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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. Ungodly Discipline

    A cheese sandwich. A black and white Gangster movie. A nuclear weapon. And insanity. Maybe, just maybe we should take these fuks out.

    December 20, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  2. Keith

    Hitchens has company. How nice. Oh wait, what if hell is solitary confinement on top of eternal torment and flames? Guess you won't be there partying with all your friends.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      I thought there were 7 virgins? Oh wait, different delusion.

      December 20, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • Huh?

      "Hitchens has company. How nice. Oh wait, what if hell is solitary confinement on top of eternal torment and flames? Guess you won't be there partying with all your friends."

      Just keep showing what a MONSTER your god is and how delusional you are. It's funny Hitler burned a lot of people and we all know he was a MONSTER to be defeated, guess where he got his idea from your god. Hitler was a monster and a tyrant and so is your god!

      December 20, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Keith

      Hitler would not have tried to annialate God's chosen people if he knew God. What a ridiculous statement on your behalf.

      December 20, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Keith

      Mar 9:44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

      December 20, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • Huh?

      "Hitler would not have tried to annialate God's chosen people if he knew God. What a ridiculous statement on your behalf."

      Hitler burned people your god is burning people BOTH are MONSTERS!

      December 20, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • momoya

      Difference between the work of a terrorist and a hell-creating god? Terrorists stop at some point; the god's labour of unimaginable horror is never complete.

      December 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Richard

      "Hitler would not have tried to annialate God's chosen people if he knew God."

      Why did he keep saying that he believed in God, had faith in God, and was convinced that he was doing God's work.

      December 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Keith

      He lied.

      December 20, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      He lied!? Are you a human lie detector?

      December 20, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • TR6

      @ Keith:”Hitler would not have tried to annialate God's chosen people if he knew God.”

      Oh I don’t know, the Christian church has been doing that for centuries. Check out Marten Luther’s “The Jews and their lies”

      December 21, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  3. GodofLunaticsCreation

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8-Vr_r36Fg

    December 20, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  4. Who Cares

    Uh, oh. They goofed the truth is now out now – Gods die too. Bottom line: Also, this should be proof enough that insanity is hereditary and runs rampant in their family. LMAO

    December 20, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  5. eric

    Why, why, why, does CNN put these gibberish pandering opinions on the top of the front page? Isn't there any news to be reported, rather than the opinions of somebody who knows nothing about North Korea? If I wanted know-nothing religious inspired idiocy, I'd go to Fox News. I don't need CNN pandering to the same demographic.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      R'amen!!

      December 20, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  6. Muneef

    @Reality.

    Just wonder who do you worship of men since that is all about atheism....worshiping men of stiff Idologies rather than the creator of the universe ?!!?

    December 20, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Definition of Worship: The feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity. People who worship deities are NOT atheists.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Reality

      o Think infinity and recycling with the Big Bang expansion followed by the shrinking reversal called the Gib Gnab and recycling back to the Big Bang repeating the process on and on forever. Human life and Earth are simply a minute part of this cha-otic, sto-cha-stic, expanding, shrinking process disappearing in five billion years with the burn out of the Sun and maybe returning in another five billion years with different life forms but still subject to the va-ga-ries of its local star.

      December 20, 2011 at 11:53 pm |
    • Muneef

      Hmm.

      Just hope you understood why the corpse of Ossama was disposed of into the sea...!
      Any way we are told whom ever hold a lot of reverence or adoration to any other deity than GOD is considered as worshipping other than GOD...
      Even holding such excessive emotions towards Messengers or Prophet of GOD more than GOD him self are considered as worshipping other than GOD (Polytheist's)...
      Guess atheists having strong reverence or admiration to human deities are I guess some thing else than polytheists....!??

      December 21, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  7. Noah1003

    Atheists are all godless totalitarian communists. That's basically the jist of this article.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • TR6

      Yes, Sweden is such a terrible place to live.

      December 21, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  8. Shane

    The North Korea peoples are weak! If and when the time comes for the US and its allies to intervene in this country, the N. K. military will crumble like cardboard houses. You think the Iraqis gave up quick when we liberated Kuwait? Wait until you see what happens with the Korean Invasion. If it were not for China and Russia, this would have occurred a long time ago. The N.K. military can't feed their people. They surely wont be able to feed an army and sustain it during a major conflict, when they are spending hundreds of millions a day defending themselves.

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

      Iraquis didn't have nukes.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  9. Hong Liu

    Very True,

    I remember that when Mao died in 1976 in China, most people cried as if the heaven fell down. When I came to the States and surprisely found that the Worshop of Christ in Church was so much familar to Chinese type of Mao worship in my memory of yound age. It is simply the God workshop serves transformed the Communist Chinese Style of leader worshop in the same manner that the Maxism and Leningism transformed the Chinese Style Communism. I could image the suffering of Norht Korean without their savior at this moment. What I concerned is not about the Chinese, who have already learned the lesson or the Norht Korean, they will learn it any way. I am afraid that the History will repeated in the Western Country as the Bible predicted.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  10. pditty

    Erase all forms of religion from state. Hmmm seems I know of a political party in the US trying to do the same thing. They worship hope and change.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Kim and Jesus both propheced to be of divine origin.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Joshua

      Perhaps they should worship people that go on tv and pretend they're the voice of God. They could give loads of money to the men and women on tv so that they can buy fancy cars and live in beautiful houses. What it all comes down to is this entire planet is worshipping people and not God.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  11. Phil

    @ Tom

    Atheists are stupid? I have an interesting fact for you... 93% of the members of the National Academy of Science reject the concept of god. Stephen Hawking is atheist and is probably one of the smartest people on this planet.

    Also, our founding fathers were not theists and thus this nation was not founded on the principle of god. Atheists are free thinkers. Free to explore and question whatever they want without the boundaries of false beings.

    You can call them stupid, but chances are you're just a troll or are just really stupid yourself and can't understand science, therefore you turn to religion to explain everything with one answer "god did it". I'll take a bet and say you're either a member of the Westboro baptist church or are a creationist...

    Being a member of either automatically reduces your IQ by 100 points. If so, you're in the negative digits.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Eric

      Let me correct you there. Most of the founding fathers were deists and certainly believed in god. They just didn't believe in a *personal* god such as an invisible friend who listens to prayers and sits on a cloud somewhere and has a massive universe to run with billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars yet is most obsessed about what men on one little planet do with their genitalia.

      But we have to also remember the reality of the past. I'm sure many educated and enlightened individuals might have been atheists in the past but being able to proclaim that and not be severely punished for it is a modern phenomenon. You can't even be elected President in this country today without constantly reminding people you believe in invisible sky wizards.

      December 21, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  12. Joshua

    Darn those North Koreans. Don't they know they're supposed to worship the Pope like the rest of the planet.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  13. mark

    God's don't need to ride in Armored Trains, and God's don't die! Prophets are a different story! But I wouldn't call Kim either!

    December 20, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Snow

      But.. but.. I was told Jesus DIED on the cross for our sins.. you mean Jesus was not god?

      Pitch forks, and haystacks y'all.. time to burn a heathen! 🙂

      December 20, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  14. Dan

    And religious dictatorships are so much better...

    December 20, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      I still don't see how a dictatorship where it's leader proclaims to be of divine origins, can be considered atheist.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  15. Dan

    What a piece of crap this article.. Culturally speaking, there is a huge difference between westerners worshiping christ on sunday and these koreans worshiping their leader. And the conclusion of the article is what? better be happy with a dead and impotent god in a cross than an impotent god that is as human as his followers?

    December 20, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  16. Armando Chavarria

    I saw very few tears....Was this propaganda or reality. Normally people are upset right afte hearing bad news....not after the news crews get there.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  17. Jessy

    "I am many things, Kal-L. But here, I am God" – Darkseid, Superman Animated Series

    December 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  18. the_dude

    The North Korean people must be the most simple-minded, ignorant people on the face of the earth. I don't know whether to pity them or despise them. I kind of admire kim jong ill for how he manipiulated an entire country of people which is unheard of these days. The North Koreans must be totally dumb and weak it really is sad. Like when an elderly person gets duped out of money by a scam artist. I feel bad but man....so dang gullible.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Colin

      Second only to evangelical Christians, they probably are the stupidest people on Earth.

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

      I beg to differ. Evangelicals are ignorant for sure, but not as much as the priesthood. Seriously, a bunch of grown men parading around pretending to be celibate and divine? Every time I see a priest I have to fight back the laughter. They remind me of Mr. Roger's Land of Make Believe. After the priesthood comes protestants and then evangelicals, but there are other groups on the planet in between, like trekkies. I think the Priesthood, trekkies, and dungeons and dragons people are in their own category above the rest and that the North Koreans are their neighbors in La La Land.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • J.W

      So is basically everyone who disagrees with you ignorant?

      December 20, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Snow

      No JW.. everybody who disagrees with the christian god are ignorant.. You made that amply clear before, remember!!?

      December 20, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  19. momoya

    Mohler argues that total self-sufficiency and isolation, mandated worship, and an all-powerful cult-of-personality ruin a society and cripple its people's dreams, yet presumably he agrees with the righteousness of these behaviors when centered around his chosen deity. America's religious spokesfolk are quite funny, eh?

    December 20, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  20. Dan

    You can't explain crazy.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:09 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.