A Speculative Essay Concerning Christian Motifs in Anti-Christian North Korea

You are a tourist visiting Pyongyang. Chances are you have been assigned to stay at the Yanggakdo Hotel. Ambling about, you find a bookstore among the maze of corridors behind the ground floor lobby. There you come across various books about North Korea in multiple languages, primarily English, Mandarin and Russian. One section is stacked with books about the Leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

Bookstore in Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang. Taken in September 2012.

Pick one up. Any one. As you will see, they are all rather similar. They consist entirely of anecdotes of the people’s encounters with the Leaders. The Leader is always giving guidance to the people. He is gentle with his corrections. He does not just know a lot — He is omniscient. He displays many admirable virtues: benevolent humility, single-minded concern for the nation, untiring work ethic, perfection, etc.

These books would have been translated from original North Korean versions, which were probably published and distributed among the people to remind and edify them. They have titles like A Benevolent Sun (on Kim Il-sung) and A Great Personality (on Kim Jong-il). The anecdotes are very formulaic, as if they were all written based on an authorised template; they read like the essays assigned to schoolchildren which had to conform to a specified theme and include a pre-selected set of keywords. And rather strikingly, the Leaders’s quotes were sometimes written in bold fonts, reminiscent of red letter edition Bibles, in which Jesus’s quotes are printed in red so that they stand out.

[The foreign language versions of these books had been translated by North Korean translators, who then pass them to ‘revisers’, foreign translators employed by the Foreign Language Publishing House in Pyongyang. We know this thanks to the posthumously published accounts of Andrew Holloway (see bibliography), a social worker from Yorkshire who spent a year in Pyongyang as a reviser in the late 1980s.]


What first sparked the idea for me that there appears to be Christian motifs in the style of North Korean dictatorship was reading Insular and early Anglo-Saxon Christian hagiography, such as Adomnán’s Life of St Columba and Eddius Stephanus’s Life of St Wilfrid, where certain aspects of the writing were reminiscent of the North Korean anecdotal biographies I stumbled across. There is the episodic nature of the collection of anecdotes; the hyperbolic praise of the saint (possessing only positive attributes, and not a single negative trait or mistake), and expressions of love for the saint by the people; the idea that the saint is ‘the chosen one’, usually accompanied by mythic birth stories; and the portrayal of the saint with otherworldly humility, generosity and wisdom.

It should be mentioned that to see similarities between the vitae of Christian saints and North Korean Leaders’s biographies, one has to hold the same sense of modern skepticism towards writings about miracles and the superlative goodness of Christian saints, as one invariably does concerning absurdly positive stories involving the North Korean leaders. However, at this point, all one can say is that there seems to be some similarities of aspects between Christian and North Korean hagiography, without implying any kind of causal link between the two.

Nevertheless, I contend that the similarities are there, and not illusory. Take the messianic connotations of the Leaders, who are depicted as the only saviour of all Koreans, ‘the greatest thing that has ever happened to Korea’ (Koh 1978: 144). The constant encouragement for the people, not just children but also the adults, to call the Leaders their a-bo-ji, ‘father’, which is not typical in either Japanese or Chinese culture (Kang 1979: 93). The fact that North Korea is called ‘paradise’. The daily self-criticism session obligated for all citizens, young and old, is reminiscent of the practice of confession among Catholic Christians.

The obvious paradox here is the fact that North Korea has always been hostile towards Christianity. Even from the beginning of his reign, Kim Il-sung had Christian leaders arrested, and the level of persecution was such that there was an initial mass exodus of Christians to the south (Park 2003: 41). Christians are among the groups classed under the degenerate class in the new songbun, or class system. If Kim Il-sung had picked up Christian motifs in his leadership style, whether consciously or unconsciously, where did he obtain it from?


In fact, before the post-WWII division of Korea, Christianity had a strong presence in the nation’s political history. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, serious missionary work had tilled the soil and planted the seeds of the religion among the people, but it was during the Japanese annexation of Korea (particularly 1910–1919) when Christianity really took off. Park (2003: 24) suggests that some Koreans began to see all things Western as superior after witnessing the shock defeat of China by Japan, which had leapt forward during the Meiji Restoration partly by learning from the West. Japan itself had never been receptive towards Christianity, but in consequence, Koreans could view conversion into Christianity as a patriotic (anti-Japanese) act. Interestingly, Park observes that it was easier for commoners and outcasts to become Christians compared to the aristocratic yangban class, because the former had little to gain from Confucian society, and thus found it less problematic to embrace the new Western religion.

Christianity never became strong enough to displace Buddhism and other long-standing religions or traditions in Korea, but it did become unexpectedly tied up with the budding Korean nationalist movement of the early twentieth century. The Japanese colonialist government had attempted to shut down nationalist expression by banning political organisation. At the same time, they found it necessary to cooperate with the Protestant church in order to rule Korea effectively, thanks to the church’s relatively extensive organisation network across Korea. The Western missionaries tried to stand the middle ground, placating the Japanese while cooling anti-Japanese sentiments among the Koreans. In so doing, the missionaries gained extraterritorial status, and ‘the Christian church became the sole organisation in which meetings, associations and press were permitted’ (Kim 2004: 138). This led to the church being used as a front by nationalist Koreans to meet, discuss, and breed patriotic and nationalist sentiments. Even more convenient was the fact that the Christian doctrine can be very easily analogised to the Koreans’s plight, particularly the examples of oppression and salvation in the Old Testament, such as the Jews under the Egyptians in Exodus, or the Babylonian captivity (Park 2003: 131). This unorthodox fusion of religious and political organisation continued until the March First Independent Movement, an explosion of protest that ended tragically, with thousands of Koreans killed and tens of thousands more incarcerated following Japanese retaliation.

Museum of Kim Il-sung’s birthplace in Mangyongdae. The portraits, from left to right, are: Kim Hyong-jik, Kim Il-sung as a child, and his mother Kang Ban-sok. Taken in September 2012.

Among the cogs in the machine was Kim Hyong-jik, a Christian activist — and Kim Il-sung’s father. If we exclude much of what was written about him in North Korea, given the lengths of embellishment and mythologisation that goes on in North Korean biographies, there is not much that we know for certain. But we know some. According to Lankov (2002: 50–51), Kim Hyong-jik was from a moderately affluent family, and had attended a missionary school when he was young and apparently ‘maintained lifelong connections with Christian churches and missions’. He later married the daughter of a Protestant minister, who also had a son who became a Protestant minister himself; Kim Il Sung’s maternal uncle later led both the Korean Christian Federation and the Choson Democratic Party. [Caveat: These facts were retrieved from Wikipedia.] Japanese archives indicated that Kim Hyong-jik played an ‘active role in an underground nationalist group’. We can infer from all these that the young Kim Il-sung would have been familiar with many aspects of Christianity.

Then there is his name. It is well-known that Kim’s birth name was Kim Song-ju. The name 성주 is transliterated from 成柱 (forming a pillar), but it could equally have been formed by 颂主 (God is exalted). Given hangeul’s limited set of morphemes which maps into a significantly larger set of Chinese ideograms, the resulting ambiguity offers useful opportunities for Koreans to form names that could possess multiple meanings, and it is possible to imagine that Kim Il-sung’s patriotic Christian father would have given him a name that provided for both patriotic and Christian meanings. This is, of course, highly speculative, but it is at least plausible. Kim Il-sung had two other brothers (Lankov 2002: 51), and if we could find out what their names were and whether similar nameplay can be extrapolated, there is a chance (though slim) to strengthen or weaken this surmise.

Allegedly, Kim Il-sung admired the Donghak movement (Becker 2005: 78–80), a peasant uprising induced by messianic ideology that had originated from Christian roots in nineteenth century Korea, and that is highly reminiscent of the larger and better-known Taiping rebellion of China. Given the form of North Korean society that took shape under his leadership later, we could infer that Donghak had interested him because it suggested how a large section of society can be whipped up to a frenzy to produce mass social change under the leadership of one person, and he would likely have considered looking into the propensity of religious fervour to inspire unyielding loyalty and how it could be engineered for his own agenda. Some aspects he could have emulated include the apocalyptic language, built upon an absolutist dualism of good and evil, and constant peddling of the message that salvation lies in putting the people’s faith on a kuseju or ‘messiah’. Of all the personality cults of political figures of the past century, Kim Il-sung’s is probably the most successful one — it is virtually the only dynastic personality cult that has persisted into its third generation, after all — and the one that most resembles a religious cult. That may turn out to be the reason it has been so successful, though that is a question that will require more exploration.


To reiterate, these are all highly speculative, possibly spurious points. The smoke and mirrors nature of North Korean sources of information makes it highly difficult to assign confidence levels to almost any assertion or facts, even if we have access to them. I have merely posed some questions and postulations to lead the reader to consider that Kim Il-sung’s leadership style (which he passed on to his successors) could have been inspired by examples he might have gleamed from Christian stories or historical results of Christianisation, by showing that he very likely had some degree of familiarity with Christianity when he was young. There could be other sources of influence on his leadership that I have not considered here, like examples from Russian culture or history (given that he spent some of his years in Russia), or perhaps more direct importations from Communism itself. But I submit that it is plausible that the Christian motifs really are there, and given a more extensive review of existing literature and, hypothetically, unrestricted access to verifiable facts and statistics, we may be able to conduct a more concrete investigation of this question.

Bibliography

Author Unknown, A Great Personality (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1984)

Author Unknown, The Benevolent Sun, Vol 2: A New Legend of Chollima Korea (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1982)

Becker, Jasper, Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Holloway, Andrew, A Year in Pyongyang (2002) <http://www.aidanfc.net/a_year_in_pyongyang_1.html>

‘Kang Ryang-uk’, in Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kang_Ryang-uk> [accessed 19 January 2016]

Kang, Thomas Hosuck, ‘Changes in the North Korean Personality From Confucian to Communist’, in The Politics of North Korea, ed. by Jae Kyu Park & Jung Gun Kim (Seoul: The Institute for Far Easter Studies, Kyungnam University, 1979), pp. 61–110

Kim Jung Han, ‘Christianity and Korean Culture: The Reasons For the Success or Christianity in Korea’, in Exchange, Vol. 33, No. 2 (2004), 132–52

Kim Shin, ‘Christianity and Korean Nationalism, 1884–1945: A Missiological Perspective’ (doctoral dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 2008)

Koh Byung Chul, ‘Political Leadership in North Korea: Toward a Conceptual Understanding of Kim Il Sung’s Leadership Behaviour’, in Korean Studies, Vol. 2 (1978), 139–57

Lankov, Andrei, From Stalin to Kim Il Sung: The Formation of North Korea, 1945–1960 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002)

Park Chung-Shin, Protestantism and Politics in Korea (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003)

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