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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. Fubarack

    I don't think they are seen as gods by the people, I think they are seen as dictators who will kill you if you disagree.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Louisa Ferre

      yes that is God

      December 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      Oh! I see the difference, a dictator just kills you for disobeying, whereas a god tortures you for all eternity. Okay.. So if gods were real, I'd definitely choose the dictator over the god.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  2. The Jackdaw

    That guy looks trustworthy. I'd worship him.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  3. Grandpa Reggie

    Leadership is not being a God. Now I have the body of a God.... Buda!

    December 20, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  4. Matt

    Insinuating that atheism is evil and inherently flawed is bogus. Religion is a control mechanism no matter what flavor it is, it is designed to keep people in line and make them fear an invisible power. That being said, there have been no atheist leaders in the free world because religion has everyone brain washed. I'm quite sure the USA would do an atheist state better than say, North Korea. This article is trash.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • I'm The Best!

      Australia's PM is currently Atheist. Showing that an atheist leader doesn't have to be communistic or evil. The US needs to at least be open to elect an atheist president. Right now there is no way that will happen, which is a real shame.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Epidi

      I agree with you that many religions, or rather the people that are in them, are manipulative. But, I am Pagan, and I have no fear whatsoever of a judging God at the end of my mortal days. No one has manipulated me into anything. It isn't religion, or the idea of religion, that is inherently evil. It is the people that use them to further their own selfish agendas that is evil.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  5. Terry

    A very scary world indeed when you have leaders like the Kims and people that follow and worship them as if they were Gods. And to Abd al-Latif, Christianity is a GOD worshipping religion Not man.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • claybigsby

      "Christianity is a GOD worshipping religion"

      not when you worship a book written by men.

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

      Yet you must admit that Jesus was in his lifetime a flesh & blood man. You cannot say he was not the son of (wo)man and your God. That would be akin to heresy, no?

      December 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Louisa Ferre

      you are aware your worshiping a man when you are Christian
      that’s why the Jews did not join you

      Jesus was/is a Man. Baka hitsuji

      December 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  6. Colin

    The propensity of our species to get on our knees and worship people and make believe gods is quite startling. You need look no further than the Christians in the USA and how they have convinced themselves to waste a good chunk of their lives in pathetic supplication to a non-existent Bronze Age sky-god dreamed up by ignorant Palestinian goat herders.

    It is incredible how, in a country like the USA, that so prides itself on independence, so many of us willingly bow down to whatever our priests or ministers tell us we should.

    Christians are right in one respect. They are sheep in need of a shepherd!!

    December 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • motar

      Agreed, Colin.
      It is indeed a universal phenomenon in the human family.
      At some time in our lives, we all look outside of ourselves for someone or something more wise, more trustworthy and more capable than ourselves.
      In so doing, we acknowledge that we are not supreme and assert that a greater Wisdom, Love and Power exists.
      We differ only in where we are in this process of self-awareness and universal discovery.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  7. shameonzionism

    just believe the opposite to what these "religious" goons blabber about, and you're safe.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  8. Rhone Jones

    Little "g" little god.! There is only one God. He isn't small minded. He isn't hateful. He created all out of love. Too bad Kim Jong Il and others never learned that.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • boocat

      "Pride goeth before a fall." – Translation – GET OVER YOURSELF AND WHILE YOU'RE AT IT – KINDLY KEEP YOUR RELIGION TO YOURSELF!!

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

      I think you need to reread your bible if you think your god isnt hateful

      December 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • MartinT

      Sorry, but I can't buy what you are selling. There is no God nor a god, there is only the universe, and all it's scientific glory, which in and of itself is enough to cause wonder and awe. There is however, no being to which we must worship for the creation of said universe, and there is no heaven and no hell. I'm sorry to tell you this, must be like finding out Santa isn't real either.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  9. shameonzionism

    next time you cry for your dead parent, remember you're treating your parent like god and stop it!

    December 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Epidi

      I honor my ancestors every Samhain.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  10. CommonSense

    Heh, funny how people it is so weird that people worship a leader in a country. Someone you can actually see and be propagandized into believing he did magical things or came from wonderous backgrounds. Does this at all sound familiar? However in this case the person is actually right before their eyes, not some figurative picture from 2000yrs ago. If you push your agenda down someones throat often enough and long enough it's amazing what happens huh... Think about it.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • ithinkthat

      Well said.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  11. Zim

    @Captain
    "There's your sign" ?????????

    December 20, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  12. Erisian

    In America we deify celebrities.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Co CO butter

      In America *you* deify celebrities.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • steve

      I assume you have a place to go back to if you don't like it, where you are.
      They use to worship different things, golden bull, burning bush. The real question should be, does the new guy have the button.
      boooooooooom

      December 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  13. Epidi

    Worked for Egypt for thousands of years. They built an empire with the Pharoah being tied to divinity. It was an honor to work on the building of the tombs & pyramids for the citizens. They got paid in beer!

    December 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  14. TAK

    The dangers of deifying leaders? How about the dangers of deifying fairy tales and figments of your imagination?

    December 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  15. ddblah

    The parallel between communism and religion is quite obvious and profound.
    IMHO, both are evil.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • tokencode

      Communism is terrible but it is not responsible for anywhere near the amount of death and suffering religion has caused.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • ddblah

      Because neither is based on reality, both claim to be "for the good of humanity", both thrive by indoctrination of ignorant mass.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Erisian

      Religion is not the cause of death and suffering. Religion is just an extension of culture. Cultures create their own religions based on their morays and folkways.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  16. this is a joke

    I stopped reading at "is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention."

    Yeah, because this article won't be biased at all. Stop accepting ridiculous opinion pieces CNN, or at least do a better job of telling people that they aren't supposed to be taken as fact (although this one does not have that issue)

    December 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Marcus Moore

      First of all, you did NOT stop reading there. You read the whole article. Why don't you just say "I hate God and Jesus" and be done with it?!? God loves you regardless of how much you might hate him.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • claybigsby

      "God loves you regardless of how much you might hate him."

      and you KNOW this how exactly? have you sat down and had a cup of coffee with god?

      December 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • gtalum

      Apparently you didn't notice that this is in the "blogs" section of CNN. There's also a little thing called a "disclaimer" at the end explaining that this is an opinion piece. I guess if you spent less time judging others (I'm not Baptist, so I'm not defending that at all) and more time reading, you'd have figured that part out.

      And despite the potential Baptist bias here, he makes a good point. If you've ever been to Korea (or known someone who has), you would know that the level of leader-worship borders on cult-like.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  17. Guest

    Time to take the trash to the dump and quit giving more press coverage to this.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  18. boocat

    When you are born and raised into this situation like the North Koreans are, this is all they know and the fact that the North Korean people have deified this megalomaniac is not surprising. I'd like to see the writer of this article spend a year in North Korean and THEN WRITE A COLUMN.

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

      I spent a year over there close enough to spit, as a medical corpsman. The North and South issue really has no bearing religiously. Families have been split up and North Korea does not educate or communicate. Kim Il the guy that died was a puppet and existed as a wall for Russia and China, his son will reap the benefits, unless the people say enough is enough.
      Times are changing around the world and the tyrants are falling. God Bless and Merry Christmas.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  19. Jacks

    no more tears shampoo?

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

      just the facts jack.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  20. rm

    Worshipping political figures bad...worshipping a carpenter good.

    The Pope

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

      Living your life and not having to worship anything – EVEN BETTER!

      December 20, 2011 at 2:42 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.