Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Lim Soon-hee's new book on North Koreans and religion

Dr. Lim gave me a free copy of her latest book, 북한 주민의 종교성 (Religiosity of the North Korean people), which is full of great anecdotes and quotes. This book should be of great interest to those interested in studying the state of religious faith in North Korea or the religious elements of the Kim family cult. Her primary source material comes both from interviews with North Korean defectors living in South Korea and her extensive reading of North Korean literature.

Inside a state-sanctioned North Korean church service.
Src: Donga
The introduction discusses the current state of religious practice in North Korea, the regime’s policy on religion and its evolution over time. It includes some interesting excerpts of interviews with North Koreans, who recount their actual experiences of religious practice in North Korea today.

The second section sets the scope, giving an overview of the three religions under observation (Confucianism, Christianity, and Korean folk beliefs), and identifying the main identifiable components of each that are relevant to North Korea. For instance, as regards Confucianism there are three key observable components: 효 (filial piety), 남존여비 (patriarchy), and 장유유서 (respect for the elderly). As regards Christianity, the important themes are “love” (both brotherly love and God’s love), “eternal life,” “salvation,” and “heaven on earth” - all concepts that have been adapted to the Kim family cult. Folk beliefs incorporate practices like fortune-telling, shamanistic rituals, and talking to spirits - all of which are still actively practiced in North Korea today despite the official prohibition on them.

The third section is where the real meat of the research is - analysis of the religious elements incorporated, intentionally or unintentionally, into various excerpts from North Korean literary works.

For instance, in the section on “folk beliefs” Dr. Lim identifies numerous references to “하늘” (heaven or God) found throughout modern North Korean fiction. Some of these are automatic utterances of old sayings, as one might say “goddammit” or “Thank God” in English without any real religious feeling. At other times, characters seem to see the hand of God in miraculous events. In one incident in the novel “한 자위단의 운명,” Kim Jong Il is driving an ORV along a muddy mountain path when the vehicle begins to slide downhill, stopping finally just at the edge of a cliff. Kim’s attendants in the convoy lose their minds, exclaiming that God must have saved the General (하늘이 장군님을 도왔습니다). (박윤, <오성산>, 평양: 문학예술출판사, 2012)

In one scene in the novel 해방전야, after a character speaks critically to Kim Il Sung, another character chastises him by saying “하늘도 무섭지 않나?" (an old Korean expression, translated as “Don’t you fear God?”).  This could be taken to imply that Kim Il Sung himself has taken the place of God, or that God in heaven will punish those who speak critically of his servant Kim Il Sung; either way, some sort of God is at work.

Dr. Lim recounts various ways in which North Korean literature compares the leader to God and even describes him as a God. For instance, there is this line from Rim Byong Soon’s treatise “Thoughts about God": “If there is a God, he would appear pathetic in comparison to the boundless foresight, generosity and wisdom of our General… The God that exists in the faith of religious people is a mere illusion, but the absolute faith of our people rests in a real God (현실의 하늘), General Kim Jong Il.” (림병순, “하늘에 대한 생각”, <조선문학> 제9-10호, 1994)


Parts of the book discuss the god-like qualities ascribed to Kim Il Sung in North Korean fiction. Many times in novels and essays, various authors refer to Kim as being "a great man descended from heaven" (하늘이 내신 분, 하늘이 낸 위인) to "save" the Korean people. In the novel <항일의 전설적영웅>, Kim Il Sung appears before an old man in a dream and tells him where a secret cache of gemstones are buried. The old man proclaims that Kim is "a great man who can perceive divine secrets and even see deep within the earth!" (천기를 내다보실뿐아니라 지하수천척까지 들여다보시는 위인). The novels <백두산장수별> and <백두산전설>, which recount the anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle, ascribe numerous miracles to Kim Il Sung:

  • Turning pinecones into bombs
  • Turning grains of sand into grains of rice
  • Using magic to contract space and shorten distances
  • Predicting the weather
  • Firing a single bullet that turns into thousands of bullets mid-flight
  • Making pebbles fly with his mind
  • Making rock cliffs crumble with a command
  • Riding around on a cloud
  • Calling a magical horse to ride through the sky
  • Taming tigers
  • Controlling Japanese military officers through hypnosis
  • Inanimate objects like stones turn in Kim's direction out of admiration

It is important to note that these novels fall under the category of "youth literature" and fulfill the basic human need for fantastic adventure stories. Among adults, they are probably absorbed with the same degree of seriousness that Americans have for the tale of George Washington's cherry tree. Because North Korea cannot have any heroes outside the Kim family, Kim must become not only their political founder but also their Paul Bunyan, Jesus Christ, Iron Man, and James Bond all rolled into one. Whether these various miracles are evidence of religious faith or simply expressions of the North Korean creative consciousness, I leave to the individual reader to decide.



임순희, <북한 주민의 종교성>, 평화나눔연구소, 서울: 2016.

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