It’s well established that North Korea’s founder and eternal president Kim Il Sung grew up in a Christian home with a pastor for a grandfather and a church elder for a father. It is less well known that when Kim Il Sung wrote about Christianity and Christians, he did not write with hostility but rather with a bland and dismissive nonchalance. “Some people ask me if I was much influenced by Christianity while I grew up,” he once wrote. “I was not affected by religion, but I received a great deal of humanitarian assistance from Christians, and in return I had an ideological influence on them.”
To hear Kim Il Sung tell it, so long as the prayers of Christians served the national interest and so long as they did not do anything that got in the way of the national interest, he was fine to permit them their “superstitions.” He once wrote about the sister of the great Korean independence figure Ahn Chang Ho,
Although Ahn Chang Ho was gone, his younger sister, Ahn Sin Ho, joined our camp after Liberation. She became vice chairwomen of the Korean Democratic Women’s League. Upon my return to Korea, I was informed that Ahn Chang Ho’s sister lived in Nampo. Comrade Kim Gyong Suk worked in Nampo in those days and I asked him to find her. A few days later, I received a message that she had been found, whereupon, I phoned Kim and asked how she was. Kim said: “She carries the Bible day and night. She is a devout Christian.”
I believed that she, being Ahn Chang Ho’s sister, must be a patriot, too, although she believed in Christ. I told Kim to take care of her and guide her well. Kim replied that he would, but his words sounded hollow. In those days, our Party workers saw Christians through colored lenses and distrusted them in spite of my admonitions otherwise. Several months later, Comrade Kim informed me that Ahn Sin Ho had become an active member of the Party and that she carried her party membership card in her Bible. I was happy to hear that.
So Kim Il Sung saw himself as rather tolerant of Christians–provided their party membership was tucked inside their faith (or was that the other way around?). But all of this begs the question:
Why did Kim Il Sung himself reject Christianity?
Would you believe that it all started with his mother falling asleep in church?
My mother went to church every Sunday and I went with her. When I asked her why she went there she said, ‘Just to relax.’ After that, at church services, I found that she wasn’t listening to the service but was dozing off and she wouldn’t wake up until the last amens. We can see from this that religious believers may attend church, not because there is God; they go to regulate their conscience. I maintain that if one had to believe in a God he should believe in the God of Korea. It is laudable to cherish the God of Korea in one’s heart and not do things harmful to the state. Do you believe in heaven? Has anyone been there? (p. 200).
In this quote Kim Il Sung squares up the main issue for him with regard to Christianity: What good is it in advancing the state?
In Kim Il Sung’s mind, what best advanced the state was cherishing the God of Korea in one’s heart. And who was the God of Korea?
Why, none other than Kim Il Sung himself.
In essence, Kim Il Sung judged the God of Christianity and found Him wanting. As he wrote elsewhere, “I thought Christian doctrines were too far off the mark to suit our misery and problems.” Having found the Christian God wanting, he cast Him off but–as we have written previously–kept the apparatus of worship intact and applied it to himself. He did not believe that God could save Korea, and so he sought to save it himself.
Sixty-six years later, it turns out that Kim Il Sung was exactly, terribly, terrifyingly wrong. The doctrines of Kim Il Sung himself were too far off the mark to suit the misery and problems of North Korea. Few miscalculations in history have been as deadly as his. But this miscalculation does point the way forward in our engagement with North Korea and North Koreans, and it is a way that is too seldom tried by Christians; namely, sharing the news with North Koreans that the God and Savior of Korea is not Kim Il Sung but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Kwon and Chung in their masterful North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics capture in one sentence the poignancy of Kim Il Sung’s divine failure in what may be one of the saddest stories to emerge from North Korea’s tragic famine period of the early 1990’s:
At the same time [the time of the famine and the death of Kim Il Sung], existing mutual-help relations became strained and in many cases broke down, leaving the vulnerable and weak helplessly exposed to great hardship to the extent that in one home, at the height of the crisis, the desperate mother of a child struggling with hunger-caused illness pleaded with and prayed to the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, which she had preciously preserved in her home, to help save her child’s life (p. 167).
It is fascinating that Kim Il Sung recalled receiving humanitarian aid from Christians and being unmoved by it. In fact, he notes that in receiving it, he actually moved the ideology of the Christians!
Sixty-six years in, some Christians still miss this tragic reality and insist that providing humanitarian aid or doing business as mission or setting up universities in North Korea are ultimately the most practical, pragmatic, and effective ways to save North Korea and ultimately sway the hearts of North Koreans in favor of Christianity. But the truth is, there have always been Christians and Christian aid in North Korea, and it has no more saved North Korea than Kim Il Sung himself has. We should not think that the problem is that we have not provided enough. The problem is that we are unwilling to provide something different.
We must return to and revisit Kim Il Sung’s two questions in the quote above:
Do you believe in heaven? Has anyone been there?
Yes, we believe in heaven. And there is only One who has ever been there. We have direct, unmediated access to Him and His matchless power through our prayers. In the midst of a famine, He alone can save. In the midst of the fallenness that is the North Korean state, only His doctrines suit North Korea’s misery and problems.
If we truly believed in the power of God, we would know that teaching North Koreans how to pray and cry out to the one true God themselves is that nation’s only hope. As long as we continue to settle for providing a “great deal of humanitarian assistance,” Kim Il Sung is right: The only thing that will change is us, as North Korea exerts its ideological influence on us to conclude that man, not God, is the best hope for the state.