For starters, North Korea is keenly aware that the rest of the world would regard such a belief as ridiculous. It’s hard enough to be the only nation in the world to have a dead man as its “Eternal President” and the only nation to renumber the years of human history from the date of his birth (you’ll see on the website of North Korea’s official news agency that it is currently the year “Juche 103,” and all stories are datelined accordingly); imagine the difficulty in explaining “the stories [in North Korean children’s books] in which Kim Il Sung becomes invisible, travels vast distances in a single night, and appears in two different places at the same time, like a master of the secret arts of Taoist immortals” (Linton, p. 83). Then there’s also the matter of Kim Il Sung “walking on water: ‘Great Comrade Kim Il Sung turned pine cones into bullets and grains of sand into rice, and crossed a large river riding on fallen leaves.'” The always insightful B.R. Myers notes that North Korean texts are always careful not to openly make claims of divinity for Kim Il Sung, instead choosing to “draw bemused attention to outsiders, including Americans and South Koreans, who [upon coming to know Kim Il Sung] allegedly regard Kim Il Sung as a divine being.” Myers cites the example of the North Korean novel, Gun Barrel, in which “a visiting American concludes that Kim Jong Il [the son of Kim Il Sung] is the messiah” (p. 111). It’s almost reminiscent of Jesus’ reply, “You have said so” when Pilate asks him if he is the king of the Jews.
But the matter is even more complicated than that. Officially, North Korea espouses what Allen Hertzke calls a “state-sanctioned atheism” (p. 44). As such, the kinds of official things you hear North Korea say about Kim Il-Sung sound like the kinds of official things an atheist state could officially say about a dead Eternal President without sounding too religious–things like “The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung Lives Forever In Our Hearts” which is engraved pretty much everywhere in North Korea. The peerless North Korean commentator Charles K. Armstrong calls this “political religion,” adding, “[W]hile the physical body of Kim Il Sung may have expired, his spirit lived on and continued to rule as head of state.” And though it strains credulity, one can even attribute North Korea’s most adulant statements about Kim Il Sung to a hyper-Stalinist cult of secular state worship–even the Ten Commandments-inspired Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System, widely acknowledged by North Korean defectors as “the most important and essential principle in understanding North Korean society…that has the greatest influence on the everyday lives of the North Korean people”:
1. We must give our all in the struggle to unify the entire society with the revolutionary ideology of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung.
2. We must honor the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung with all our loyalty.
3. We must make absolute the authority of the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung.
4. We must make the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung? revolutionary ideology our faith and make his instructions our creed.
5. We must adhere strictly to the principle of unconditional obedience in carrying out the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung’s instructions.
6. We must strengthen the entire partys ideology and willpower and revolutionary unity, centering on the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung.
7. We must learn from the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung and adopt the communist look, revolutionary work methods and people-oriented work style.
8. We must value the political life we were given by the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung, and loyally repay his great political trust and thoughtfulness with heightened political awareness and skill.
9. We must establish strong organizational regulations so that the entire party, nation and military move as one under the one and only leadership of the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung.
10.We must pass down the great achievement of the revolution by the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung from generation to generation, inheriting and completing it to the end.
As Ashley Etchells-Butler astutely observes in her Life after Death in North Korea, even a political religion can have an afterlife:
It seems that to the North Korean authorities, what you do after you die is up to you. But what you do during your own life will have very real implications for generations of your family to come. It is the closest imagining of a ‘hell on earth’ by a totalist regime that I have come across. What is worse – you can be born into it.
In this way, the ‘afterlife’ in North Korea refers not to your own experience of life after death, but to what happens after your life. Being an atheist state, the DPRK seeks not to punish those who have died – what would be the point in that? Instead it punishes the living for the sins of the dead.
But even after making the most extraordinarily generous allowances for political religion, Stalinism, and North Korea’s deep roots in Confucianism (a philosophy which is notoriously ambiguous about the afterlife and strenuously focused on fulfilling one’s obligations in this life), there’s still a queasy remainder which is (or at least ought to be) awfully hard for conscientious North Korean scholars to explain away. Things like Barbara Demick’s observation (in her seminal Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea) that “A propaganda film released shortly after his death claimed that Kim Il Sung might come back to life if people grieved hard enough for him” (p. 100). Things like Kwon and Chung’s report (in their equally seminal North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics) about the unnamed North Korean woman who, in the midst of the unspeakable devastation of the early 1990’s famine, “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). This last case doesn’t quite fit Etchells-Butler’s very valid notion of “forced obedience in the ‘afterlife’” in which worship is squeezed out of the North Korean worshiper by a state that “punishes the living for the sins of the dead.” Instead, what we have here is what at least we Christians would recognize as “old-time religion.”
B.R. Myers disputes this, asserting flatly in his (yep, also seminal) The Cleanest Race that “No matter what some American Christian groups might claim, divine powers have never been attributed to either of the two Kims” (p. 7).
But I would disagree on two counts.
First, as noted above, even if only at the level of North Korean folk religion, it’s not only American Christians who attribute divine powers to the Kims; ordinary North Koreans regularly do so as well (as North Korean defectors readily attest).
And second, a careful study of the evolution of the Juche cult in the 1970s and 1980s reveals an intentional effort to remake Kim Il Sung as something more than a man–something divine. The best reference in this regard is the least-read seminal book on North Korea, Sonia Ryang’s brilliant Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Inquiry. Even the following lengthy quote doesn’t do justice to Ryang’s argument:
During the two decades of the 1970s and 1980s, Kim Il Sung was enshrined as sovereign. While he was routinely referred to as Leader (or more precisely, the Great Leader), during these decades he was beginning to be viewed no longer as a man or even as a human. This does not mean that he was therefore seen exclusively as a deity, since he was not conceived as someone who belonged only to a higher, normally unreachable, and immaterial realm. He was, rather, understood to be a form of existence that is untouchable, yet ubiquitous, an entity that exists for its own sake, its very nature filled with love and wisdom. It was also believed that because of this very nature, this entity, whether intended or not, would act as the foundation of society and that, in its name, people would commit themselves to extreme causes and acts….
…[A] topological shift occurred with respect to Kim Il Sung’s position in North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s. Before, as can be seen in Wada’s view, Kim Il Sung was a man, a great man, a military strategist, a leader, a political visionary, and a national hero. As such, if he were to die, he would be mourned, but it would be understood that when he was dead, he would be truly dead and gone. After the 1980s, however, Kim Il Sung came to be viewed somewhat differently, as a being that does not die and lives forever. This would be the case even after Kim Il Sung the mortal dies–as indeed happened in North Korea, but not simply because his body was embalmed and artificially preserved.
Before, Kim was not only revered, but also expected to possess and display certain attributes, gifts, and skills, such as theoretical rigor, linguistic ability, political farsightedness, and other examples of technical finesse, aside from showing his characteristic benevolence and warmth. As such, Kim had to perform certain duties in return for the respect accorded him from the people. But, after the topological shift…Kim became an entity of which nothing came to be expected. In other words, his existence itself represented meaning, purpose, and an end in itself. Thus, he simply had to exist… (pp. 17-20)
As Ryang notes, it’s a very different understanding of God than that held by most Westerners, but it’s divinity nevertheless:
Unlike in the case of God in the context of Protestantism, one cannot claim to have Kim Il Sung inside one’s mind and thereby “privatize” him, so to speak. There is no such thing as having one’s own personal Kim Il Sung, as opposed to the Protestant proclivity for holding one’s belief in God in the most personal and private part of one’s heart. Kim Il Sung is a national sovereign and his existence is inseparable from the collectivity of the Korean nation. But, unlike royal state figureheads (as in Britain or Japan, for example), whom everyone reveres but does not learn from or understand, Kim Il Sung is believed, emulated, and upheld as a virtuous role model (p. 19).
Alexandre Y. Mansourov of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies even plots the precise historical-cultural coordinates for Kim Il Sung’s divinity:
The cult of the ‘Father of all Koreans,’ the ‘Sun of the Nation,’ and the ‘Human God’ combines the images of neo-Confucian familism, especially the virtue of filial piety and ancestor worship, psychological chords of quasi-supernatural matriarchal shamanism, buttressed by the elements of Japanese emperor worship and overtones of evangelical Protestant Christianity, dressed in Stalinist garb and charismatic anti-colonial nationalism.
And so we return to the original question: Do North Koreans worship Kim Il Sung as God? And we answer in the affirmative, though with great sadness. Even as we answer in the affirmative, our minds and hearts drift back to the unnamed women in the 1990s famine whose prayers to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il fell on the deaf (and now dead) ears of idols, and we speak gently across the years to her and to all the people of North Korea like her today, the words of the prophet Isaiah,
Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth, their idols were upon the beasts, and upon the cattle: your carriages were heavy loaden; they are a burden to the weary beast.
They stoop, they bow down together; they could not deliver the burden, but themselves are gone into captivity.
Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are borne by me from the belly, which are carried from the womb:
And even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you.