North Korea as a Religious State
All three countries labeled "the Axis of Evil" by President Bush in 2002 are presently religious states. Iran is of course a Shiite theocracy, while the government of formerly secularist Iraq—to the extent it has a government at all—is dominated by Shiite fundamentalists. North Korea has long practiced its state religion, Kim Il-songism.
According to North Korean scriptures, when the Great Leader Kim Il-song died in 1994, thousands of cranes descended from Heaven to fetch him, and his portrait appeared high in the firmament. Immediately villages and towns throughout the nation began to construct Towers of Eternal Life, the main one rising 93 meters over Kim’s mausoleum in Pyongyang. The Great Leader’s son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, took power, declining to assume the title of President. The Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea restricts that title forever to the Great Leader, whom the Dear Leader has proclaimed, "will always be with us." The Dear Leader himself was born on Mt. Paektu, the highest mountain in Korea and Manchuria long revered by Koreans as sacred and the birthplace of their nation, in 1942. (Unbelievers say he was born in 1941 in Vyatskoye, in Siberia, in the Soviet Union.) His birth in a humble log cabin brought joy to the cosmos: a double rainbow appeared over the peak, a new star rose in the heavens, and a swallow descended to herald his birth. (Thus he is called, among other monikers, the Heaven-Descended General.) When he was 32 years old, the Workers’ Party of Korea and the people of Korea unanimously elected him their leader. When he visited Panmunjom, a fog descended to protect him from South Korean snipers, but when he was out of danger, the mist dramatically listed and glorious sunlight shone all around him. . . You get the idea.
Now, how did it come about that a socialist republic established by a Marxist-Leninist party in 1948 came under the spell of this state religion and its peculiar mythology? Some might say that Marxism-Leninism is itself a religion, but they misapply the term. "Religion" proper doesn’t refer to just any ideology or thought system, but only to those that posit supernatural phenomena such as life after death, miracles and the existence of deities. Marxism as a variant of philosophical materialism explicitly rejects such phenomena. Some socialist societies have surely produced personality cults, distorted or fabricated histories, dogmatism and fanaticism. And of course when a leader dies, the party has said, "He will always be with us" in a metaphorical sense. The Soviets early on adopted the custom of embalming revolutionary leaders, and the Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans have followed suite. But what we see in the DPRK is more than a personality cult. It seems to me more akin to the State Shinto imposed on the Korean peninsula by the Japanese imperialists after 1905.
State Shinto, itself developed after 1868 in specific emulation of European state churches, emphasized the divine origins of the Japanese emperors, descended in an unbroken family line from the establishment of the Empire by Jinmu, great-great-grandson of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. State Shinto emphasized the kokutai or "national essence," the unbreakable unity of the Japanese islands (born from the bodies of the kami or gods), the Japanese people, their divine emperor, and all the kami with the Sun Goddess at their head. It was a vague concept that boiled down to obedience to state authority and to that solar disk national flag. (We find this sun worship meme in Kim Il-songism too. The DPRK Constitution states, "The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung is the sun of the nation and the lodestar of the reunification of the fatherland." A monumental artwork called "the Figure of the Sun" erected to mark the 100-day memorial service for Kim in 1994, adorns a hill overlooking Pyongyang.)
The Meiji-era reformers who created Japan’s state religion were well-educated men who probably didn’t believe the mythology literally, but thought it would allow for the effective control of the indoctrinated masses. It did in fact work fairly well, up until Japan’s crushing defeat in 1945. The U.S. Occupation then abolished it (leaving "folk Shinto" as opposed to State Shinto alone), and forced Emperor Hirohito to publicly renounce any claim to divinity. He could have been tried for war crimes; the Allies could have ended the myth-shrouded monarchy right then. But the U.S. Occupation authorities found the residual aura of sanctity surrounding the office useful. Hirohito was, to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the "queen bee" whose cooperation would ensure mass compliance with Occupation objectives. The emperor remains a sacerdotal figure, the High Priest of the Shinto faith, enthroned in a religious ceremony, offering prayers on behalf of the nation to the gods.
Growing up under Japanese occupation, Kim Il-song could have observed the usages of a state religion in the service of a hereditary monarchy linked to Heaven. Maybe these observations subconsciously affected the evolution of his thinking. Once in power in North Korea, from 1945, he increasingly built a personality cult, initially modeled after Stalin’s but by the 1970s plainly monarchical in nature. It integrated Confucian values of filial piety and obedience, and glorified the entire family of the Great Leader, including especially the crown prince Jong-il.
Tens of thousands of "research rooms" have been constructed throughout the country, which persons are required to visit at regular intervals, bowing to the portraits of the two Kims the way that all Japanese (and colonized Koreans and Taiwanese) used to have to bow to the Japanese emperor’s portrait.
As Hwang Jang Yop, once International Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, has written, "Kim Jong Il went to great lengths to create the Kim Il Sung personality cult, and Kim Il Sung led the efforts to turn Kim Jong Il into a god." (It is perhaps not surprising that the Great Leader warmly welcomed the Rev. Billy Graham to Pyongyang in 1992 and 1994, where he preached his brand of Christianity in Protestant and Catholic churches and at Kim Il-song University. Kim was no doubt appreciative of the power of religion, having created his own.)
The Chinese communists (when they were communists) referred poetically to "heaven," as in the 1970s expression "There is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent." Chinese Confucianism and Daoism both allude to Heaven (Tian) in the sense of a moral cosmic order that confers its mandate on successive dynasties of Chinese rulers. The word occurs in Chinese literature in so many contexts that it’s natural for Chinese Marxists to use it metaphorically. But Kim Il-song chose "believing in the people as in heaven" as his motto, implying perhaps that one should believe in both; and wrote a poem on the occasion of his beloved son’s 50th birthday: "Heaven and earth shake with the resounding cheers of all the people united in praising him." He really seems to have wanted the people to believe in a celestial realm conferring its mandate on his dynasty.
In a Tungusic myth, the ancient Korean nation of Choson was founded by the son of a bear who had been transformed into a woman by Hwanung, ruler of a divine city on Mt. Paektu, and a tiger. I’ve read that this myth has been reworked to suggest to North Korean school children that the Kims came down from heaven to the top of the sacred mountain, where they were transformed into human beings. (There may be some shared memes with Shinto here. In the Japanese myth, the grandson of the Sun Goddess descends to earth, to a mountain peak in Kyushu, marries the daughter of an earthly deity, loses his immortality, and begets two sons one of whom sires the first emperor, Jinmu, by a sea princess who turns out to be a dragon. The Japanese imperial family also came down from heaven, and became human.) Heaven clearly plays a role in Kim Il-songism as it did in State Shinto.
Where does Marxism-Leninism fit in here? According to one report, while there are portraits of the Great and Dear Leaders all over Pyongyang, "there are only two public pictures in Pyongyang of people who do not belong to the Kim family–in the main square are two smallish images, one of Marx and one of Lenin."
That suggests at least some small formal deference to the communist pioneers. But the Dear Leader stated in a major speech in 1990:
"We could not literally accept the Marxist theory which had been advanced on the premises of the socio-historic conditions of the developed European capitalist countries, or the Leninist theory presented in the situation of Russia where capitalism was developed to the second grade. We had had to find a solution to every problem arising in the revolution from the standpoint of Juche."
This is the supposedly brilliant idea of "self-reliance" or as the Great Leader put it, the principle that "man is the master of everything and decides everything." (The "standpoint" of course sounds rather trite and vague at worst, while not overtly religious. But born out of Kim’s brain supposedly when he was only 18 years old, it is the faith of the masses and the ideological basis for the state—rather like kokutai in prewar and wartime Japan.) The DPRK’s new (1998) Constitution omits any reference to Marxism-Leninism whatsoever. Rather the document "embodies Comrade Kim Il-song’s Juche state construction ideology."
Still, those portraits of Marx and Lenin are there in Pyongyang. DPRK propaganda continues to describe the late Kim as "a thoroughgoing Marxist-Leninist." Juche is described as a "creative application of Marxism-Leninism." The Korean Workers’ Party continues to cultivate ties with more traditional, perhaps more "legitimate," Marxist-Leninist parties including the (Maoist) Communist Party of the Philippines.
Some material by Marx, Engels and Lenin circulates in North Korea, and the Marxist dictum, "Religion is the opium of the masses" is universally known. But according to a Russian study in 1995, "the works by Marx, Engels, and Lenin are not only excluded from the standard [school] curriculum, but are generally forbidden for lay readers. Almost all the classical works of Marxism-Leninism, as well as foreign works on the Marxist (that is, other than [Juche]) philosophy are kept in special depositories, along with other kinds of subversive literature. Such works are accessible only to specialists with special permits." (One thinks of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages restricting Bible reading to the trusted clergy, and discouraging it among the masses.)
I imagine some with those special permits are able to read Marx’s famous 1844 essay in which the "opium of the masses" phrase occurs:
"Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions."
Maybe the rare North Korean student of Marxism, acquiring some real understanding of the Marxist view of religion, can see all around him or her conditions which require mass illusions and delusions in order to continue. There are some signs of resistance here and there to the Kim cult, which would seem to be a good thing.
Having said that (and always trying to think dialectically), I don’t believe that life in the DPRK is quite the hell—another religious concept—that the mainstream media would have us believe it is. One should try to look at things in perspective. We hear much of the terrible famine that lasted from about 1995 to 2001, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions. But North Korea was not always a disaster. As of 1980, infant mortality in the north was lower than in the south, life expectancy was higher, and per capita energy usage was actually double that in the south (Boston Globe, Dec. 31, 2003). Even after the famine and accompanying problems, a visitor to Pyongyang in 2002 declared:
"Housing in Pyongyang is of surprising quality. In the past 30 years–and mostly in the past 20–hundreds of huge apartment houses have been built. Pyongyang is a city of high-rises, with probably the highest average building height of any city in the world. Although the quality is below that of the West, it is far above that found in the former Soviet Union. Buildings are finished and painted and there is at least a pretense of maintenance; even older buildings do not look neglected. Nothing looks as though it is on the verge of falling down. . .
"Although a bit dreary, the shops in Pyongyang are far from empty. Each apartment building has some sort of shop on the main floor, and food shops can usually be found within one or two buildings from any given home. Apart from these basic, Soviet-style shops, there are a few department stores carrying a wide range of goods. . . "While not snappy dressers, North Koreans are certainly clean and tidy, and exceptionally well dressed. . . There is no shortage of clothing, and clothing stores and fabric shops are open daily."
There’s apparently one hotel disco and some karaoke bars in Pyongyang. No doubt Kim Il-songism can provide some with the "illusory happiness" about which Marx wrote, and it is possible that genuine popular feelings as well as feelings orchestrated from above have contributed to the production of the North Korean faith. The DPRK might not be all distress and oppression. But neither is it a socialist society in any sense Marx or Lenin would have recognized, to say nothing of a classless, communist society. It is among other things a religious society in a world where nations led by religious nuts are facing off, some seemingly hell-bent on producing a prophesized apocalypse. I find no cause for either comfort or particular alarm in the Dear Leader’s October 9 nuclear blast; if it deters a U.S. attack it’s achieved its purpose, and however bizarre Jong-il may be he’s probably not crazy enough to provoke his nation’s destruction by an attack on the U.S. or Japan. I’m more concerned that Bush will do something stupid in response to the test.
In any case, the confrontation here isn’t between "freedom" and "one of the world’s last communist regimes," nor even between fundamentalist Christian Bush and Kim Il-songist Kim Jong-il. It’s between a weird hermetic regime under threat and determined to survive in its small space, using a cult to control its people, and a weird much more dangerous regime under the delusion that God wants it to smite His enemies and to control the whole world. Both are in the business of peddling "illusions of happiness." Neither is much concerned about the "real happiness" of people. Both ought to be changed—by those they oppress, demanding an end to conditions requiring illusions.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org