should look it up sometime. It happens to be the reason you have a computer and clothes and food and your refrigerator.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • HxC19D

      @ashrakay I believe the same thing you do, but the argument is a pain. The believers are just going to say...and where did the mother boards, elements and knowledge come from? Then they'll put the credit in the hands of whatever god at the time is being questioned. I've even heard religious folk say, "And who do you think made science?" It's a ridiculous cycle that never gets anywhere lol. But in the same instance, I crack up over how so many religious minded people think the world's going to end next year because the Mayan Long Count decided to start a new era then..which religion or belief set are they actually following? Not for me, I'd rather believe in what I can see, that's myself....oh and karma.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  17. Jay (The other one)

    The scene of kids praying to a cardboard cutout of Dubya in "Jesus Camp" comes to mind... But it's different when authoritarians do it here because, um, because... Hey, look, over there! War on Christmas! Terror Babies! Dudes getting married!

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

      Don't question the christian reich. They get grumpy and might send Glenn Beck over to your house to preach away your sins.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  18. dave

    christ-like? what a joke, christianity is a thrice told lie itself, easily proven to be a lie by using it's own bible against itself! if the jews are God's chosen people then they cant be wrong. THEY have prerequisites of 1) rebuilding Solomon's temple, 2) ending war forever, 3) ending death and suffering and finally 4) relocating ALL of the Jews to Israel, ANY one can see that Jesus NEVER did any of those things, therefor HE CANT BE THE MESSIAH! the whole jesus story was copied from Mithras, which was a copy of Horus's story, lies lies lies. ALL RELIGIONS ARE B.S.

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

      atheists only believe in what can be proven. so let's see you prove there is no god.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @eyeson, How many times must we do this? Religious people seem stuck on a broken record of logic that they continue to put forth as if it has merit. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim. For example, can you disprove Zeus, fairies or leprechauns? Atheists (realists) also don't believe in magical bunny rabbits. Does this make it our responsibility to prove they don't exist? Anyone can make whatever ridiculous claim about anything they want. It is only considered reality when it is supported by evidence.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Phil

      @eyeson

      Easy - just pray. You'll only hear yourself ask and answer back. Pray for a miracle. It's not beyond the ability of the magical being you believe in - in fact, many times in the bible it states that god will answer and deliver! But god never does... Do you know why? It's not because you're not doing it right. It's not because god doesn't have time for you. It's not because your prayers are too much to ask for.

      It's because god doesn't exist. Everyday for thousands of years, science has been proving that god does not exist. Just because rainbows are mentioned in the bible and happen as a result of light refraction doesn't mean that the bible proves that god made rainbows.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • eyeson

      proof please

      December 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • Myron

      You misunderstand much! Don't mock at God's grace to alloww many to repent and change their thoughts about who Jesus is. All those things are yet future. God's reliability on past events are perfect. Why wouldn't these things you point out be accomplished? Messiahship events and Kingship events are two different events. You're are mixing the time table of events explained in Revelation. Study just a little more!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • eyeson

      We are alive in this universe. That is a miracle. I once saw an astrophysicist talk about the origin of the universe and he declared that when it comes to finding an answer a scientific or theological explanation are both potentially true. That's because nobody has an answer. You and I will leave this earth in a few years or decades and never know the answer.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • marsmotel

      @eyeson
      Who created god? Something has to be there first to create something else. Simple physics. Answer please...?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Myron

      As we travel down the physics cycle there is a cause for all things to exist. Eventually no matter how fall we travel there must be an uncaused cause for things to exist. Either matter is eternal or something outside of matter must be eternal. Since matter (natural) is constantly decpreciating (third law of thermodynamics) matter cannot be eternal. With all evidence presented I choose to believe that God (the uncaused cause) is eternal. Since the mind will conceive of all things which may be possible, excluding unicorns,fairies, leprechauns and the like, God must exist.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Myron

      But you are right at some point all so-called "airtight arguments" have holes in it; therefore, it all boils down to faith, with evidence that has holes in it.

      God cannot be totally proven through evidence, nor does he try in the world or in the Bible, he just says, "I am that I am!" That's all we get!

      December 20, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  19. serana

    The polytheistic humans could never value the greatness of the Creator as the sole possessor of all real power. Indeed they turned the creator into a human. Our universe cannot contain the greatness of God, so how could a mere mortal, Indeed the concept of God incarnate, or human dieties is an insult to the greatness of the Creator

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

      ha ha ha ha

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

      I've always preferred Justice League comics to the sole Superman comics.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  20. ashrakay

    Any belief in a god, is pretty silly and self-deprecating but at least these guys have evidence that their god really does exist.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
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About this blog

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.