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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. Jon

    Never thought i'd see people standing up for a North Korean leader that treated his people horribly. Even worse it seems to be atheists who should know better and be beyond supporting such figures.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Jason Z

      These are the next generation Americans. they have nothing. no faith, no God, no job, no loyalty, no government...but hey they have a new App on thier Iphone.....sweet. Damn son, we're in trouble.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Atheists have no job? LOL Glad to see you moved on from Blacks.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • HxC19D

      What'd you read? I just took a second to read the comments after reading yours and fail to see how anyone is glorifying this crony. The article in and of itself is about deification of a leader (i.e. religion) The country in itself has atheistic values...You failed to see even the context of the article but I assume you rushed to read the comments on religion.

      Yet another religiously inclined idiotic comment used to get your two cents in about atheism. I'm no atheist and i'm no believer...got a word for me now? Agnostic? Keep trying.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • HxC19D

      Didn't mean to sound like I was attacking you because after re-reading your comment, It seems as if you were referring to the people of NK being atheists themselves and not necessarily the commenting crowd. Apologies if I confused your intent.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Jason Z

      Not Athiest you dummy, this generations of Americans...who happen to be Godless.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • faith and reason

      My high school German teacher kept saying we're going down hill like the Romans. Bread and circuses. Bread and circuses.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Jason Z, maybe that's because my iphone provides more help in an instant than god ever did in my lifetime.

      December 20, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  2. jacl

    Yea, KJI really fooled his people with his god-like ways–gee, you know, he has only been dazzling his country with the same smoke and mirrors as our own politicians by "looking out for the common man" while being tickled and directed by the elite. While an extreme example, KJI was a warning look into what our own leaders are becoming.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  3. Donald Sensing

    Dictatorships must turn cultic in order to maintain the regime. It happened in ancient Rome, for example; the cult of Caesar began developing shortly after the dissolution of the republic. In the USSR, Lenin did not live long enough to turn Marxism-Leninism into a cult about him personally, but his successor, Stalin, did. After Stalin died in 1953, the Party determined that no general secretary would become a cultic figure again. This, in 1964 the Party under Leonid Brezhnev announced a doctrine of True Communism with a non-cultic, rigorously intellectual foundation. This ideology endured until his death 18 years later. It was during this time that the USSR posed the greatest danger to the West because, unlike cultic Stalinism, True Communism was a triumphant, missionary religion of expansion (a logical outgrowth, really, of the old ComIntern). But the elevation of True Communism proved also to be exactly why the USSR could not survive – none of Brezhnev's successors were true believers and by Gorbachev's time most all the regime at large was heartily tired of the whole endeavor.

    The great hazard to the North Korean people is that cultism will remain and their suffering will continue unabated. The great hazard to the the rest of the world is that the DPRK will turn away from cultism of Kim Jong Un and toward something like True Communism. Much more along these lines here: "North Korea: What do you do when your god dies?" at
    http://www.senseofevents.blogspot.com/2011/12/north-korea-what-do-you-do-when-your.html

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

      Our cult is better than your cult. Just ask us!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  4. wcott

    You put a gun to my head, and I'll call you anything you want.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • ashrakay

      That's been the strategy of religions for ages. Before it was guns, it was torture and swords.

      December 20, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  5. Daph18

    They judge us as we judge them.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Fnordz

      So what if they do?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Jason Z

      I love you.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  6. djlockerthebrain

    The God of the Bible killed waaaaaaay more people than Kim. King David was commanded by God to kill 80,000 men, women and children.

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

      In the bible god wipes out everyone on the planet with a flood.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Jason Z

      80,000? a light day's work for me. I would have done it for half the goats.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Jason Z

      Lunitics, Check out the reason he had the flood. Sounds familiar.....We're doomed. It's like a race. Who's going to end the world first, God or This generation of Americans? It's nose to nose.

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

      Jason Z, Crazy people have always tried to justify their atrocities. If god actually did exist, you'd have to be morally depraved to want to worship him.

      December 20, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
  7. spellcheck

    Kim Jong On. wrong!!!!!! Its Kim Jong Un

    December 20, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  8. Jason Z

    OK folks, Later. happy Holidays. Remember: whether you like it or not, you're an American and comparitively we got it pretty good. Instead on constantly finding faults, try coming up with solutions. We're in trouble if we keep on complaining and complaining and expecting someone else to fix it.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Common Sense

      Thank you! Finally! Stop identifying the problem, we've got that part down. For logic's sake, solutions! Start suggesting solutions! It may be difficult for a culture that has made a lifestyle out of paranoia like North Korea, but at this point, they are at their most vulnerable with Kim Jon Il's death. Judging them is useless. The world, indeed, the U.S., has to keep extending the olive branch.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  9. Jaye Stallion

    Look at the way these people are living! How opressive is this lifestyle! what a difference having The Lord bless your nation can make! Don't sit up here and try to be politically correct. Who made your very soul? Who knows you better than anyone? Who breathed life into you when you were nothing but a fetus in your mothers womb? Who is Almighty and powerful? Who deafeated death (satan) at the cross? Who gives you power over your enemies? Who will never lie to you? Never let you down? never stop loving you even when you forget about him? who set the universe into place like a cryptogram? Who formed the earth, planets, moons, and stars as the angels in heaven shouted for joy? Who blesses you when you follow his commandments and decrees? Who is wise, all powerful, the same today as he was millions of years ago and will always be......The Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end...The Lord Almighty is his name and I's rather die than worship some perishable man that is mortal or any other fool at that. Long live Jesus Christ! King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We'll fight till the end! Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

    December 20, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • djlockerthebrain

      I think Kim Jong would win in a fist fight with Jesus. Just sayin'

      December 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Fnordz

      It's people like you that make me fear the religious right.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Brian White

      I don't think dime store theology is the answer for the starving North Korean masses. They might aspire to become North-eastern Asia's imitation of Arkansas or Oklahoma, but I don't foresee Sam Walton's mathematical model of optimal locations for new Walmarts choosing Pyongyang as a winne for PRK's new Walmart. Besides, they can ghet all the free Chinese-made crap they can import just fro being the proving ground for the safety of the results of Chinese mass-production. I wonder if THAT's why there's a special battalion of North Korean recon/demolition troops with 3 heads... ??

      December 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  10. Willow

    I guess Kim Jong II was a God like Ronald Reagen was to the Republicans.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Norm

      Just a man...and one of very small mind and stature.
      Reagan was just an actor.
      That's all the republicans are. Actors for the money that owns them.

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

      Not even close. Kim Jong Il rules through terror and most of his supporters had no choice to support him...or face imprisonment or worse.

      Comparing any American leader to someone like Kim Jong Il shows nothing but ones' idiocy.

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

      Question during the next election to choose the next North Korean Communist Party Booster: "Aside from Kim Jong Il, who is your favorite, modern day repressive dictator of North Korea?"

      December 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Doug Wright

      I guess Kim Jong II was a God like Barrack Hussein Obama is to the Democrats.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      No he was not! Did Reagan proclaim to be divine?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Where is the church of Reagan or Obama? Where is his holy book? What rituals are demanded to be performed. You guys sure are stupid and reaching. It is painfully obvious.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Paul Park

      @Willow, you miss Mohler's point entirely. It is an underestimation of the deification of Kim Jong-Il (and Kim Il-Sung) to make the metaphorical connection you make.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  11. Geoffrey Law

    How is this any different than deifying your invisible friend?

    December 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Norm

      How sad....
      Apparently invisible to you.
      That's just so sad for you...

      December 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  12. HxC19D

    Religion is a tool used to create fear amongst a people and keep them bound by a common sense of mortality and moral code...This isn't some recent revelation, it's the very nature of the beast. Religion creates fear by providing an explanation for that which one's own mind can't fathom. Never has any god been proven, therefore I do not have to prove it doesn't exist, because by all definitions the burden of proof is on those who believe. The voice in your head isn't god...it's your conscience.

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

      Thoughtcrime!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Jon

      When government is involved everything is used as a tool of fear. Welcome to the real world.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Norm

      The burden of proof is on the believer?
      Boy do you have that backwards.
      No one is forcing you to believe in God.
      And no one has to prove anything to you.
      Try to get over yourself.
      LOL...

      December 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • HxC19D

      Just think about most major religions. How much is stated in their writings about what you can and will be punished for, if perhaps you lack any type of devotion? From before Egypt polytheistic days (which was actually the oldest/longest practiced religion of ancient times, if memory serves me correctly) to the majority of today's monotheistic religions, there's a common factor involved and that is FEAR.

      Why'd my crops fail this year? You probably lost favor with Demeter.
      Why'd that ship sink? Poseidon decided to sneeze
      Why am I going to Hell? Because you didn't accept the lord jesus christ as your savior and you're a Sinner.
      Why is he going to heaven? Because he went to church every sunday and gave a donation. Oh and took jesus as his savior and said his hail mary's and all that nonsense last week at confession.
      Why is everything so hard for me, and I feel so desperate? Probably because you put too much faith in something and expect less and less of your own human ability.

      Why is there heaven/hell? Because you need a place for the good folk and bad folk to go after they die right? Doesn't make sense to just die...if they were bad they simply must be punished for eternity, at least in our minds....

      The funny thing is how seriously hypocritical and judgmental so many religious people are, which goes against what their naturally inclined and have been bred to believe, I imagine a few will reply about my lack of intelligence on the religious matter. The internet's filled with e-preachers.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • faith and reason

      I would suggest that human beings use many things to create fear and control, including this self-deification, police state oppression, gulag prisons, "disappeared" people such as in Paraguay, propaganda, and finally the *misuse* of religion. However "religion" is a word that means "re-connect." According to St. Paul, true religion is helping widows and orphans in their affliction. If you can show how that is a form of fear-inducing oppression, I'd be surprised. Also Jesus certainly never demanded anyone worship Him. He preached repentance and belief in God and died willingly for others. The problem too in claiming anything Jesus said is manipulative is that it doesn't address whether He was right. Now I mean really, if you were about to be hit by a truck and I saw it coming, if I told you would that be fear mongering? I suspect if I didn't warn you, you'd be plenty mad about it later.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      """The burden of proof is on the believer?
      Boy do you have that backwards."""

      You can believe whatever you want. Unicorns, elves, Zeus, etc. You name it. But you should have no expectations that anyone would find that belief rational without PROOF.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  13. Rev. J.K.

    Mr. Mohler said at the end, "I expect the consequences to be as disastrous as they were under his father and grandfather." Not real Christian of him to be so positive about the future of N. Korea's 24.5 million people.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  14. billgme

    We are dealing with evil mental illness in North Korea. Unfortunately, they have nuclear weapons. This is a difficult sutuation, as Ambassador Bill Richardson said this week. "The Korean Peninsula is a tinder box." All the people with no faith who think believing in God is silly, need to remember "There are no atheists in foxholes."

    December 20, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Tom Shriver

      Well, I'm an active-duty USAF sergeant as well as an atheist; I can certainly prove you wrong.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Pat Tillman disagrees.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • h

      and when was the last time an air force member was in a foxhole?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Dennis

      Tom your in the Air Force Band what do you know about fox holes?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Jason Z

      Tom Schriver
      Well also being in the Military, I can tell you and everybody here that a USAF Sargeant really doesn't know much about foxholes. Please don't make me vomit all over myself again. Shame on you.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Geoffrey Law

      Yes there are. I have friends in the military who have been in some heated conflicts and they still don't believe in Jesus, YHWH, Allah, Krishna, Thor, Zeus or Unicorns.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Akira

      Bollocks, you never heard of Pat Tillman.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Binod

      Crocodile's tear for a dictator.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  15. Rabbit One

    Seriously – look at this situation – violence and power rule forever – otherwise who would ever grant so much power to such a leader – the people would in fact live better on their own – eating the right amount of resources and living well – but no instead such a leader oppresses the people – now he dies and his son steps in to do the same work of oppressive evil – it just keeps going – until the people rise up peacefully and say no more

    December 20, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  16. Mark

    CNN fears my website. Why? Ask them why they delete comments. Find out. Ask them why they fear this website:
    .P a p a r a z z i n c . c o m

    December 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Phil

      @ Colin

      Don't go there. Just let them believe that we are evil god hating anti American, anti christian people who burn crosses. They'll leave us alone and will be cautious to approach us for fear that the devil will lash out at them.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Phil

      Oops...post when in the troll comment - was meant to go a few below this asshat's comment.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • freeme10

      Highly doubt CNN fears your website. I bet they delete your comments because instead of advertising like a big boy (paying for it), you are posting on articles discussing deifying dictators. Quite unrelated.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Tom

      Your website sucks. Spammer.

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

      Phil,

      I do think you are a Godless American, but I don't blame you for your shortcomings, you're just doing what the iPad tells you to do. How can you be blamed? Also...not really afaid to address it with you. Infact, I think you might be a little less intellegent than average so it probably wouldn't be too hard to make you look like a fool. Now spellcheck my work for me. Thanks in advance.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  17. STR

    Wow.......all the atheists have come out of the closit to post their hate.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      As George likes to say, truth is not hate.

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

      Wow...all the people who can't spell simple second grade words are trolling all over the internet today.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Colin

      Since when does an honest and reasonable skepticism of the existence of a Bronze Age Middle Eastern sky-god amount to hate?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • captain america

      As captain america likes to say. A good many of the so called atheists promoting their sick agenda on these stories are canadians. hotairace for example. canadians undermining the very fabric of America ,trying to drag America down to the level of their third world nation. There's your sign

      December 20, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Alex Trebeck

      Colin gets 2 points for working the phrase "bronze age" into a reply. We suspect Colin has not a clue as to what the bronze age was but he is awarded the 2 points just for bringing it up.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Reasonably

      No hate here. Wit, yes – sarcasm, surely, but no hate. Just trying to keep it real in Kim Jong Il's absence. Dear Leader's marionette must now be retired...

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

      Atheists are stupid.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      A well lettered argument from Tom. You only prove your own stupidity.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      """all the atheists have come out of the closit to post their hate."""

      You misunderstand the motive, sir. It's not hate at all.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Does the psychiatrist of the psychiatric ward hate his patients because he goes to great lengths to try to bring them back to reality?

      December 20, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
  18. SoldierOfFortunes

    The Beautiful People...

    December 20, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Head like a hole.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  19. beelzabarber

    The author is a hate mongering, hateful white supremist...and a bit of a rube and a hayseed. He has no authority to speak on anything but the backwards way in which he rules his own household

    December 20, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • rtfh

      Wow, you got up on the wrong side of the planet today....

      December 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  20. Wim V

    The "divine right of kings". Nuff said.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Are you a Man of War fan, too? Wicked.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:41 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.