Happy holidays! The Christmas celebrations in the western world prompted me to take a short break from recounting experiences on the ground, and instead compile some thoughts on the parallels between Juche, the DPRK’s philosophy (which involves a cult of personality supported by propaganda) and religion.
Traditional religions have never fared well in Communist countries, typically because they prescribe or support a value system that is not endorsed by the regime, encourage individuals to work towards spiritual goals that may conflict with (or detract individuals from) the system’s ideology of an all-powerful leader, and in some cases may also encourage critical thinking.
The DPRK is no exception to this rule. It effectively shuns all religions, on the one hand simply by claiming that a majority of the population has no religion—something that our guide on my last trip summarized in a swift phrase: “we’re not a very religious people”—and on the other hand by prosecuting to a certain extent those who practice, especially Christians. Numerous defectors have reported that the DPRK fears Christian groups along the Chinese border, and that punishments are typically more severe for repatriated defectors who admit to having been in contact with such groups. Mike Kim’s book, Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country provides a glimpse into Christian activity next to the border and how the DPRK deals with it.
Officially, however, the Constitution of the DPRK grants freedom of faith to its citizens. The government stresses this fact by running a number of churches and temples in Pyongyang of the Catholic, Protestant, Russian Orthodox and Buddhist denominations. These showcase facilities are open to tourists. I have not had a chance to visit them so far, but some visitors have suggested that the well-oiled tours appear to be rather staged and that the official Korean representatives of various religions seem to know at times surprisingly little about their own faith.
Since I do not have any first hand experiences to report, I will reserve judgment. However, I can comment, based on my own observations, on how Juche, the DPRK’s philosophy of self-reliance, loyalty, determination, and devotion to state, which drives the official history and policies of the DPRK, often borrows from Christianity, drawing many elements, stories and rituals from the Christian faith.
In the words of Barbara Demick, in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea:
Kim Il-sung understood the power of religion. His maternal uncle was a Protestant minister back in the pre-Communist days when Pyongyang had such a vibrant Christian community that it was called the “Jerusalem of the East.” Once in power, Kim Il-sung closed the churches, banned the Bible, deported believers to the hinterlands, and appropriated Christian imagery and dogma for the purpose of self-promotion.
While many documents and articles on the web note the similarities between North Korean propaganda and Christianity or religion in general, none that I could find provide a complete list of parallels. Here is therefore my attempt at such a list.
First, there are significant similarities between the official life of President Kim Il Sung of and the Christian faith:
- Like Jesus Christ’s, the President’s beginnings were very humble, which explains his natural connection with the people. While the Great Leader didn’t spend his first hours in a manger, he grew up very poor in a modest rural mud house at Mangyongdae, on the outskirts of Pyongyang. The house has become a powerful symbol, just like Christ’s stable.
- Next to the Mangyongdae house (a stop on most Pyongyang tours) there is a well which you can drink fresh water from, perhaps in the hope that you will acquire the President’s wisdom. While this might be far-fetched, the image of the well reminds me of several Biblical idioms and analogies, and the story of the Good Samaritan.
- According to an official biography, the young Kim Il Sung shed his “precious blood” in order to save the nation while fighting against the Japanese imperialists. So did Jesus, in an attempt to save man from sin.
- As a young man, Jesus performed several miracles. Similarly, the President is credited with personal responsibility for positive events such as good harvests. American imperialists, on the other hand, are blamed for pretty much every issue, in a traditional dichotomy pattern.
- The Great leader is a father figure and a protector. He is the great father of the people, spreads love, and is powerful albeit benevolent. The fatherly image, perhaps because it is easy to illustrate, is one that is strongly reinforced by propaganda (see top picture.)
- Just like God, the President is eternal. Signs at his mausoleum and elsewhere remind the faithful that “The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung will always be with us!,” and towers of eternal life (Yeong Saeng,) sort of marble obelisks, have sprung throughout the country to provide a visual cue of the President’s eternal presence. Indeed, he remains to date the only leader of the DPRK with the President title.
The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il’s life story involves similar, perhaps even stronger parallels:
- First, he’s the son of the eternal President, just like Jesus is the son of God, an eternal and immortal figure.
- The Dear Leader was born on Mt. Paekdu, Korea’s beautiful and most sacred mountain. Just like Christ’s birth was announced by the star of Bethlehem, the birth of the future leader was highlighted by a star glowing over the mountain. Perhaps again because it is such a visual theme, it is largely supported by propaganda—the country is dotted with paintings of Mt. Paekdu.
- Like Christ going through the desert, he endured difficult times, working relentlessly for the Korean people. His last days were a testament to his strength.
- When Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn. The death of the General was mystical, too: “peculiar natural wonders were observed on Mt. Paektu” and the holiest mountain glowed red, according to state media.
As far as the respected Kim Jong Un is concerned, it is too early to tell which symbols will be used to highlight his achievements and tell his story, but he’s already considered as a reincarnation of the DPRK’s late founder. While Christianity does not endorse the idea of reincarnation (although Buddhism, another influence in Korea, does,) Christians do consider the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as one, of the same nature. As our guide once put it, in a flurry of energy: “President Kim Is Sung, General Kim Jong Il, it’s all the same!”
The protocol, or dare I say liturgy, that is used to pay respects and tribute to the Leaders also largely borrows from Christianity:
- Just like we count years from the birth of Jesus Christ, the DPRK’s official calendar starts on the President’s birth year. As such, 2012 is Juche 101. The date is used on all official documents, although it is usually qualified by its international equivalent.
- North Korean holidays match national events, most of which are intimately linked with the lives of the leaders. Holidays include the leaders’ birthdays (similar to Christmas) and the anniversary of their death (like Easter, minus the resurrection :)) The scale of celebrations, particularly on 4/15, the President’s birthday, is certainly on part with Christmas, with buildings and streets decked out for the occasion, and families gathering for the celebrations.
- Just like music, art, and sculpture in the western world were virtually dedicated to the celebration of God for centuries, all forms of socialist art glorify the Leaders and the nation’s values. While socialist music, which often overuses crescendos and fortes, hardly reminds of the religious Renaissance polyphonic style, socialist paintings, in their simple and stylized forms which put the main characters at the center, can often read as and serve the purpose of religious icons.
- The placement of portraits is also symbolic. The portraits of the Leaders must always be placed as high as possible, close to the ceiling, and are always present in public spaces and classrooms, pretty much right where Catholics would hang a cross.
- While there is no formal equivalence to Mass, North Koreans learn to thank the leaders for all blessings (which is in line with praising the Lord,) partake in self-criticism sessions (reflecting on their sins,) and always stop by the statue of the Leaders immediately after their wedding (to receive an indirect form of sacrament.)
- Devotion and worship are obvious key tenants of the North Korean rituals. The leaders’ writings are valued as scriptures and play a key role in the education system.
- The DPRK also has its own sacred sites. When our group arrived on Mansu hill where the two tallest statues of the Leaders are erected, our guide instructed us to remove hats and sunglasses (like one would do in a church) and exclaimed: “This is holy ground for us!” Visitors are pilgrims, and are therefore expected to show respect not only to the Leaders and the statues that represent them, but also to the site around them. Solemn music stresses the special character of the place.
Other elements draw from other religions or cults. For example, the sun image (which Kim Il Sung embodies, as the sun of Korea) reminds of the analogy used by Japanese emperors. Juche is also heavily influenced by Korea’s Confucian heritage.
The question of whether these characteristics make Juche a religion or a cult is possibly a philosophical one. This article provides a couple of tracks and elements of an answer.
As for the state of traditional religions in the DPRK, it is difficult to assess. The history of the country means that there should be somewhat sizable Christian, Cheondoist and Buddhist populations. Defectors have described underground religious networks which indicates that traditional faith is still alive despite persecutions. This web site is dedicated to the fate of Christians in the DPRK. This Wikipedia page provides an overview of religions in the DPRK. I also recommend Mike Kim’s Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Countryfor a description of the religious activism in the DPRK.
Officially, though, the only Gods are the leaders. And their story is strikingly similar to Jesus Christ’s.