In her numbing account of North Korea, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea , Barbara Demick observes that what set Kim Il-sung apart among twentieth-century tyrants was his sensitivity to the uses of faith: “His maternal uncle was a Protestant minister back in the pre-Communist days when Pyongyang had such a vibrant Christian community that it was called the ‘Jerusalem of the East.’ Once in power, Kim Il-sung closed the churches, banned the Bible, deported believers to the hinterlands, and appropriated Christian imagery and dogma for the purpose of self-promotion.”

On the radio, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are spoken of in the breathless manner of “Pentecostal preachers.” Miracles follow the leaders around. Seas calmed, fogs that descend to keep them from detection, trees bloom and snow melts: “If Kim Il-sung was God, then Kim Jon-il was the son of God,” his birth marked by the appearance of a star and a double rainbow and a swallow who swooped down to sing about the “general who will rule the world” (45).

When Kim Il-sung died, it was prophesied that he wouldn’t stay dead: “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” (100).

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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