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. mop

    another one bites the dust

    December 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • bringoutyourdead

      is the best way to load dead atheists into a cart pitchforks or Hitchforks?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  2. JMM

    Once again a fundamentalist confusing causation with correlation. How do these people get published? Communism does not equal atheism and therefore lack of morality. This is absolutely ludacris and ridiculous. This fundamentalist understanding of communism being married to atheism is absolutely ridiculous and based on a misguided view of a hierarchial religion. Which is not privy to only Christianity, however, other major world religions possess this bias as well. Read some history books. Better yet, pick up the Communist Manifesto and see what Marx actually put out there not what has been twisted by American history books.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  3. Tim B

    "What did North Koreans receive from the hands of their “Great” and “Dear” leader? Year after year of disastrous harvests followed by starvation."

    ...Its funny how if you sub-in "Christians" or "Jews" or "Muslims" for North Koreans, and add on war, conflict, genocide, repression (ideological, intellectual, gender, etc), to the end of this quote and its applicable to all three of those religions after their "savior" came and went.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  4. sri

    Don't take pain CNN, no one in N. Korea is reading this.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  5. Colin

    Once a person accepts that they have a "duty" to believe in supernatural powers, be they of a king, dictator, or make-believe god, they become vulnerable to abuse and manipulation.

    I would love a dollar for every time a Christian has told me I am "immoral" or evil or an "angry atheist" becuase of my healthy, honest and reasonable view that neither the Christian god or any other god exists. I have never quite understood how there can be a "duty" to believe something. It is like having a duty to like a certain food.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Colins dietician

      In your case sh it. You eat it you spew it. To each their own.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • vtskivt

      There are no atheists in fox holes or death beds.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Colin

      Case in point. See the comment above. Now, if this person disagreed with me on a point of economics, politics, science or sport, I doubt his/her response would be so emotive and vitriolic. But the mere fact that it is religion so quickly brings out the worst.

      Again, religion has an uncanny ability to cause otherwise rational people to believe in or do the silliest of things. The sooner we shake it off, the better.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • EatYouAlive

      vtskivt: Are you re-tarded?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • just wondering

      Seems to be a plain statement of fact about fox holes and deathbeds . Didn't catch the silly. Whats your point Colin?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Colin

      comment 2 up by "Colin's Dietician".

      December 20, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  6. dougaussie

    lets see hercules, jupiter, neptune, move over for jong....god of ...crying? er..smoking cigars, plain old madness.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  7. GOP Rulz!!!

    I think John Boehner and the rest of the Republican leadership is God-like ... and I don't think there are any consequences for America for that!

    December 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      You can think that until your face turns blue but thinking doesn't make something a fact.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  8. 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:

    Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.


    For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

    Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

    Current problems:
    Adulterous preachers, pedophiliac clerics, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,

    December 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • .........

      The best commentary of reality posts is to hit report abuse on them

      December 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Reality-Check

      None of this is accurate. How about you read some history before you start making bogus claims you heard your illiterate professors make.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • me

      Yawn... Wannabies are so boring!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • lkft

      I'm a devout Christian and all I can say to the non-believers out there is that my God is real to me, through the Bible, prayer and fellow believers (the Church). Our Heavenly Father does not have "puppets" as children, He will let you make your own choice. In Paul's epistle to the Romans he teaches how one can have a personal relationship with God...but this doesn't mean that we actually have to see and hear or otherwise perceive Him as the natural man would b/c God is spirit and our spirit is tuned-in to His and he becomes very real in every sense. This will seem like foolishness to the natural man...the Bible also teaches this but I digress...God is real to me and He can be real to you too!!!!

      December 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  9. Change

    Dictators toppling, Arab Spring rising, Iraqi war ending, terrorists falling, America's worldwide image improving. Comprehensive healthcare, financil reform, unemployment declining, gas prices falling, Obama's approval rating rising and it goes on and on and on. Damn, President Obama is a true God. Obama/Biden 2012!

    December 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  10. Glenn

    That byline is a photo of a repressed gay man if I've ever seen one...

    December 20, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  11. Glenn

    Yes, because people who put God at the head of their states have never committed acts of atrocity...

    December 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Conrad Murray

      HA! Yeah...the entire planet is being determined by some "god". Hahahah. A riot!

      You could possibly persuade me that there was some kind of physical, mathematical genius who created the expanding universe, devised quantum theory, relativity and so on. But that is radically and fundamentally incompatible with the sort of God who cares about sin, the sort of God who cares about what one does with one’s genitals, the sort of God who is interested in one’s private thoughts and wickedness.

      Surely, you can see that a God who is grand enough to make the Universe is not going to give a tuppenny cuss about one’s thoughts and sin.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  12. religious bs

    Wow, there is nothing more enlightening than a christian fantasy purveyor commenting on a Korean fantasy purveyor.

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

      The irony is lost on them.

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

      It really is sad, I fear for my children.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  13. maxim

    Real liberals don't love Obama anymore, they realize he is a centrist on many issues. He's better than a Republican obviously, but just not good enough. One of the many reasons america is stupid is that it continues to vote for very conservative leaders who corporatize and manipulate the truth and laws in order to achieve there capitalistic goals.

    This article proves that once again religion or a form of religion has caused immense suffering.

    Still not as bad as Americas wars of the last 10 years though. Millions dead and injured, tortured, and exploited

    December 20, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  14. Soylent

    Dear R. Albert Mohler, Jr.,

    This is the dumbest thing I have ever read. You seem to be saying that atheists just long to worship something, and that in the absence of a god we'll pick the nearest politician? You are like a heroin addict trying to say that all non-addicts long to do heroin. Do you see how this is denial, and trying to justify your beliefs? Probably not.



    December 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • tr

      It's like when a person gets rejected by someone romantically, and they spend all their time rationalizing why they got dumped. Anything to believe they are superior to people that are not like them.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • MikeD

      Dear Soylent,

      Did you even read the article. I don't think you did if you were offended by it. Reading comprehension is not your strong suit.


      Someone who reads and comprehends before flying off the handle.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  15. svatoid

    R. Albert Mohler and all the other born-again zealots will fry in the fires of hell for all eternity

    December 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  16. Tariq

    Would it be like telling the Darker People around the world that a Caucasain is THEIR saviour? Pillage their land of its natural rescources in the name of THAT saviour. In my home state, so-called Southern Baptists(Good Christians) would hang 'those people' in the square on Sundays! Oh by the way, it was a family affair so wear your best. It turned out, those murdered resisted laws that maintained white supremacy ie. diefying whites. Hypocirtes. The gig is UP!

    December 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  17. Marty

    Can't we ever have any kind of discussion without bringing religion into it? When people finally figure out man created God, not the other way around, will there no longer be any discussions? 🙂

    December 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  18. Adam

    The author of this article is a member of a hate group, its terrible that CNN is giving him a venue.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  19. Ben

    There have been a lot of comments stating that Nazi Germany was a "Christian regime". I want to walk through a small illustration with you all. In the standard Bible there are 66 books (39 OT and 27 NT). Out of these New Testament books 13 of the 27 were written by Paul. Nazi Germany's version of Christianity believed that the entire Old Testament was false propaganda for Jews and that ALL of Paul's letters were false leaving them with just 14 books out of the original 66. They also removed crucifixes and religious icons from Churches and Catholic schools and replaced them with pictures of Hitler. Hitler was not a Christian and did not worship the Christian God, he 'worshiped' a state religion to further his cause. This is EXACTLY what I read the author to be talking about: many dictators think of religion as a tool to help control the populace. An atheist is particularly well-suited to this misuse of religion because they are not concerned with divine repercussions from their actions.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      The proof that Hitler was a christian is undeniable. You can't revise historic facts.

      December 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Jen

      "..many dictators think of religion as a tool to control the populace. An atheist is particularly well-suited to this misuse of religion.."
      Are you serious?
      How on earth would that make an atheist more suceptible to mind control? Wouldn't the threat of imaginary "divine repurcusions" only be effective if a person actually believed in them?

      December 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Ben

      I'll agree with the facts: Yes, Hitler called himself a Christian. However, Hitler removed Christian doctrine and religious icons from Christian schools replacing them with icons of himself, declared the majority of the Bible to be heretical, persecuted Christians who did not convert to "Positive Christianity", and stated that Jesus was not a Jew. These are all historical facts you can look up. Judaism and Islam share more content with the Christian text than Hitler's version did. I'd argue that 'Positive Christianity' was an entirely different faith than Catholicism or Protestant Christianity.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Ben

      Not more susceptible Jen–I was saying that they would be better suited to use religion as a tool. If you have no sense of morality but you think God might still kick your butt you might be less likely to change things to your point of view than if you have no sense of morality and you aren't worried about such repercussions.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Ben

      I am not too knowledgeable about the bible, but you are absolutely correct with regard to the author's point. Atheism, whether one’s belief or not, is not the issue here. In totalitarian regimes the worship of god is replaced with the worship of the regime's leaders (cult of personality). That is dangerous and th is the point.

      December 20, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  20. Tim

    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.

    Go figure a bible thumper would twist this totally unrelated issue into an attack on atheism. How very Christian of you.

    December 20, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
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