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. Fenzz

    Kim Jong Un

    December 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  2. Foncell99

    Al, do you pay taxes? why is a religous leader commenting on politics/ And, is Christianty the only relion in america? and, if you're not Christian, are you a second class citzen?

    December 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  3. jamest297

    Most illogicical piece I've read in a long time. How the author gets to the position that the Kim dynasty positions itself as geods on earth is ridiculous. Not fit for serious consumption.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • michael

      obviously you live in fantasy land. r u north korean or just brainwashed?

      December 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • nc

      It's as obvious as the day is long. Either you're from North Korea, or orbiting your own planet...

      December 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm |

    so they went with nuclear weapons instead of nuclear power? good choice....

    December 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  5. jaylit

    They all look like they are laughing hysterically hahaha

    December 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  6. Colin

    Why is it we can see so clearly how absurd it is for them to deify Kim Jong Il, but be so blind to the fact that we have done exacly the same thing with Jesus Christ, including setting the calendar, claiming he had divine powers, and claiming he was all good and loved us all infinitely.

    It is the same garbage, just directed to a different individual.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • john

      love it. you havent an inkling of a clue of what you are talking about.. gotta love the internet

      December 20, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Skeeter

      The funny part is that we actually KNOW that Kim Jong-il existed.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • gera

      Jesus Christ came to save the world not to condemn it, Jesus (the only God) died for us so who ever believe in him will have eternal life.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • TESLAvision

      pretty much

      December 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • claybigsby

      "Jesus Christ came to save the world not to condemn it, Jesus (the only God) died for us so who ever believe in him will have eternal life."

      Sorry Gera, but the people who wrote about your jesus never knew the man, saw him, or spoke to him. Anything written about Jesus is HEARSAY over 40+ years. Your argument is moot.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • CKBlenheim

      Thanks for the post, Colin.
      John – I'm not sure why you think Colin doesn't have a clue. Can you please clarify?

      As far as setting the calendar, John is accurate. If observed at all, the celebration of Christ's birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the church's earliest established feasts. Some church leaders even opposed the idea of a birth celebration. Origen (c.185-c.254) preached that it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored. Birthdays were for pagan gods.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • CKBlenheim

      Oops, Typo above. I meant Colin is accurate. It should not read John is accurate.......

      December 20, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  7. Xzanthius

    Animism is the natural religion of children (and by extension humankind). Not believe in any particular deity except life and consciousness which pervades all of matter around us.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  8. Oh god...

    2011 he dies, 2012 they invade and take control of south korea, 2013 they expand their army and influnce throught asia, 2014 they declare war and invade the U.S.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Yoyo

      and 2014 they are doom, US win lol

      December 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  9. billy jester


    December 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  10. epicjourney

    The term atheist is misused I think. Everyone places faith in something, be it science, the earth, the sky, the sun, etc.. Atheists do believe in something they just hate to admit it.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • john

      athiests are the most zealous and active religion of them all.. never seen such a group of spiteful and hate filled loonies. sorry, but anyone that spends hundreds of thousand to erect billboard to make fun of christians is an asanine organization. why not use that money to feed people.. they have become the very thing they despise..

      December 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • REB084

      yea they believe when your dead your dead and thats it ...and thats something that religious people cannot comprehend

      December 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • TESLAvision

      Atheism has absolutely nothing to do with believing in science, earth, sky etc....

      it is simply the NON Belief in any god(s)... nothing more, nothing less.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • TESLAvision

      John, religious groups do the same thing, so did you ask the same question, or is this your biased view?... and what you're doing is generalizing a group of people...I suggest you look up what money is raised by Atheist groups and who they feed, you know a few already... you just dont know that they are Atheists...Bill Gates, now tell me he doesnt donate...good day, that is all.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • TESLAvision

      spiteful and hate filled loonies??? seriously? i guess i've been misinformed, please let me know when the next child sacrafice, witch hunt, suicide bomber or someone shoots up a religious gathering in the name of ...ATHEISM, thanks.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Alex M

      john- The billboard wasn't put up to make fun of christians, but rather to encourage existing atheists who are going through the motions of celebrating Christmas to stop and think. The billboard also cost around $20,000, not "hundreds of thousand"[sic] and may I remind you that a christian organisation was the one that retaliated with a $20,000 sign of their own.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  11. David Rached

    pause the clip at 0:06 and tell me if they look like they are crying or laughing..

    December 20, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • pockets

      Christopher Hitchens, you were absolutely correct in regards to "all" religions, they are all poison. Goodbye Hitch and thank you for trying to enlighten the great unwashed.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  12. REB084

    all goverments evolve around religion ,whether it be chrastanity , muslem or whatever a group of people have been tought even before they could speak , religion has been the cause of all wars in history ,were all the same thiers nothing different about koreans thier just like everyone else ,,, the believe the nonsence theve been told for generations

    December 20, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • john

      wouldnt government be the problem then?

      December 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • REB084

      yes i do epic j ...but you missed the point ...goverments use the religion of thier people to control them , when moses came down from the mountain and said ...god said everyone listened ..if he had ...i say ...they would have killed him

      December 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  13. Mythology101

    If this is what a god looks like, I certainly don't want to see the devil. As with any cult, mind control requires keeping people on the brink of starvation and living in despair and fear. Good luck to the people of North Korea... perhaps some day they'll wake up from this nightmare.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  14. Abd al-Latif

    How ironic that Mohler criticizes North Korea for worshiping a man as a god; when Mohler himself does the same. Christianity is a man-worshipping religion.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • REB084

      as is all religion

      December 20, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  15. Lou

    "when a political regime denies any transcendent supernatural reality, it deifies itself." – This is just wrong.

    Dangers of deifying leaders also applies to the church and/or it's leaders as well. What the church has been doing is not any different than dictators who claim to be god. It may not be as extreme as deifying a person but it is the same thing–claiming transcendent supernatural reality.

    It's time for religion to go.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  16. Notbuyingit

    Think clear

    All people commenting here are idiots.....even the author of this article is ____*ss ....the challange of the western world is that we see everything from our perspective and than wonder.....how and why anybody can be different than us......time to point fingers to ourselves .....GW Bush....Tony Blair.....Rudy G....
    That's because we're the smartest, most evolved humans on earth (even though we're still essentially cavemen). But, we start with our perspective because it's, fundamentally speaking, the right one.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • john

      must be weird for you to be the dumbest/smartest person in the world...

      December 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • boocat

      Let's see...you commented on this....guess you're an idiot too....

      December 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  17. TomGI

    Leaders as gods? Nonsense. We know leaders are jerks and I'm certain we are right.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  18. Bill

    Wait a sec. It's crazier to worship someone you can actually see, hear, touch, than a something that you have to rely totally on faith to be there?! C'mon now guys, everyone needs a crutch!

    December 20, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  19. Josie

    First of all Pagans are NOT atheists!!! I should know. We believe in a GOD and a GODDESS...we justt don't Christ as our saviour. But then agan neither do the Jews or Muslims...some people really need to learn about a religion before attacking it. North Korea will never improve as long as it's run this way....and the world can continue to keep watching.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • epicjourney

      Would that be the God of the old or new testaments?

      December 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • epicjourney

      btw – which pagan religion?? wicca??

      December 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  20. Good Riddance

    How come it looks like alot of waling but no tears!!

    Also Hmm??? Did anyone notice that Kim Jong Il grew 5ft at the moment of death??
    I always thought he was 5'4" with the platform shoes... Look at the pics of his body lying in state! His feet and head proportions don't add up..... The Dead.. I mean Dear leader was made to look ten feet tall??

    December 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • TomGI

      Good observation, I hadn't noticed that but it appears to be so.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:27 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.