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. Jeebus $aves

    When, in the history of civilization, has the combination of Church and State done anything but corrupt both?

    December 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Myron

      Ahh! when we formed this country!

      December 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  2. T.S. in SF

    So, deifying political figures is bad? Then why do republicans and social conservatives revere at the altar of Ronald Reagan?

    December 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Jeebus $aves


      December 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Myron

      But these political figures kill you... dead!

      December 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm |

    All the men in his army, you can bet ,have relatives at home in that sewer.How would you like to be in their shoes knowing they are keeping their god in power while their relatives starve? Talk about a case of brainwash.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  4. PC

    Kim Jong-Il is just as much a tyrant as was Hitler. More so, in that Hitler didn't treat his own people as slaves. Kim has killed more of his own people to obtain the luxuries he craves. North Korea is a slave-state.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  5. gix

    what's his real name?! Kim Jong On, Un, or Ung? I'm confused with the references...

    December 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • ithinkthat

      Kim Jong Il's son is Kim Jong Un.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • PC

      What's in a name ? Just refer to him as Paddle Fat.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  6. MSR

    Al Molher should know well what it's like to run a totalitarian regime. He belongs to one of the most repressive sects in modern Christianity today, namely the "Reformed" sect, which relies on fear of "discipline" and "excommunication" to keep its members in line with its own totalitarian ideology. Say one thing wrong, or challenge any church authority, and you'll be banished for life. Ears stopped up so tight that to question them makes the punishment worse. Sorry, Al – I don't buy it that "rejecting god" leads to totalitarianism. You unsurprisingly ignore the disturbing similarities between your own religion and the religion created in North Korea. They are the exact same thing!

    December 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Jeebus $aves

      Well said.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • PC

      Sounds like you are describing the Jehovah Witnesses.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Myron

      There are many parts in the body of Christ as the Church is refered to in the Bible; therefore, the basics are the same: We all say think and have done, do, or will do something wrong. Christ knows this a about each of us ever born and decides to suffer the consequences for our wrongdoings (there is always consequences for this), If we believe he did this for us and trust that what he did will merit worth with the Almighty we will receive a free gift of eternity with him and not separate from him. This oh so mean "sky-fiary" gives you this choice... kim Jung IL sorry no choice...worship him and do it his way or die quickly!! The sky fairy give you an average of 70 years of mistakes and failures to get this one thing right. What do you choose?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  7. Kim Jung Il

    Kim Jong Il: It will be 911 times 2356.
    Chris: My God, that's... I don't even know what that is!
    Kim Jong Il: Nobody does!

    December 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  8. Jimbo

    It's not hard to believe people are convinced to believe in a leader as a god, he is right there and you can see him. I mean people are convinced to believe in a god, his son and some ghost that was written in a book some thousand years ago but actually happened 2000 years ago and they still believe the stories didn't get changed over that 1000 years. People will believe anything if you scare them enough.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  9. Colin

    Soooo, you're basically saying that Christianity isn't so different for Kim's reign? Hmm, I think you've got something going there.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • MSR

      There is no difference between the two, especially from the sect Rev. Molher hails from.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Myron

      Yes you and I all will worship something, the Christian God of the Bible, atheistic view of self or other human worship, etc. We as humans are designed to worship. As a Christian by faith as with anything else we end up at point. One faith belief is right and the rest are incorrect.By proof of past biblical events I intelligently by faith trust in Jesus and claim all else false. We all make that faith movement. Will you trust in the claims of Jesus or trust in something else?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  10. Gopherit

    The videos of North Korean "mourning" of their dictator-god's death obviously were their government's releases, undoubtedly censored and selected to emphasise Kim's status. When we didn't see and won't be able to see is how the average citizen and/or any who is less than satisfied with Kim dynasty rule has reacted to the event..

    December 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  11. MEtoo

    People folks.....................make it happen, fight for your rights!!!! I know it seems easy but something has to change there and fast!!

    December 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm |

    He is just not what I thought a god should look like.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  13. ithinkthat

    This isn't really any sillier than other religions. At least they can see their god.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  14. Rick

    Must be an incredibly slow news day when we need an evangelical to tell us that worshiping a dictator is a bad idea.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm |

      When a governmnet has control of all the fiirepower you have to worship them ,unless you have a suicide gene .

      December 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  15. MrHighMighty

    America is a lot closer to falling into North Korea's system than most people realize. The only difference is that instead of outlawing "religion" like in North Korea, many Americans want to attach religion to the political system. Bush was practically deified after 9/11. The brave minority who objected and asked questions were scorned as "unpatriotic" and "anti-Christian". That mindset continues with many of today's leaders and candidates, who claim righteousness and wish they could turn their personal beliefs into the written laws of the land, liberty be damned.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Matty


      December 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • boocat

      Matty – he's right. How many times did Bush say 'You're either with us or against us?" Apparently you are either in denial or have amnesia...

      December 20, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • PC

      I was more than a little concerned about the way Obama was being diefied in 2007-2008. Thankfully, he has failed to live up to many of the expectations of his electorate...there were no free housing, Cadillacs, or even better lives to be had. Help us Obi-wan Obama, you're our only hope.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Myron

      Here is the problem with your argument. If that were true we would and could not have this conversation. I seen many other countries and though we have many problems. This government is the best out here whether you are on the left or on the right. We are free to do this! Many other places, i.e. North Korea would be killed for this type of verbal exchange. So let's enjoy our dis agreement. By the way our Freedom comes from our Christian backgrounds which is unlike the Greek version of democracy! Be glad your American and not North Korean...

      December 20, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  16. arthur d

    smh god help north korea. and the world.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • MEtoo


      December 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • walter


      December 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  17. John

    This column is deserving of a D- in Community College.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Rick

      Hah! Nicely put.

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

    Funny, I have never heard of Kim Jong Il threatening to burn those who do not believe in his divine powers for all eternity. I guess he is not as barbaric and cruel as the Christian sky-fairy.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • ithinkthat


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

      No, he never burned them. He shot a lot and put the rest in Korean gulags.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • boocat

      Nah....he was just slowly starving his people to death. He was just a sadist on a grand scale....GET REAL!

      December 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Wow

      Well Colin when you are burning too after such a blasphemy comment ask the Koren leader how he handled those who didn't believe in him. I know for a fact he will be right there with you.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • PC

      Why should he burn/kill them when they can be tossed into slave camps and worked to death to increase GDP and allow him to buy more Hennessy cognac than any other consummer of that product in the world: "With reported annual purchases topping $700000, Kim Jong-il is the single largest consumer of Hennessy cognac worldwide".

      December 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Myron

      No he would just kill you here and now, (forget about at a later date (eternity) to give you a chance to change) with no discussion!

      December 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • ithinkthat

      Too all the idiots stating that Kim Jong Il would kill you right away, it's still better than the Christian Sky Fairy, so shut up.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  19. The Jackdaw

    Good Job Team America! I have done nofring!

    December 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  20. angela.white128

    My best frie'nd ,she just has announced her wedding with a RICH young man Ronald,who is the CEO of a MNC, right before the Christmas! You wanna find your lover to have this wonderful time together? They met via BillionaireFriends.COMit's the largest and best club for wealthy people and their admirers to chat online. …you don’t have to be rich there ,but you may meet one .

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

      Gold diggin' biach

      December 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • J.W

      Can a poor guy meet a billionaire girl too?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:15 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.