Jan 15, 2015

PROFESSING FAITH: Three cults in North Korea

PROFESSING FAITH: Three cults in North Korea



In our discussion in last week’s column, we considered the religious situation that exists in North Korea, one of the last and most militantly atheistic communist states.

The persecution of the Christians, Buddhists, Shamanists and other faiths is a well-known tragedy. But it would be wrong to say that the totalitarian state has no religion at all aside from the few token sites used as showpieces to visitors. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. In fact three cults stand out in the bitter Korean regime.

The oldest and least important of the official cults of North Korea is Chondism, which claims about 13 percent of the population and has even been called by the communist government the “national religion” of Korea.

Chondism is a sect of Confucianism, established in the 19th century by the Confucian scholar Choe Jeu. The name Chondism, or Cheondogyo, means the heavenly way and it began as a kind of nationalist religious reaction against foreign missionaries as an effort to call people back to their Korean roots, as opposed to missionary Christianity.

The anti-Western foundation gives an initial clue as to its favor with the current northern regime.

Chondism teaches that all things came to be not by a special act of creation by an external God, but because of generation by an inner god. At the highest level, there is a heaven, which is called Haneullim, or Master Heaven, which exists as the instructor of men and women.

There is no afterlife but humans may improve themselves by personal effort, and as people improve their inner nature, they draw closer to the heavenly ideal.

If there is to be a heaven in the Western sense, it is a world which people must create on earth by moral effort, improving society and a general respect for traditional Confucian values, which have always emphasized submission to male governmental authorities.

In South Korea, there are more than a million Chondists in several hundred congregations. Twice that many exist in the north, and the leaders of the cult are quick to blast foreign imperialism, which they insist is what is currently dividing the Korean nation.

Vastly more popular and less spiritual in nature is the political cult of Juche, or Chuch’e, which is an ideology actively promoted by the North Korean government. Juche is a political philosophy, and like much in North Korean leadership, it has take on mythic proportions.

Juche has its roots in the speeches and writings of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, who began his career as a communist guerrilla and ally of the Soviet Union. With Russian Soviet support, he emerged as ruler of the North and it was he who made war on the regime in Seoul in 1950. Financial and military support kept the North Korean regime going for decades.

The collapse of communism in Europe in the period 1989-91 ended financial support for the Korean communist regime. However economic stagnation began earlier than that. Kim’s response was to teach and inculcate his government with Juche ideology, which emphasized three precepts of political independence, economic self-sustenance and self-reliance in defence.

The mission of the Workers’ Party was to instill these ideals in the masses. In the realm of actual politics, this ideology was used to justify the fact that North Korea had to go it alone without external Soviet support, and presumably this legitimized the economic hardships that the North was undergoing and still suffers from — starvation, lack of electricity and basic necessities and massive spending on a huge military.

The not altogether unbiased official website of North Korea defines Juche as follows: “The Juche idea is based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything. It is the man-centred world outlook and also a political philosophy to materialize the independence of the popular masses, namely, a philosophy which elucidates the theoretical basis of politics that leads the development of society along the right path.

“The Government of the DPRK steadfastly maintains Juche in all realms of the revolution and construction. Establishing Juche means adopting the attitude of a master towards the revolution and construction of one’s country. It means maintaining an independent and creative standpoint in finding solutions to the problems which arise in the revolution and construction. It implies solving those problems mainly by one’s own efforts and in conformity with the actual conditions of one’s own POLITICS country.”

Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994 led to his replacement by his son, Kim Jong Il, although the younger Kim had been appointed to several high posts including supreme military command while his father was still alive. Kim Jong Il accelerated the cult of Juche, by adding to it the exultation of the head of state, known in Juche as the Great Leader ideology.

Classical communism, the reader will recall, called for the political emphasis to be on the collective and not the individual, and the eventual withering away of the state. Kim Jong Il modified this by asserting that the Great Leader was to be the mastermind, or as he put it, the ”top brain” of the working class. One incorruptible leader, who never commits mistakes, would be the only legitimate “leading force of the working classes.”

It is in the final arena that we might discern the third religious aspect of North Korean ideology, which is the virtual deification of the Great Leader, which since 2011 has devolved onto the current ruler, Kim Jong-un, who has been called Korea’s “shining sun.” He is the son and grandson of the two previous rulers of the state.

The best analogy of this view of the cult of the leader is to compare it to the cult of emperor worship in the later Roman Empire. It is difficult to overstate the role that the Great Leader now holds. Many North Koreans believe that the Great Leader can control the weather by his mood. Others believe that he never needs to urinate.

Children in school are taught that they are clothed, fed and housed by his grace. His birthplace, and graves of the older deceased Kims, are places of pilgrimage, and they command greater devotion than many medieval saints. The sacred images of the three great leaders adorn every schoolroom, government office, street and private homes and they are worn as badges on everyone’s clothing.

A considerable debate exists among scholars of North Korean government as to how many people actually believe this or if it is just window dressing that people must spout to stay alive. This cannot be completely answered, but one story is worth pointing out.

Bradley Martin, a leading expert on North Korea, tells the following story in his book “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader” (Page 287).

On one occasion, one of the ministers of state of Kim Il-sung had rather too much to drink, and while intoxicated informed his wife of some of the various sexual debaucheries of the Great Leader’s son and eventual heir, Kim Jong Il. The prim lady was shocked at such revelations and wrote a stunned letter to the Great Leader asking him to reprove his wayward son for the good of the whole Korean people.

The younger Kim got the letter. Soon after, Kim Jong Il celebrated another drinking party and invited the chatty minister and his moral wife. Ordering the couple before him, the younger accused her of disloyalty and pronounced her guilty of counter-revolutionary treason. He pulled out a side arm to shoot her then and there.

But her now sober husband fell on his knees and begged the leader for her. He pleaded, not for her life, of course, but to beg the honor of shooting her himself. This was granted and he personally shot his wife on the spot.

If this sounds difficult to believe, it should be remembered that the unfortunate couple probably had children or relatives who would have suffered hideously, had not their family loyalty to the Great Leader been redeemed.

The cult of the Great Leader would be well recognized by the ancient Christians, flung into the arena by Caesar.

Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. Write to him at Professing Faith, P.O. Box 8102, Redlands, CA 92375-1302, email him at askfathergregory@verizon.net or follow him on Twitter at Fatherelder.



No comments: