Professor Paul C. Merkley
The Death of Kim Jung-il
Most of us in the West were taken off guard by the pictures of thousands upon thousands of people in great public squares shaking and wailing with grief on the announcement of the death of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il (December 23, 2011.) These obscene images poured out from North Korean television for weeks thereafter.
Much ink and even more videotape has been wasted by our own print media and television networks seeking guidance of “experts” on the question of the genuineness of these displays. Some were experts in the history of Korea, others in the philosophy of politics, others in psychology and psychiatry. The truth must be that we who were not raised under totalitarianism have no way of knowing how lifetime indoctrination in official fantasy affects thinking and behaviour.
Whatever became of the Communist Dictators?
Over the course of a little more than two decades almost all but five of the political regimes based upon Marxism –Leninism have collapsed. After the Soviet Union imploded in the last days of 1991, fifteen distinct and sovereign countries were created (or-recreated); by 1992, the Communist regime in Albania had fallen, and shortly after that Yugoslavia dissolved into five successor states. Outside of Europe, Communist systems were dissolved in Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mongolia, and South Yemen. Only five countries which were Communist in 1992 are still calling themselves Communist today: People’s Republic of China, Cuba, North Korea (DPRK), Laos and Vietnam. In most cases, the former leaders of the dissolving regimes submitted themselves to elections; but either because these regimes were able to keep the electoral process under their control or, in come cases, because their leaders managed to convince the public that, given the reformation of their values by the democratic spirit, they stood best able to govern, these survivors of the old regime were able to close ranks and become family firms – the same cast of characters, but without the Communist baggage.
Promotion to Diety
When a man ceases to believe in God, it is not that he then believes in nothing, but that he begins to believe in anything. – G. K. Chesterton (slightly paraphrased.)
When Kim Il-sun, the Father of the People of the DPRK, died in 1994, official notices dwelt lovingly upon the many certified natural miracles that accompanied his story from birth to ascension. The office which he had held (President of the DPRK) was written out of the Constitution so that it would never be filled again; Kim Il-sun, having been “Chosen by Heaven,” was now the Eternal President. As for the just- departed Kim Jong-il, the official biography claims that his birth at Backdu mountain was heralded by the appearance of a swallow and of a double-rainbow in the heavens. As he was dying aboard his train enroute to China, overcome by the weight of his onerous duties, the sky glowed red above the sacred mountain, and the ice on the famous lake nearby cracked so loud that it seemed to shake the Heavens and the Earth. At more mundane level, Kim Il-sung was reported to have incredible human energy and gifts: shortly after he took up golf, it was announced that he shot three holes-in-one per round. A few days ago, the Party announced that “The great leader Comrade Kim Jong-il will be laid in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the sacred temple of Juche.” (Juche is the official ideology of the DPRK, a fusion of Marxist-Leninism and certain teachings of the Kims regarding nationalism and economics.) As Kim Il-sun was already the Eternal President of DPRK, Kim Jon-il was henceforth “Eternal Leader of the Party.”
In the last centuries of the Roman Empire, new Emperors, however obscure they had been until now, were routinely elevated to Divinity by the Senate. It went with the job. But nothing along these lines was tolerated during the many Christian centuries, despite what we read of the deeply superstitious character of the medieval mind. The simple truth seems to be that so long as God is acknowledged and honoured, human rulers have to settle for something less than divinity.
Hegel and Marx
How can we explain the return of the language of Divinity through the back door in our own time? How did such fantasies come to monopolize the imaginations of people whose entire lives were taken up with indoctrination in atheistic materialism, the philosophy which has undergirded Communism from the time of Marx and Engels? It is time to get Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel’s Lectures in the Philosophy of History (1837) back off the shelf. In that work, the most influential of all the books ever written purporting to explicate the deepest laws of progress through History, Hegel explained that the first form of government was Oriental Despotism. This made sense to Hegel, and to his myriad of disciples because, of course, the Sun rises in the unfree East and progresses towards the free West. Karl Marx, adopting Hegel’s structure, substituted sheer materialism for the spiritual principle upon which Hegelianism is built; this (somehow) allowed him to predict that History was leading towards a totally rational, totally free, classless world, which would have in it no place for spiritual possibility.
The more you look at it, the more the regime built by Kim and Co., resembles Hegel’s Oriental Despotism. While modern writers use the word more loosely, Hegel defines despotism as the form of government in which One rules and all others obey.
One practical effect of Kim’s fantasizing about the unlimited promises which the Divine whispered into his ear was to render him unable to make the smallest adjustments of his ambition for the sake of cooperation with other rulers or with world opinion. Rulers who are not tyrants normally do not grasp the depth of this conviction, and can easily be tempted to imagine that a rational calculation of interest will eventually take hold in the imagination of the tyrant. This explains the miscalculations of American Presidents from G.H.W. Bush to Barack Obama with regard to the intentions of the Kims. The fantasy of unlimited power eventually made it impossible for him to see the dangers around him. This was the reality that the followers of Adolf Hitler belatedly learned in the bunker in April, 1945.
The God-shaped Vacuum
Needless to say, the source of Kim’s profound conviction of his divinity was not in any traditional religious system, either Eastern or Western. Authentic religion, once alive throughout Korea and thriving as never before in South Korea, was ruthlessly driven out of North Korea in the early years of the Kim regime. This left what Augustine described as “the God-shaped vacuum,” into which, he said, must inevitable flow something else capable of expansion to fill every corner of inner and outer life. It must be no less absolute in its demands than the most ancient religious system, even while it is constantly being re-defined. Dictators who opt for the religious solution to their need for totalitarian control must be capable of limitless reinvention, to meet changing needs.
For some years now, defectors from Kim’s regime have been telling us that disaffection is growing exponentially as famine takes hold. Will this result in insurrection, and if so, when? There is no iron law here. But perhaps insight can be gained from consideration of the fate of the incipient Ceausescu dynasty of Romania. In that case, it was Elena, the wife of the Dictator, who secured to herself most of the official and popular adulation. Though she apparently lacked basic education in any of the sciences, she became Member of the National Council of Scientific Research and was award a PhD, summa cum laude, for an evidently ghost-written thesis. Uncounted research papers appeared in the journals under her name. Her gifts were clearly on the scale of those of the Kims. Near the end, it seemed that the public of Romania was being prepared for announcement of deification of both Ceausescus. But by now the duty of constant adulation of that ugly woman’s superhuman gifts became too much for all to bear. Public anger at the abuses of this regime brought everything to a sudden and violent end, televised for all the world to see (December 25, 1989.) This outcome seemed in mid-1989 as improbable as a like outcome seems in North Korea today.