North Korea is the world’s last truly communist nation, and if you want a regime that actually lives up to George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare described in his book 1984, then this is it. However, the most amazing thing about North Korea is its continued survival against all predictions. With the ascension of Kim Jong-un in 2011, the nation has now had its third leader from the Kim family.
North Korea has achieved this amazing longevity largely through the introduction of a highly effective cult of personality. The supreme leader is not merely a dictator but in effect a de facto god.
For example, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, is still officially "Eternal President", meaning North Korea is the only country with a deceased head of state.1 Similarly, according to North Korean propaganda about Kim Jong-il:
• His birth in 1941 was heralded by a swallow and caused winter to change to spring, a star to illuminate the sky and rainbows to spontaneously appear.
• He shot an amazing 11 holes-in-one to achieve an unprecedented 38-under-par game on a regulation 18-hole golf course—on his first attempt at golf.
• His suits became a worldwide fashion phenomenon, according to Rodong Sinmun, a communist party newspaper in North Korea.
• According to the official biography on the North Korean state website, he didn't even defecate!2
Christian "cult" of personality
Where did the North Koreans get the idea of turning the Kims into living gods? It might astonish you to learn North Korea deliberately co-opted Christianity:3
Broadcasters would speak of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il breathlessly, in the manner of Pentecostal preachers. North Korean newspapers carried talks of supernatural phenomena. Stormy seas were said to be calmed when sailors clinging to a sinking ship sang songs in praise of Kim Il-sung. When Kim Jong-il went to the DMZ4, a mysterious fog descended to protect him from lurking South Korean snipers. He causes trees to bloom and snow to melt. If Kim Il-sung was God, then Kim Jong-il was the son of God.5
As Oxford Professor of Christian History Diarmaid MacCulloch explains, Christianity is a personality cult.6 Of course saying so is deliberately shocking but Jesus deliberately shocked people on occasion (John 6:54,55,60,61).
Now before you start composing an angry letter to the editor, consider the term "cult" originally meant "worship", from the French culte and Latin cultus. Moreover, totalitarian states only succeed in using personality cults precisely because they are counterfeits, and a counterfeit is always similar to the real thing—just with a few very insidious twists or errors.
Ultimate revelation in a person
A less pejorative way of saying all this is that Christianity is fundamentally relational in nature. This is opposed to other religions, which put maximum emphasis on orthodoxy (knowing the right dogmas), orthopraxy (correct conduct) or ritualism (practising rites and rituals). Some religions, such as Buddhism, don’t even require a belief in God!
In contrast, Christians believe the ultimate revelation about God is found in a Person, Jesus Christ, who is God. The Bible is our only standard for doctrine precisely because it tells us the most about Jesus, who alone is the Word (John 1:1-5,14-16) and the Truth (John 14:6; 18:37,38). However, even when reading the Bible, Adventist pioneer Ellen White taught:
The Bible is not given to us in grand superhuman language. Jesus, in order to reach man where he is, took humanity. The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect. Different meanings are expressed by the same word; there is not one word for each distinct idea. The Bible was given for practical purposes.7
Another common feature is Divine nepotism, again a concept with a bad reputation. By "nepotism" I mean the literal dictionary definition: "favouring shown to relatives or friends".8 This is largely how the ancient world worked (and arguably still does in practice), from the relationship between father and son, to master and freedman.9
Many of Jesus’ parables seemed aimed at explaining this undeserving and relational nature of His kingdom, whether it be: the prodigal son, who thought he’d be treated like a hired servant but was greeted with love and grace by his father (Luke 15:11-32); the vineyard workers, who all earned the same wage no matter how long they worked (Matthew 20:1-16); or the wedding feast, where everyone on the street, both good and bad, was eventually invited to attend (Matthew 22:1-14).
We also see this Divine nepotism through the example of ancient Israel. It didn’t deserve election based on merit but rather because of God’s love and fidelity:
It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:7,8).
Beneficiaries of Divine nepotism
We are extremely fortunate to have a nepotistic God, who through Christ now considers us His friends (Romans 5:11) and children (1 John 3:2). If salvation were based on merit none of us would make it because our own works are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
What this all means is that Christ has to remain at the centre of our faith. Everything, and I mean everything, has to be centred on Jesus. As Ellen White observed:
"Christ is the centre to which all should be attracted; for the nearer we approach the centre the closer we shall come together in feeling, in sympathy, [and] in love."10
Good deeds, amazing Bible knowledge or strict adherence to the Adventist health message all mean nothing if Jesus is not our focus and motivation (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Jesus, our all in all!
Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea, 100.
“Mind-boggling 'facts' about Kim Jong-il”, Herald Sun, retrieved 19 July 14.
“North Korea: The Korean War and the Cult of Kim”, Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, <http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/essays/north-korea-the-korean-war-and-the-cult-of-kim>, retrieved 19 July 14.
DMZ is the De-Militarised Zone, the most heavily fortified strip of land in the world, separating North and South Korea at the 38th parallel.
Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea, 45.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity (London: Penguin, 2009), 1.
Selected Messages, book 1, 19-22.
Oxford Dictionary (Oxford Uni Press: 2008), 442.
Known as a "patron-client relationship" model for social organisation: Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: History, Literature and Social Context, 4th Ed. (Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 2003), 17.
Ellen G White, Selected Messages, Book 1 (Washington DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1958), 259.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, and a member of Livingston church.