North Korea: The Church of Kims
One of the favorite straw men which believers like to knock down when arguing with atheists is how awful the god-denying North Korea is, and hence how dangerous it can be for us all if we abandon belief in god. The reality, of course, speaks differently: the regime in North Korea has by no means abandoned belief in supranatural powers, or miracles, or saviors; the just attribute a different source to them.
WHAT is the tenth most widely followed religion in the world? According to www.adherents.com, a site which gathers data on faith from many sources, that honour goes to juche, the national ideology of North Korea, which is credited with 19m followers. As the site’s editors explain, “from a sociological viewpoint, it is clearly a religion”. Juche is more obviously religious in character than either Soviet communism or Maoism.
It does not take a sociological genius to see that the cult of the North Korean state’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and of his son and successor Kim Jong Il, who ruled from 1994 to 2011, shares many features with established creeds. Images of the Kims, and their all-wise pronouncements, fill the sensory field of every North Korean, in a way that Christianity permeated daily life in medieval Europe or Byzantium. The founder is sometimes presented as a kind of god, and his successor as the “son of a god”—a formula that has echoes of Christian theology. If the latest member of the dynasty to take the helm, Kim Jong Un, has any legitimacy, it is as the grandson of one divine figure and son of another. The young scion is starting to accumulate laudatory titles of his own.
And it is not just titles that make the North Korean “juche” look very much like a religion.
The birth of Kim Jong Il is said to have been foretold by a swallow and attended by miraculous signs, including a double rainbow and a brilliant star. He is also credited with more banal tokens of miraculous power, such as a record-breaking performance at golf. Whereas schools in some countries have chapels or mosques, places of instruction in North Korea have rooms set aside for learning about the achievements of the divinely guided dynasty. This cult has its sacred statues, its icons and martyrs—such as a girl who is said to have drowned while trying to save images of her leaders from a flood.
So Kim Jong Il was son of a god and his birth and life were associated with supranatural events. Sound familiar, anyone?
Further, it seems that North Korea could use “separation of church and state” as much as anyone:
Venerating the Kims is only one part of juche, whose core principle is self-reliance: the idea that North Korea is under perpetual threat and must therefore pursue economic and military self-sufficiency so as to survive. But obviously the two things are related: the greater the threat to the nation, the greater its need for a supernatural protector. Rob Montz, a young American documentary-maker, has just put together a film about North Korean propaganda, “Juche Strong”. It makes the case that the West hasn’t taken juche seriously enough, or realised how the authorities have been relatively successful in seizing control of their subjects’ minds.
Much commentary on North Korea stresses the ways in which the regime differs from almost any other on earth, locking its people in a weird alternative reality. Mr Montz doesn’t underestimate the strangeness of North Korea, but the experience of filming in Pyongyang led him to a different reflection. If juche and the cult of the Kims has “worked” as an ideology, that may be because it appeals to universal human needs in the way other religions do. “People are susceptible to the idea that somewhere, a single great human exists who can free them from their darkest fears; it’s in our cognitive structures.”
But of course we are bound to get a bit of theological inanity:
Mr Belke, the Protestant theologian, is more struck by the utter contrast between juche and Christianity, which spread throughout Korea in the early 20th century, thrives in the South and still survives in underground pockets in the North. In his view, the very existence of Christianity is a threat to the Kims because “nothing undermines totalitarianism more than the idea that the ruler, like everybody else, is accountable to God.” North Korea’s rulers have viewed “eternal life” purely in terms of their ongoing earthly reputation, which has been fixed by building monuments and doctoring history. They might behave differently if they thought they would face divine judgment too.
To all those out there who claim atheism (sometimes even secularism in general) is a religion: show me the miracles, holy places, infallible characters, martyrs, the bowing/kneeling etc. and I will concur.