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. Jim P.

    Whether you claim to be a "deity" or simply claim to speak for one or that you have personal "knowledge" of what said "deity" wants people to do, the results end up the same: Oppression, pain and suffering and a loss of individual freedom since to disagree with the 'god" or its spokesman is inherantly evil.

    Eventually the state will use all its power to supress those who say the "emperor" has neither clothes nor existance. When a "'god" rules a people, there is no room for dissent and the rack and tongs and burning stakes become law..

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

      The problem is, people love their religion. It's a physiological drug that allows them to "leave reality" of their mediocre lives

      December 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  2. Toro

    I think the overabundance of praise for Christopher Hitchens in the media lately is a step in the direction of deification. What do you think? Christopher Hitchens, patron-saint of atheism? At least for the current news cycle... A more fundamental point that the author should have teased out from case of the Kims is that degrees of 'deities' emerge rather easily from all types of societies. North Korea has their "Dear Leader" the U.S. has its "Apotheosis of George Washington" Venezuela has their Simon Bolivar, it happens where religious worship is free or restricted.

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

      I have yet to wake up and praise or pray to Hitchens, or to light a candle to honor him, or to agree with everything he has said or demand under threat of physical punishment and death, that his word be accepted and unquestioned by anyone. To imply that Hitchens is being deified is a stretch.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Mick

      We have it all in our own form of "civil religion" which has many brainwashed with the fact that "God and Country" is equated to dying for God and therefore Country.
      We have our own gigantic statute of Lincoln in DC, a dead person who has been more or less deified. We still worship dead people and they worship living people.

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

      @Lunatics True, the regard shown Hitch in the press recently is nowhere near that shown Gods of major religions – or Steve Jobs, who did get quite a few candles, digital and real, in his honor. It's a stretch, but I think that is how the process works. It starts small and stretches until it has dominion. Hitchen's apotheosis in print won't last as long as George's, but longer than Herman Cain's!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  3. Mindie from India

    Nobody really cares about a mentally disturbed dictator that FORCES his people to worship him.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  4. Steve

    Worship of humans as gods is bad, but worship of imaginary friends called "gods" is just as bad. End all religion now!

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

      Agreed. At least the physical gods have an ending – they die.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  5. Steve

    North Korea has been brain washed. I'd love to see that whole country revolt. It's quite the fad in the middle east.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:11 pm |

    There is nothing wrong with a little crying when someone loses a leader they love.Problem is the sucessor will have to prove his manhood now.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  7. Johnson

    Has to be short fat Gods then.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  8. awdam


    December 20, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Toro

      inspiring... a Haiku!

      Dear Leader adios,
      left us johnnie walker swing?
      no, Un moon-pie jr.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  9. Jeebus $aves

    Whether it's a 2,000 year old made up deity or a flesh and blood one in the form of a dictator....religion is used by charlatans to control the weak minded masses.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • LooneyTunes

      Seems like people are so hung up on worship, it doesn't have to be a supernatural being.

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

      Couldn't agree more.

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

      The fact that the believers in any of these false dieties can so blind themselves to this truth and write articles such as this is a testament to how powerful lifelong brainwashing is and why we must treat religion as the mental illness it is if civilization is to move forward.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      To those in North Korea, Kim is a supernatural being.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • sumday

      and yet for some unknown reason humans are born with a need to worship- be that a 2000yr old figure, a president, or even an object like money. Every single known human culture has worshipped something- guess all humans are week minded huh? Let me guess your your own man and worship nothing right (I'd bet your spouse and friends see you worshiping things your don't even acknologe)? Basicaly worship is the ONLY thing unique about humans. Yes we have intelligence but so do other animals but worship that is something only humans do and have done so since the first human came around. Care to explain why every human of the past has worship in it's culture or why worship is totally unique to only humans?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |

    Probably see some rocket streaks in the Eastern sky from that direction shortly.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  11. LooneyTunes

    What is funny, hilarious actually, is that this Communist cult is exactly like any religious cult. It seems some people are acting the same way as if "Jesus has died"! Obviously, some people have a need to worship and behave like loonies, regardless of the actual dogma. Pass the hat around and weep!

    December 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  12. boocat

    I watched this video of the citizens mourning their leader...it seemed like someone called "Action!" off camera and the crying began. Problem is there were no tears that I saw.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • LooneyTunes

      Why is that a problem?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:09 pm |

    If you have a god to pray too,pray for the people of North Korea,they are not happy.Could pray for Henessy they could go broke after the loss of their best customer.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  14. Rosie

    Dude is ugly...faith or no faith

    December 20, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  15. Alex M

    "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." He didn't quite mean to imply this, but to me that last sentence is the reason why religion itself is so dangerous and ignorant.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Greg

      Very true. It's interesting how the author missed the irony of how closely what he says about the North Korean leaders is similar to Christianity.

      "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"

      Hmmm...sounds familiar. He calls BS on North Korea saying this but buys it hook line and sinker when it's a tall tale about some 2000 yr old Middle Eastern Jew?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  16. Multi-Tasking @ Work

    eeewwwww...I would never trust a Leader with stubby little fingers & hands. it shows bad character

    December 20, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  17. jk

    Great points. Also great points on why deifying a man who lived 2,000 years ago, imaginary friends in the sky, and holy spirits is equally irrational and dangerous. And I know that scholarship is not a Southern Baptist strong suit, so I will point out that Nietzsche was not an advocate of dictatorship and in fact opposed nationalism.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  18. tony

    An officially atheist state does not automatically deify it's leadership. That's a deliberate (and evil) lie to scare the current US religious community. Definitely written by a scurrilous US religious leader worried about losing his lucrative future hold on his flock.

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

      What we are seeing around the world (U.S intervention) is the death cry of religion. Soon it will be recognized as the dictatorship that it is. Sadly we are seeing that the religious also sense it's coming demise and are calling for the destruction of the world or the Rapture out of fear of a godless and enlightened society. They would rather die and you die, than to let humanity progress beyond the bleatings of it's deranged prophets.

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

      I might add that this does include the resurgence of Terrorism, Iran and Israel's land grabbing atrocities.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Toro

      Maybe not "automatically," whatever that means, but back in the heyday of communist regimes, it happened pretty easily. Mao in China, "Che" Guevara in Cuba, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Stalin in that one country... I guess it would be even worse in totalitarian regimes – Stalin and Htler. Point is, old communism didn't 'preach' deification but it happened. Broader point – Separation of church and state, BRILLIANT, eradication of church by state, FAIL.

      December 20, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  19. Kim Jong On

    This article proof of North Korea educational superiority.

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

      Explain this, goofy!! I bet anything a girl in 3rd grade could outsmart you on a good day! A hot dog, has more brains than your whole clan!

      December 20, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  20. GodofLunaticsCreation


    December 20, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Louisa Ferre

      I miss him already

      December 20, 2011 at 3:17 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.