The Religion of Kim in North Korea

December 28th, 2011

By Dan Miller

Funeral of Kim Jong-ilNorth Korea worships the Kim Dynasty.

Religion takes many forms. Some find various forms desirable, some find them undesirable. This article looks at religion in North Korea, where there is little if anything to find desirable from a Western perspective but much to find undesirable.

In North Korea, with an estimated population of 24,457,492 (July 2011 est.), “government sources say that currently there are about 13.7 million practicing Buddhists….” As with most information coming from the country, these figures are probably unreliable.  However, it seems likely that Christianity is not prominent.

The North Korean government considers Christianity (especially Protestantism) to be closely connected with the Western world and heavily suppresses it. The facts and figures concerning Christianity published by the DPRK’s government, like those concerning Buddhism are disputed by almost all foreign observers. Although independent verification is impossible, it is assumed that there are a large amount of underground Christian groups. Many defectors from North Korea have attested that any form of adherence to the Christian faith, even the mere possessing of a Bible, can be considered a reason for arrest and deportation to a DPRK prison camp.

The official and therefore dominant religion should be referred to as “Kimianity” and, as noted here,

The regime claims the whole person, just like Christianity and other religions. And in North Korea any competition with the state must be destroyed. That’s why believers are treated as “hostile elements,” according to Human Rights Watch. The architect of the North Korean state, Kim Il-sung, reportedly explained: “we came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad habit if they are killed.”

The funeral of Kim Jong-il is one of the vehicles the Kim Regime is using as it has done in the past to ensure its continued supremacy. It is designed to shower with rose petals Kim Jong-un’s path to recognition as the worthy successor to Kim Jong-il as he becomes the new leader, for real or for show.

The religious significance of the births and deaths of the Three Kims.

Kim Il-sungKim il-sung. The one hundredth anniversary of his birth is scheduled to be celebrated widely in North Korea on April 15, 2012. It is to bring a great leap forward to prosperity and power; then, there will be plenty for all, even a daily bowl of soup with meat. His birth seems to have been somewhat unremarkable but his life and death took on mythical auras. He remains the “eternal President” and is also commonly called the Great Leader.

Kim Jong-ilKim Jong-il. Religious symbolism increased under Kim Jong-ilHis

official biography says he was “heaven sent,” born in a log cabin in Mount Paektu while his father was fighting the Japanese.

“Wishing him to be the lodestar that would brighten the future of Korea, they hailed him as the Bright Star of Mount Paektu,” his biography reads.

Lore has it soldiers spread the news of his birth by inscribing the announcement on trees across the country — a practice that North Koreans continue today by carving the leaders’ messages into rocks and mountainsides.

According to a report in Pravda, quoted here, he was born in Siberia and the symbolism is a tissue of make believe. Still, it has generally kept the masses in line; few believe differently than they are told to believe by those in authority.

He died, according to reports, on the morning of December 17th although it may have been earlier. The accounts of his death were no less mythic than those of his birth.

His obituary in state media called him the “illustrious commander born of heaven,” and on Wednesday, KCNA said a Manchurian crane spotted in the city of Hamhung circled a statue of Kim Il Sung for hours before dropping its head and taking off toward Pyongyang. The crane is a traditional Korean symbol of longevity.

“Even the sky seemed to writhe in grief,” KCNA said, reporting blinding blue flashes, thunder and heavy snow near the Demilitarized Zone. “He was, indeed, a great saint born of heaven.”

His last public appearance was on an escalator in a Pyongyang supermarket (it appears to be going down, not up — perhaps those who staged the affair didn’t realize the symbolism of going down); now the escalator has been turned into a shrine (video at the link).

“I can’t imagine how happy it would make us and our fellow citizens if he could ride on this escalator again,” said one woman, amid a group of mourners, weeping around the moving staircase. “I still feel that he is alive, with his bright smile. I can also hear his voice.”

According to another source,

it is impossible to know how many of the tears shed in North Korea for the late leader are genuine, but people who fled Kim’s harsh rule say that it is partly the result of years of indoctrination.

“The North’s brainwashing is so strong that I found myself crying at the news of Kim Jong-Il’s death even though I defected years ago and have publicly said I hate him,” said Lee Hae-Young, director of the Seoul-based Association of North Korean Defectors.

“The slavery mentality is so deeply ingrained in the North Korean people because of propaganda and brainwashing.”

It was reported by the North Korean media that

Citizens in … Pyongyang … received a special gift from the recently deceased leader: loads of fish. North Korea’s state-run media reported that Kim was worried about the supply of fish in Pyongyang, and had looked into the matter the day before he died.

Kim Jong-un. Although no mention was made of loaves of bread accompanying Kim Jong-il’s fish, Kim Jong-un is said to have followed his late father’s last wishes and distributed the bounty dutifully, showing great compassion for the residents of Pyongyang (where residence is tightly controlled and only those deemed loyal to the regime are permitted to live). On the 25th,

The North’s official news agency reported that on Sunday Jong-Un sent hot sweet drinks to mourners braving wintry conditions to pay their respects to his late father.

“He is such a meticulous and tender-hearted man,” it said. “The loving care repeatedly shown by Kim Jong-Un for people when the whole nation is overcome with sorrow will be conveyed to posterity as a legend about love for people.”

There hasn’t been a lot of time to do it, but mythology creation for the beloved Kim Jong-un since Kim Jong-il’s death has gone into higher gear even than before. Despite his few years, variously reported as between twenty-seven and thirty, his father conferred four star rank in the North Korean military about a year ago and he promptly became the Brilliant Young General. He is no longer referred to as the Great Successor or Brilliant Young General but rather as the Supreme Commander and Sagacious Leader. On December 26th, the principal North Korean newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, “described him as head of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party – a post that appears to make him the top official in the ruling party.”

As I contended here and expanded upon here, he will most likely be under a regency controlled by members of the Kim family and senior military people; they probably do not accept the thesis that Kim Jong-un bears the mark of divinity.

Massive outpourings of grief were orchestrated for Kim Jong-il’s funeral today and the elevation of Kim Jong-un to comparable deity status will continue with even greater fervor.  According to the Sydney Morning Herald,

Wailing and clutching at their hearts, tens of thousands of North Koreans lined the snowy streets of Pyongyang on Wednesday as the hearse carrying late leader Kim Jong-il’s body wound its way through the capital for a final farewell.

Son and successor Kim Jong-un led the procession, his head bowed against the wind and right arm raised in a salute, from Kumsusan Memorial Palace where his father’s body had lain in state. Top military and party officials, including uncle Jang Song Thaek, were also part of the lead group.

As I noted here on December 21st, Jang Song Thaek was Kim Jong-il’s brother in law and Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, was Kim Jong-il’s sister. She is “the link that ties Jang to the ruling family.”  Both are very likely to be important if not lead figures in the regency for Kim Jong-un in which various members of the military will likely join.

The funeral was an integral part of the well choreographed performance.

[A]nalysts expect largely a re-run of the 1994 obsequies for Kim’s father and founding president Kim Il-Sung — a ceremony designed to pay homage to the late leader and build loyalty to his dynastic successor.

Hey!  I'm the boss now.  Right?The task might seem to Westerners to be a great one. This report on Kim Jong-un’s schooling in Switzerland is revealing and well worth reading; he seems to be a mixed bag. While skimpy, we seem to have more information about Kim Jong-un’s school days than we do about President Obama’s. He (Kim Jong-un) is possibly the least inept of Kim Jong-il’s offspring. Others “are conspicuous by their absence. They are not listed as members of the official funeral committee and have not been pictured during the mourning period.”

It has not yet been claimed that Kim Jong-un was born of a virgin, although he will doubtless be said to have performed miracles exceeding those attributed to Jesus. Since neither Kim il-Sung nor Kim Jong-il died on a cross, that honor will likely be denied Kim Jong-un. Beyond that, the possibilities are wide open. Perhaps in the future, should there be one for the Kim Regime, it will be written that Kim the father, Kim the Son and Kim the Holy Ghost are in a Stalinist Heaven to which the faithful will be privileged to ascend when they die. Will a Korean Christopher Hitchens (maybe Kimopher Hit-chens?) someday dispute these revelations?

We don’t know because we can’t. North Korea is a black hole from which little light escapes. Even when we may have reasonably reliable facts, a rare occurrence, we in the West have insufficient cultural understandings to interpret their meanings. We stumble along on the assumption that people there and elsewhere are little different from us. We can’t do much about radical Islam or the dangers it poses because we don’t understand them. The same is true of the religious aspects which predominate in the Kim Regime. When things we don’t comprehend cause big problems, we react poorly. Some of our universities have departments of Hispanic studies, gay and transgender studies, feminist studies and more. Are there departments of North Korean studies at universities in the United States? I am unaware of even one. We just do whatever we do on the fly, react to crises and forget about being in any useful way proactive because we can’t be.


Here is a twenty-four minute video from Aljazeera analyzing the situation following Kim Jong-il’s funeral and speculating about the future. It is well worth watching.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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