North Korea is a theocracy

I hope that you managed to watch a few of the videos about North Korea that I recommended the other day (I highly recommend The Vice Guide to Korea, in three parts, and A Day in the Life of North Korea, in four parts).

At any rate, have a look at a short article by Tom Chivers in the December 19 Telegraph: “Kim Jong-il was a Lefty atheist in the same way that Hitler was a conservative Catholic.” This should dispel any lingering doubts that North Korea is not an example of the evils of atheism.  Here are two excerpts:

Kim Jong-il, the Shining Star of Mount Paekdu, was not, of course, born in a log cabin on the mountain at all, but in exile in Siberia. (I am also unable to confirm the reports of talking birds and celestial miracles.) But the birth of a great Son to a great Father in humble-yet-holy circumstances, accompanied by heavenly signs, is very familiar, as is death and reincarnation. Mithras, a pagan sun-god, was apparently born of a virgin to great miracles, and died and was reincarnated. That story has many obvious parallels to that of Jesus Christ. In Greek mythology, Dionysius, the son of the great god Zeus, was killed and resurrected. . .

None of this is intended to mean that religious societies are all going to be like North Korea, or that religion implies dictatorship, or that all atheists are lovely people. But to suggest that North Korea is what happens when atheism holds sway in a country is equally ridiculous. Saying Kim Jong-il was a Lefty atheist is like saying that Hitler was a conservative Catholic, and we all know that that is very silly indeed.

The funniest miracle of Kim Jong-i’s life is one recounted by UK Reuters, taken from official Korean news sources:
And legend has it that the first time Kim played golf, he shot 11 holes-in-one and carded a score about 20 strokes lower than the best round ever for a professional event over 18 holes.
The first time he played golf! The man was surely a god!

The notion that dictatorships like that of North Korea are not atheist regimes but theocracies—complete with godheads, miracles, slavish worship, and sacred books—was best expressed in a talk on the “Axis of Evil” that Christopher Hitchens gave in California.  I have never seen him give a better talk, and it appears to have been done entirely without notes.

The man was amazing, and the talk is mesmerizing. It shows that you don’t need Powerpoint slides to keep an audience entranced. When you see the passion with which he speaks, perhaps you can better understand why he persisted in his misguided position on the invasion of Iraq. It was not an idle opinion, but one based on his compassion for the oppressed and deep-seated hatred of tyranny.

If you want to see the video of Saddam Hussein’s purge of the Baath party in 1979, which Hitch describes so graphically beginning at 5:24, here it is as part of a documentary:

h/t: Dom

49 Comments

  1. Posted December 22, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    The difference is that Kim Jong-Il never claimed to be a Lefty atheist, whereas Hitler wrote personal letters to his friends wherein he spoke of his deep faith in Christ and his conservative values.

    I do like the article, though. It makes clear that Kim Jong-Il was, in the tradition of the Egyptian Pharaohs, a living god to his people, worshiped as faithfully as any supernatural deity.

    • Posted December 22, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Monarchs have always been deified. Europe nominally gave that up with the ascendency of Christianity, though ISTM vestiges of it lived on in Divine Right and the notion that the king’s touch could heal. But the Far East has retained the practice to the present day (see Japan). So it’s easy to see how, in that part of the world, even a supposedly modern and atheist ideology could confer the mantle of godhood on its despot.

      There are even reports from NK of unnatural phenomena following on KJI’s demise: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16297811

      • Occam
        Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        “Monarchs have always been deified.”
        No, they have not. Not in Europe, not in many parts around the Mediterranean Basin, certainly not in the early Sumerian city-states. The Hellenistic god-king is a Middle Eastern bastardisation. The notions of Divine Grace and Divine Right of kings in the European tradition are two different strands, with the purported healing power of kings — chiefly, the king of France — belonging to the Divine Grace tradition, and implying a sacred duty of a king towards his people. Absolute monarchy by Divine Right is a modern invention (modern in the historical sense).

    • Occam
      Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      “It makes clear that Kim Jong-Il was, in the tradition of the Egyptian Pharaohs, a living god to his people…”
      It is almost impossible to convey in a few words how infinitely remote the murderous farcical mascarade of the Kims is from any Egyptian tradition. As to the status of the pharaoh, the timespan from Narmer to Cleopatra stretches over more than half the written history of humanity, with correspondingly huge variations. Such generalisation is just not on.

  2. McWaffle
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    11 holes-in-one? Hilarious. Somebody thought to themselves when coming up with that one, “Hmm… saying he shot an perfect 18 seems unrealistic. Let’s give him a couple extra strokes on the par 5 holes at least, for believability’s sake.”

    • Darth Dog
      Posted December 22, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      I had to laugh over the golf miracle as well. Since the PGA record for 18 holes is 59, that means his “twenty strokes lower” is a 39. Since he had eleven holes in one he shot 28 on the other seven holes. Just goes to show that even a god can have trouble with his short game and three putt once in while. Makes me feel a lot better.

      • j a higginbotham
        Posted December 23, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        Yep, that’s about par for 7 holes. Not too impressive considering the 11 aces.

    • Posted December 22, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      And let’s not forget the 300 that he rolled on his first bowling outing 🙂

      • daveau
        Posted December 22, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        301…

        • S A GOULD
          Posted December 22, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

          Hey! I actually did that the first time I went bowling in high school! Which is why I never went bowling AGAIN. Would have destroyed my average!

  3. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    The notion that dictatorships like that of North Korea are not atheist regimes but theocracies—complete with godheads, miracles, slavish worship, and sacred books—was best expressed in a talk on the “Axis of Evil” that Christopher Hitchens gave in California.

    I won’t argue about who said it best, but Bertrand Russell said it much earlier
    Wikiquotes
    “I think all the great religions of the world – Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Communism – both untrue and harmful.”
    -Bertrand Russell, 1957, My Religious Reminiscences reprinted in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell

    • Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      And Paine even earlier:

      All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

      Age of Reason, Ch. 1

      /@

  4. Posted December 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I’ve also developed a morbid fascination with North Korea in recent days.

    The Day in the Life program is particularly interesting. To his credit the Dutch film-maker made no editorial comment and allowed the people to speak for themselves unprompted and unchallenged. The result is stunning: these people live their lives by propaganda which gets repeated at every available opportunity in every aspect of their lives. They are totally indoctrinated and utterly naive in their apparent assumption that the words they recite are convincing to anyone other than themselves.

    It’s awful, they have had a massive and cruel con played on them, and they don’t see it, or won’t see it.

    • Posted December 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      One of the examples that really got to me was the story of the Dear Leader and his childhood boots, a tale that all are made to memorize by heart as infants and it apparently impresses them sufficiently to still be talking about it in reverential and awed tones as fully grown adults.

      TL;DR is that the Dear Leader is truly a man of the people who makes a point of living like the ordinary people and sharing their hardships, discomforts and suffering. Evidently they have no idea that the Kim dynasty live lives of super-wealthy complete with private education (in foreign countries!), luxury cars, and vast personal collections of movies and booze.

    • Posted December 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      They are totally indoctrinated and utterly naive in their apparent assumption that the words they recite are convincing to anyone other than themselves. It’s awful, they have had a massive and cruel con played on them, and they don’t see it, or won’t see it.

      Not unlike more than a few American fundamentalists I’ve run across over the years.

      • Posted December 22, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        Italics tags don’t work here, do they?

        First para above is quoted from previous comment.

      • Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        Not just fundies!

        /@

      • Sili
        Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

        They are totally indoctrinated and utterly naive in their apparent assumption that the words they recite are convincing to anyone other than themselves.

        You mean like Christians?

      • Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        The difference between those living in North Korea and American (or European) fundamentalists is that in this part of the world they live among people who are free to express dissent, to disagree and to change their minds.

        Dissenting is an exceptionally dangerous activity in North Korea, those you try it are highly likely to end up in a labor camp. So on the whole there is a strong incentive to self-censor any disobedient thoughts.

        The same just doesn’t apply to many fundamentalists, they can always find another church that suits them if they find themselves disagreeing with certain tenets of their particular brand of religion.

        • Christian
          Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

          Dissenting is an exceptionally dangerous activity in North Korea, those you try it are highly likely to end up in a labor camp. So on the whole there is a strong incentive to self-censor any disobedient thoughts.

          Not necessarily. It’s enough to self-censor your words when in public.
          Of course, as an outsider you won’t really notice a difference.

        • Posted December 23, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

          Yes, but the underlying psychology seems the same to me — how many internet evangelists have you run across who seem unable to comprehend that atheists, or evolutionists, actually have heard all about their Gospel, and have principled reasons for rejecting it? I take it to be an exaggeration to the extreme of the natural difficulty in understanding how anyone could rationally see the world differently than you do, reinforced by an environment that deliberately shuts out foreign ideas that would challenge the dogmatic system.

          Granted, the cultural environment that Western fundies have to cope with is much more challenging than that of the NK citizen, which is why you see the movement to create a comprehensive evangelical subculture with its own schools, media outlets, etc. With a bit of careful management, an evangelical might never have to seriously engage with anyone espousing contrary ideas. But even so, unlike NK citizens, evangelicals can and frequently do leave the circle.

    • Christian
      Posted December 22, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      Well, what would you expect them to say if they do not believe any of it?

      It’s awful, they have had a massive and cruel con played on them, and they don’t see it, or won’t see it.

      …or won’t let anyone notice that they do see it.

  5. ellen
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if North Korea is a theocracy, but if this BBC News article is any indication:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16297811

    then it certainly appears that the late Dear Leader was definitely intended to be recognized as some sort of god.

  6. Gabrielle Guichard
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    “these people live their lives by propaganda which gets repeated at every available opportunity in every aspect of their lives. They are totally indoctrinated”
    I presume that “these people” are not those who try to escape and are handed back by China.

    • Draken
      Posted December 22, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      There are some guest workers who get to leave the DPRK- mainly to China and some even to Libya– who inevitably notice the, err, slightly other living standards there. But most workers probably never get to travel much outside their village. The few travel stories I’ve read all indicate that they’re kept strictly segregated from what few (heavily guided) tourists there are, and Pyongyang itself is mainly for the Inner Party. The reports also indicate that they’re indoctrinated to avoid even looking them in the eyes.

    • Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      I presume that “these people” are not those who try to escape and are handed back by China.

      No, “these people” who were permitted to appear in the documentary.

  7. Insightful Ape
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I saw the stupidest remark on the Huff Post, on the thread having to do with how bad Hitch was. Upon being pointed out that personality cults in communist states are actually quite like religion one of the commentators said :”thus is what happens when you take god out, it is called idolatry”.
    Can you think how idiotic that is? I meant, why aren’t Sweden and France ending up with “idols” all around?

    • Draken
      Posted December 22, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Oh, we have plenty of them: pop stars, woo meisters, gurus. But these seem to be present in religious countries as well.

  8. AJ
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    It is so hard to watch this. The cancer was there . . . just waiting to appear. I miss him. I greatly wished he lived to see the death of Kim. I would have been eager to see how he wrote about it.

    • PeteJohn
      Posted December 22, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

      What’s sad to say is that, while watching some of the YouTube vids of his, I saw coughs and hacks that seemed like someone with a cold. However after having seen what would come after I feel as if I should’ve seen something coming. The dude drank and smoked and never slept since he was 18 and that cannot be a good thing.

  9. Lotharloo
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I tried to watch Vice’s documentary on North Korea and at some point (the “Tea Girl” section), I had this creepy sensation. I thought, what if the North Korean regime has killed the woman for the crime of being in a documentary about North Korea?

    It is unthinkable that a regime would punish its people for something that they didn’t do and they had no control in. But it happens. When the Iranian students protested in 1999, Ahmad Batebi simply help up the bloody t-shirt of his friend, someone took a picture, and The Economist happened to publish it on its cover. He was arrested and sentenced to death because his picture appeared on the cover of The Economist. Luckily, the international pressure canceled the sentence but the people in these North Korean documentaries do not have that luxury. They could be killed silently without any of us knowing anything about them.

    The Western man who has no idea of totalitarian regimes, sneaks in, points his camera and takes videos. He think it is funny or daring or cool but he does not consider that he might be sentencing all those people to death.

  10. Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Well, how quickly we forget ….

    It was not Kim who developed nukes …. It was Clinton who gave him nukes ….

    That always makes me wonder what the elitists are really up to? Partying together in Paris while they all go abroad at the taxpayers’ expense ….

    Oh well, one despot down …. 2011 was a pretty decent year for eliminating despots.

    Ya’ll have a very Merry Christmas. Don’t drink and drive! (Be safe). And see you next year.

    • Microraptor
      Posted December 22, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      Clinton gave him the nukes? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Cite please.

  11. Neil
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Well, laugh all you want, but apparently, the sky glowed red, the storm ceased and the earth moved just before he died.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/22/did-pyongyangs-sky-glow-red_n_1165092.html

    • ellen
      Posted December 23, 2011 at 4:30 am | Permalink

      And don’t forget the highly respectful cranes (well, at least one crane, anyway) mentioned in the BBC article, lol.

      I mean if ‘all nature’ is concurring in the verdict of his divinity…

  12. plain jane
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Long time reader, first time commenting, so please bear with me. I research on North Korean education and can tell you that while Kim Jong Il has never claimed to belong to any religion, many seem to forget that his father, Kim Il Sung, grew up as a Christian. The elder Kim’s mother was a fervent presbyterian and his maternal grandfather was a well-known presbyterian pastor in the region. Growing up in a Christian household, Kim was well-aware of the power of religion, and employed the most potent elements of Christianity into his personality cult… Anyway, just wanted to point out that North Korea’s theocracy does have more overt connections to established religions.

  13. Occam
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, after listening to Christopher Hitchens’ mesmerising talk, I have to disagree in the strongest possible terms with the term ‘theocracy’ in the title of your post.

    Indeed, Hitchens uses the terms ‘thanatocracy’, ‘mausolocracy’, ‘necrocracy’ as alternatives.
    They would apply to North Korea. As Hitchens noted, words are changing meaning so fast these days. But theocracy has a well-established meaning, going back to the author who coined it, Flavius Josephus. Josephus, to whom we also owe the concept of ‘polytheism’ (not a Greek concept by all means) contrasted theocracy with the Aristotelian state forms, noting that theocracy was a peculiar institution of the Hebrews. The concept has widened somewhat since Flavius Josephus, but it still defines an entity governed by divine guidance, whether immediate or mediated through ‘cadres’, usually of an ecclesiastic structure. Essential to Josephus’ concept of theocracy was the idea of inner guidance in accordance with divine law. In modern terms: a compact through internalised acquiescence.
    With the famine as a stark example, Hitchens rightly points out that even the most basic compact between the Korean people and its kleptocratic leadership has been violated. (Pharaonic Egypt has been mentioned in some comments. The striking fact about Egypt is that it was able to produce the surplus needed to sustain the pharaonic system. Whenever the surplus was lacking for any length of time, the leadership’s legitimacy was in jeopardy.)
    The Kim cult may have some of the trappings and rituals of organised religion, including the ludicrous Father-Son (and now Grandson) analogy to Christian trinity. But that’s all it is: a gangsta cult.
    What is lacking is the essential ingredient of a successful religion: self-conditioning though internalised acquiescence. Religions are self-stabilised belief systems. Nothing in the Kim simulacrum is intrinsically stable, which is why it has to resort to the ultimate nuclear ransom to feed itself. Hitchens saw that very clearly, too.

    Lest anyone construe this as a backhanded apology for established religion, let me paraphrase Wolfgang Pauli: the Korean simulacrum is so low, it is not even a theocracy.
    In a talk on a similar theme at Google’s headquarters*, Hitchens answered a question about the spiritual dimension of art and beauty by acknowledging that medieval architects or painters, or Athenian sculptors for that matter, wold probably not have been commissioned if they had advertised their disbelief. He went on: “Of the devotional poets, and I’m on stronger ground here as a literary critic, I know a bit more about it. People like John Donne or George Herbert, it would be very, very hard to fake writing that if you weren’t a believer. It would be extremely hard. Where would you get your inspiration from?”
    What Hitchens does not say, but what is implicit: the religious frame of mind, in its heyday, did not always stifle all spirituality and creativity. Even the Vatican theocracy, or the de facto theocracy in Spain at the apex of the Inquisition, allowed for some form of regimented artistic expression. The emergence of beauty, within the narrow limits of the canon, was possible. Internalised acquiescence granted those systems the necessary stability which, in turn, allowed some public creativity during all but the most repressive periods. Even as capital-A atheists, we can relate to the beauty of Chartres, Michelangelo’s Pietà, or Bach’s Matthew Passion. That aesthetic quality endures, independently of formative beliefs. Contrast that with state art in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, or Kim’s Korea: the very embodiment of ugliness, expressing an absolute void. Everything represents only the naked rapport of power. Adherents of religions can fool themselves through the illusion of transcendence. In a place like Korea, there is only organised nothingness. Whithout the support of a ministered illusion, it does not qualify as a theocracy.

    * transcript: http://hitchensdebates.blogspot.com/search?q=axis+of+evil

  14. PeteJohn
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    I’m kind of amazed that this guy could pull off an extremely eloquent talk without any notes and, seemingly, off the top of his head/as he went along. I think I’m a pretty ok public speaker with notes, and can say a lot off the top of my head, but I would never dare waltzing up to a podium and spewing off a speech in front of, ya know, actual human beings. Hitch was many things and an eloquent speaker was certainly one of them.

    • Tim
      Posted December 23, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      If you really know the subject on which you are speaking, giving a speech like Hitchens’ is not all that remarkable. A lot of professors do it a couple of times a week. I use Powerpoint slides, but they are mostly an outline for the students’ benefit – I can give lectures almost off the top of my head on many chemical subjects now – and I don’t think I’m that unusual. If I spend 20 minutes in my office going over the material I plan to present (and it is stuff I’ve lectured on several times before), I can give a lot of lectures without notes.

      Of course, I’m not as humorous or witty, and not nearly as good at extemporaneous speaking as Hitchens, but when you are well-prepared on a subject, it isn’t that difficult to speak in front of an audience without notes. I’ll bet Jerry could talk about evolution and give 40 lectures without notes, if he took 20 minutes before each lecture to look at his notes.

  15. Posted December 23, 2011 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    This should dispel any lingering doubts that North Korea is not an example of the evils of atheism.

    Are you trying to say that NK is not an example of the evils of atheism? Because this sentence generally means the opposite.

    A: Was Jesus the son of God?
    B: I have my doubts.
    A: This should dispel them.

    See?

  16. Simon
    Posted December 23, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    It was not an idle opinion, but one based on his compassion for the oppressed and deep-seated hatred of tyranny.

    You do realize how patronizing, arrogant, and dead wrong that attitude is? Echoes exactly the sentiments of Dick Cheney who was proclaiming that we would be “greeted as liberators” (Hint: we weren’t). The Iraqis did not want the US to invade and occupy their country.

    Hitchens was right about a lot of things. On this he was dead wrong.

    • JohnnyForeigner
      Posted December 23, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      And yet, from Hitch-22:

      “Along the road from Basra one day in the summer of 2003, traveling all the way to the holy Shi’ite cities of Najaf and Karbala, I sat in a very lightly armed
      American convoy of civilian cars and saw people run to the roadside, with no advance notice of our arrival–I know this because I know we hadn’t planned in advance to take that road–and simply wave and smile and show signs of happiness. It was completely unlike anything stage-managed, which in the Iraq of Saddam had involved great orchestrated ululations and contortions and mad avowals of the willingness for blood-sacrifice. It was normal and proportional, and in its way rather beautiful, and I give the lie to those who say I did not see those crowds or clasp those hands.”

      • Simon
        Posted December 23, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        Hmm, could this have been an incident that was a part of what George Packer in The New Yorker called “the propaganda trip to Iraq in Wolfowitz’s entourage”

        Source: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2011/12/christopher-hitchens-and-iraq.html

        Since we’re quote mining, here’s one from Tariq Ali’s article in The Guardian in November 2003:

        The great poets of Iraq – Saadi Youssef and Mudhaffar al-Nawab – once brutally persecuted by Saddam, but still in exile, are the consciences of their nation. Their angry poems denouncing the occupation and heaping scorn on the jackals – or quislings – help to sustain the spirit of resistance and renewal.

        Youssef writes: I’ll spit in the jackals’ faces/ I’ll spit on their lists/ I’ll declare that we are the people of Iraq/ We are the ancestral trees of this land.

        And Nawwab: And never trust a freedom fighter/ Who turns up with no arms/ Believe me, I got burnt in that crematorium/ Truth is, you’re only as big as your cannons/ While those who wave knives and forks/ Simply have eyes for their stomachs.

  17. Posted December 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Maybe in poor taste (after all, we should always respect the dead, some say), but I’ll post it anyway:

    (ad for a Dutch insurance company, apparently, it caused a diplomatic row)

  18. Linda Jean
    Posted December 23, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    We realize it is not convincing declaring NK a theocracy as a matter of fact. It looks like a personal cult-ish thing?, but theocracy ?? gimme and us a break.

  19. Posted December 24, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    The confound is that NK is also Stalinist and Confucian. (Dear Leader as a parent is one part of the latter.) That this creates a triple oxymoron is of course not a problem, since humans are pretty malleable if guns and propaganda are pointed at them for a while.


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