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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. Old Man Winter

    I see the author lacks all the honesty one could wish.

    He constantly attempts to hammer his assertion that the regime in North Korea is "atheistic" yet contradicts himself at every turn as he shows the religion of North Korea is religious in nature, terms, methods, and scope.

    Would someone please tell this idiot what the definition of atheism is? He seems rather stupid.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • LooneyTunes

      Why are people so dumb? People are constantly confusing the two.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  2. Paul

    Must we we be subjected to another misinterpretation of Nietsche? Nietsche had nothing to do with Fascism and never postulated a theory about a state run by one person.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • jk

      Hey, just be glad he didn't claim Nietzsche was born of a virgin and rose from the dead. Getting facts straight is not religion's strong suit.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  3. neutral

    Yes, take note American liberals concerning your boot-licking Obama worship

    December 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Tim

      Talking like that only makes you look like a radical, right-wing neo-con.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      AAAAH here comes the stretch of facts. Where is the church of Obama located? What rituals do they perform? Where is the written word which is accepted by all his "worshippers"? The fact is that what you are using as an insult is actually something you are guilty of yourself. You must either be delusional or an uneducated bigot.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Nobody deifies Obama. There was some serious bootlicking of Dubya Bush that I can recall, and Beck's followers worship him all right, but Obama? He's a Chicago lawyer that we hired to run the country and get us out of the mess Chimpy got us into. Who worships lawyers? I'm voting for him again, and he's going to win, but not because I think he's the freakin Messiah. Get a grip, loser.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • DB

      The irony here is that your hatred of "The Liberals" and President Obama has essentially become your own religion. You've moved well beyond 'political disagreements" and into a dogmatic belief.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • steven rohmer

      you are as out of your mind as the subject of this editorial. so, you should wake up yourself ... to yourself. madness is possible even in an enlightened country like this one. it is not because we live in a country like north korea that we are automatically exempt from madness, but rather, irrational mixed up people like yourself

      December 20, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Kyle

      ...seriously? Comparing fanatical devotees of the "dear leader" to an American President – by that rationale, the fact that almost every republican nominee has incessantly referenced Reagan as the cornerstone of their ideology is just as idolatrous, no? QUIT thinking in terms of liberals vs. conservatives, people like you do nothing but drive this country apart...it's embarrassing.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  4. Tim

    And another thing. This just serves as an example of how easy it is for man to create his own gods, prophets, and religion.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Oh really

      I was thinking the exact same thing.. This is most probably what happened in cases of most modern religions where the founder is attributed with divine powers..

      on the other end of spectrum, when people love and follow a religious founder too fervently, the result is usually the same too

      December 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  5. liberals go away!!!

    I even worship MICROSOFT as GOD. I want windows to stick something up in my AZZ.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  6. cpc65

    How could he not be a god with that haircut?

    December 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  7. sam

    "So ronery"
    www youtube com/watch?v=jdug6yHJB40

    December 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  8. LooneyTunes

    Communism, Nazism, religionism – all cultish socio-economic dogmas that enslave their fellow men.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Tim

      Don't forget Christianity and Islam.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • LooneyTunes

      Aren't those religions (religionism)?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  9. Tim

    This article is ridiculous. Taking atheism, which has nothing to do with the actual issue, and waving it around like communism is the atheist agenda. Far worse than N. Korea has come from true Christian ideals. This idiot writer needs to read the Old Testament. Fukin morons in here I swear.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • LooneyTunes

      Poorly educated people always confuse Communism and atheism. They don't know the difference. Do they realize that Hitler was a Christian?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      "Hitler was a Christian" Ssh, they'll go crazy. Christians LOVE Hitler and deny that he was their co-religionist. They get insanely mad.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  10. RAD

    Its interesting how many of the comments extend North Korea's use of the supernatural in its propaganda to religion in general. Politics and religion often get mixed; there is no surprise in that. However, North Korea's promotion of its leader is just an extreme form of propaganda intended to make the masses more compliant. It is only able to do this by keeping the population isolated from the rest of the world. It is not intended to convince those at the higher levels in the government but is used as a political tool to influence the masses. The higher levels are bought off with perks for cooperation and threatened with destruction if they don't go along. It's absurd to suggest that North Korea represents an viable alternative society that requires us to give it "equal time" in order to be culturally sensitive. It only exists due to an unfortunate series of historical events. It's a huge tragedy for the Korean people and effectively a country run by a criminal gang whose main concern is the perpetuation of its operations. The ideology is just a facade. There really is no religion or even a political movement behind it. Wnen it is gone, any "religious" pretentions the regime promoted will be gone with it.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • EJW

      Good point!

      December 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  11. Jeff

    This article is a perfect example of why the media being completely liberal is a fabricated myth. The underlying theme here is that without God, a country will become a dictator worshipping communist society (Obama and the US). The media is corporate, and they love to stir up the pot, because they know suckers like me and you will get riled up, pay attention, and click click click advertising dollars into their stockholders wallets.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • marty

      Really Jeff, Go thump your bible and gun somewhere else dood. You have no concept of reality other then the fat chicks that hang out in your meth infested trailer park.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Media is buck-driven; if all media was completely liberal, there would be a market for right-slanted news and vice-versa. If no media was allowed to mention Libertarianism, there would be underground libertarian websites. As long as there's money in it, the media will show it. Even Lindsey Lohan's hoo ha.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  12. john longdong

    In the video,It looks like they are all watching a real funny episode of SEINFELD ..HaHaHa

    December 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • jeno

      That's hilarious!

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

    Sitting here laughing at the comment "deifying" leaders considering Christianity's deification of their leader, at most a peasant, preacher, delusional man named Jesus.

    Some added commentary:

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers (e.g. Southern Baptists) of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    December 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Common Senser

      So according to you, over a billion people are nuts for having faith in JC and are totally, but you are right. Looks ike you're the delusional one.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • 11:11

      Reality has made it his/her/its life long crusade to attack Christianity in particular. Any article the remotely hints at anything spiritual becomes peppered with his/her/its comments. I find it amusing myself.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      The credibility of a myth is not enhanced by the number of people that believe in the myth. There is not one shred of independent, facutal or verifiable evidence for the existence of (any) god and the jesus myth, and until such time as there is, there is no reason to classify them as anything other than myths. Believers have had over 2000+ years to provide evidence – don't you think it is time to concede that they are simply man made myths?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • LooneyTunes

      Jesus, I understand, loved to "annoint" himself in olive oil laced with marijuana. That would totally explain his state of mind and lack of pain sensations. (Put that nail a little higher, oooh, that tickles...)

      December 20, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • .........

      Hit report abuse on all reality bull sh it and it will be better for everyone

      December 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Reality

      “John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident (the randomness) of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

      The Situation Today
      Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed. “ J. Somerville

      It is very disturbing that religious narrow- mindedness, intolerance, violence and hatred continues unabated due to randomness of birth. Maybe, just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of all religions.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • faith and reason

      " at most a peasant, preacher, delusional man named Jesus."

      Actually that conclusion is not supported by "most contemporary NT experts." Very few would agree Jesus was delusional, for His teachings are clear, enlightened, novel and persuasive. He remains the most influential figure in history and unlike Kim John Il did not demand or coerce worship or obedience from anyone. Many contemporary NT scholars agree on many points, including the empty tomb which remains unexplained by naturalistic means, the crucifixion which would not have occurred had Jesus not made many radical claims, the sincerity of belief of the gospel writers as proven by their willingness to die for their beliefs, and corroboration of the gospels as evidenced by St. Paul, a separate writer, meeting and traveling with persons including St. Peter and John Mark.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Even if you assume a lot has been added and changed, Rabbi Yeshua bin Yusuf seems to have been a great man. He may or may not have claimed divinity, but his philosophy has survived and changed the world.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  14. cyberCMDR

    God is benevolent: It's his followers that often hate others that don't hue to their religious beliefs
    God is all powerful: But he doesn't intervene to prevent disasters, war, and human cruelty
    God is omniscient: But that doesn't keep politicians and preachers from publicly crowing about their faith while doing things that become scandals when they come to light.

    Religion became a tool of the state early in our history, to justify the divine right of kings to rule. It still exists because it is still a useful tool for controlling the common man. People want to be on the good side of the all powerful Oz (sorry, I mean God), and there have been many organizations/religions happy to tell people what God wants. Unsurprisingly, God usually wants obedience to that organization/religion and your money.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  15. Change

    No, I think President Obama is more like a God simply because brutal dictators and dangerous terrorists keeping falling one by one during his progressive and successful tenure as American President.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Zeke2112

      I'm not sure how you define successful or progressive, but if being deeper into debt and still tangled in the affairs of other nations is what you mean, then he is indeed successful and progressive.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Trey

      Progressive as in Liberal, successful, I think not

      December 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • john longhorn

      TEBOW IS GOD!

      December 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • neutral

      Get a life

      December 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  16. Jubril

    At least they are not alone,
    1) Jesus was not born on Christmas day
    2) Some Christians say Jesus is Son of God , some say he is God
    3) there is nothing like Santa Claus
    People always have to worship another Human being

    December 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  17. rick

    You mine like Christians have deified Jesus? Yeah, that's pretty bad all right.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  18. hippypoet

    this is the time to strike and take control of the north, they are weaker then before and have an untested leader with daddy issues!!! South is really slow to do what they really wanna do...take revenge! However, the 23'rd paralell may be an obstacle more then they are willing to overcome!

    December 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Jeff

      I don't think the Chinese would take kindly to having anyone else that close to them. They like the buffer zone. The North Koreans aren't the ones you should worry about when it comes reunification of the peninsula. The Chinese will not allow it.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • napster

      T.T

      December 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  19. MikeG

    The author of this article is oblivious to the fact that worshipping a human as a god is just as insane as worshipping a fictional being as a god. They are one and the same.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      Actually I think worshiping a real person is far better than worshiping an invisible, and therefore non-accountable fictional character who thinks what we say he thinks, hates who we say he hates, and agrees that persecuting anyone we don't like is okay.

      You can't argue with someone you can't see, hear, or locate.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  20. Maggie

    You got to love death, it puts everything in place.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:23 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.