Religion and Revolution in Korea: Kim Il Sung and Chondoism

The following is a section from the final chapter of my new book, Red Theology: On the Christian Communist Tradition. It deals with Kim Il Sung’s extensive engagements with Chondoism, a distinctly Korean religion. I have removed the copious references, since this will be published later.

Article 68 of the socialist constitution of the DPRK (1948 and 1972, with revisions from 1992 to 2016) guarantees freedom of religion, although religion should not be used as an excuse to introduce foreign forces or harm the state. If one holds that religion has been eradicated, then one must argue that the constitutions are not worth the paper on which they are written. The actual situation is quite different. To begin with, the local Chondoism (Ch’ŏndogyo) – or ‘Religion of the Heavenly Way’ – is recognised and favoured by the government. The reason: it is seen as a very Korean form of revolutionary religion. Christianity obviously does not have a monopoly on the combination of religious aspirations and revolutionary movements. The movement goes back to the teachings of Choe Je U, or Suun (1824-1864), which were systematised by subsequent leaders, Choe Si Hyong, or Haewol (1827-1898), and Son Pyong Hui (1961-1922). Based on an ecstatic experience by its founder in meeting the ‘Lord of Heaven’, the reappropriation and interpretation of traditional Korean symbols, subsequent organisation and publication of scriptures written in the popular Kasa poetry style (first developed by women) and regular worship, the movement offered the most oppressed and downtrodden of Korean society a sense of their intrinsic worth. The divine could be lived out on earth, with immense socio-economic implications. Obviously, this approach offering religious and material elevation to peasants was not viewed favourably by local landlords and foreign powers, who ensured Choe’s trial and execution in 1964, along with outlawing the movement and efforts to eradicate it. Its subsequent success was largely due to the indefatigable organiser and publisher of the scriptures, Choe Si Hyong, although he met a similar fate in 1898 after being drawn into supporting the 1894-1895 Tonghak revolution, or Kabo Peasant War as it is known in the DPRK. He was the one responsible for establishing the core principles of the unity of all things, based on the innate presence of the divine or heaven in all – ‘humans are heaven [in si chon], with the sense that ‘to serve a person is to serve Heaven’. The ruling class may have thought of themselves in such a manner, but for peasants to believe and act so was a revolutionary proposition.

Chondoism is usually described as somewhat ‘syncretistic’, melding Daoist, Confucian, Buddhist, Roman Catholic influences with local religious traditions, but this is to reduce a unique movement to an assembly of parts. I am more interested in whether it was primarily religious or political. In light of the previous chapters, it should be obvious by now that the dichotomy is an artificial one, especially at a time that also saw the Taiping Revolutionary movement, although this still does not prevent scholars favouring one or the other. Notably, it gained wide and rapid acceptance in the countryside, coming to fruition in the peasant or Tonghak Revolution (the initial name for the movement was Tonghak, or ‘Eastern teaching’). In the north, this enmeshment with the Tonghak revolution mean that the social movement and its religious forms is seen as a precursor to the communist movement. Indeed, it is characterised as minjung or ‘popular’, although its history has not always been smooth. Given the connections with the movement in southern Korea, it has at times been under suspicion, but the situation changed after Ryu Mi Yong (1921-2016) moved north with her husband in 1986. Since Chondoism is primary a northern Korean movement (with almost 3 million adherents in the north and about 800 places of worship), and since Ryu was to take up leadership positions, her move was a natural one. And lead she did: chair of the Central Guidance Committee of the Chondoist Association of Korea, chair of the Chondoist Chongu Party (The Party of the Young Friends of the Heavenly Way, formed in 1946), chair of the Council for the Reunification of Tangun’s Nation and member of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. In light of her achievements, she was awarded the orders of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as the National Reunification Prize.

Chondoism bequeathed to Korean culture a number of principles, with an explicit drive to social and religious equality. These include ‘my heart is your heart’, with reference both to others and to ‘heaven’, ‘treat humans as God’ in a challenge to Confucian hierarchies, ‘protect the nation, secure peace for the people’ with clear reference to Korea in relation to foreign powers, ‘all people evolve to unity’ which has gained even more traction with the split between north and south, and ‘the Kingdom of heaven on earth’. But I am most interested in three phrases, attributed to the first three leaders. Choe Je U initially proposed ‘bearing the Lord of Heaven’, focusing on the close relation of all with ‘heaven [chon]; Choe Si Hyong developed this saying by modifying a character or two, to ‘humans are heaven [in si chon]’; while Son Pyong Hui took it one step further with ‘humans are God [in nae chon]’. The Chinese-Korean character in this case is 天 (tian-chon), with a distinctly less personal dimension and more locational aspect to it than European Christian assumptions. So it means both ‘heaven’ and ‘God’, although the use of the latter term – in English translation – is a way of indicating to Christian-influenced audiences the close relationship between humans and divinity.

Why stress this particular principle and its development? At a particular point in his memoirs, With the Century, Kim Il Sung writes:

Of course there is something I believe in like God: the people. I have been worshipping the people as Heaven, and respecting them as if they were God. My God is none other than the people. Only the popular masses are omniscient and omnipotent and almighty on earth. Therefore, my lifetime motto is ‘The people are my God’.

The invocation of Chondoism is obvious, although it may be better to see the effort to connect Chondoism and Kim’s articulation of communism in terms of their common source in Korean cultural-religious traditions. The statement appears in a much longer engagement with Chondoism, which is initially triggered – as is Kim’s approach in his memoirs – by his encounter with a Chondoist who wished to join the united front fighting the Japanese. As a young peasant from the local area, he was a prime recruit, except for his religion. For some in the revolutionary forces, this was a step too far. The occasion enables Kim to highlight his own efforts to persuade his comrades to accept the young man, while acknowledging that it took some time and effort for all involved – the young man included.

The experience opens a door – slowly at first – to the whole Chondoist movement in Korea. At first, the young man introduces Kim to a certain Pak In Jin, a local Togong or leader who had risen high in the leadership structures of the religion. A poor peasant in origins, Kim’s narrative establishes his revolutionary credentials by relating Pak’s father’s involvement in the Tonghak Revolution, as well as his own leadership in the March First Uprising of 1919 and subsequent suffering in prison. The eventual meeting between Kim and Pak – narrated at some length – leads to an agreement to join forces based on the ‘Ten Point Program’, albeit not without differences of opinion and struggles among the leadership. The pact is symbolised by Kim’s insistence that Pak offer clean water, a core Chondoist ritual that goes back to its founder and symbolises the foundation of heaven and earth.

At last, the scene is set for an assessment, which is competent and extensive. It includes the history of its founders in a Koran context, mention of the ‘five commandments’, articulation of its core doctrines or principles and the complex history of the movement in relation to Korean struggles for independence (notably the Tonghak revolution and the March First uprising). This history includes occasional tensions between radicals and reformists, as well as between the senior leadership and grassroots members. When he comes to the details, Kim must – as a good communist – indicate where he differs from this Korean faith. The sticking point is the persistence of and infusion with theism, especially the central doctrine that God-heaven and human beings are one. How theism influences this doctrine emerges in two key elements: the jigi theory, in which human and divine share a ‘spirit’ that is the foundation of the universe and entails a version of predestination or ‘fatalism’; the idea that a future paradise will arise through non-violent struggle and by propagating key virtues. Obviously, any form of predestination runs counter to Kim’s Juche theory (human beings are masters of their own destiny). And the idea of non-violent struggle is a little too reformist for the Marxist-Leninist tradition that was so important for Kim and the Korean revolution. In theory, it would be preferable if one did not have to resort to violent struggle, but it was inescapable in light of the inherent violence of right-wing and imperialist forces.

The criticisms are actually rather mild, for Kim is keen to stress how Chondoism draws nigh to his particular Korean form of communism. His argument may be distilled into five points. First, he interprets the doctrine that human beings are God or heaven as meaning that Chondoism focuses on the need to believe in human beings rather offer than blind worship of ‘Heaven’, which so often has entailed providing the ideological bulwark for feudal class systems (Confucianism) or those of caste (Buddhism). With this emphasis, Chondoism draws nigh to Juche, particularly if we recall Kim’s statement that the people are God-heaven. Second, he makes much of the doctrine to ‘protect the nation, secure peace for the people’, or in his own formulation, ‘defending the country and providing of welfare for the people’. Obviously, he finds this doctrine particularly attractive, for it emphasises the rejection of foreign influence, the people’s sovereignty and a consequent focus on public welfare. This principle had also been part of the ten-point program for a united front between all the anti-colonial forces working for Korean independence. But it also reflects the reality of the Korean peninsula, which has historically been strategically crucial for neighbouring large powers and perpetually sought its freedom from foreign interference.

Third, Kim emphasises a feature of Chondoism I have already noted: its emphasis on the intrinsic worth of all, especially the poor and lowly. This entailed – in Kim’s reading – the abolition of class differences. But it also concerned not merely the peasants who had suffered for centuries at the hands of landlords, but also all who had suffered, whether workers, simple shopkeepers or day labourers. It is not for nothing, notes Kim, that the first two leaders were executed, or that Chondoism became a broad mass movement. Fourth and obviously related to the previous point, Kim stresses the close integration with the Kabo Peasant War or Tonghak revolution, although he also notes that it did not come from the Chondoist leadership (with its tensions between radicals and moderates), but arose from the people under Jon Pong Jun, the military leader from the south. Only later did the Chondoist leadership come into the revolution. In typical fashion, Kim suggests that the Kabo Peasant War had a lasting effect in Korea, feeding into the independence and communist struggles of the twentieth century, but also that it had world historical significance in terms of global anti-colonial struggles. While the Chondoist leadership may have been somewhat tardy in supporting the Gabo Peasant War it was at the forefront of the March First Uprising of 1919, which for Kim cements the revolutionary credentials of significant sections of Chondoism. Finally, Kim appreciates the organisational ability of the Chondoists, with its various chapters throughout Korea and in the diaspora, its efforts to seek alignment with the Comintern, the more militant Chondoist groups such as the Young Chondoist Party, the Koryo Revolutionary Committee and the Extraordinary Supreme Revolutionary Chondoist Commission, and its desire to work together with other organisations for Korean independence, especially the Association for the Restoration of the Fatherland.

It should be no surprise that he finds it a ‘progressive religion’, by which he means that it was a distinctly Korean religion, characterised by the novelty of its ideas and doctrines, its spirit of strong resistance, the simplicity of its rites and practice and its inherently popular nature. To be sure, Kim also notes other and minor Korean religions, such as Chonbulgyo, Taejong and Chonbul, but Chondoism has a special place in his pantheon. Given that he was writing the memoirs in the early 1990s, not long before his death, he has an eye on the situation then, with the Chondoist political party involved in the DPRK parliament (see above) and a long-standing agenda for reunification that dates back some twenty years earlier, if not longer.

I would like to conclude this engagement with Chondoism on a slightly different note, concerning Kim’s understanding of Marx’s most well-known statement that religion is the opium of the people. On two occasions, Kim has an opportunity to reflect on this statement, both in reply to comrades who object to working with a religious group, one of them the Chonbulgyo and the other Chondoism. On the first occasion, Kim argues that one is ‘mistaken’ if one thinks that the proposition concerning opium ‘can be applied in all cases’. If a religion ‘prays for dealing out divine punishment to Japan and blessing the Korean nation’, then it is a ‘patriotic religion’ and ‘all the believers in this religion’ are ‘patriots’. On the second occasion, he offers a slightly different interpretation. Now Marx’s definition ‘must not be construed radically and unilaterally’. For Kim, Marx was warning against the ‘temptation of a religious mirage and was not opposing believers in general’. The upshot is that the communist movement should welcome and ‘join hands with any patriotic religionist’. Given that the communist army is a people’s army fighting with and for workers and peasants, its primary mission is ‘national salvation against Japan’, anyone who has a similar agenda can join the struggle. ‘Even a religionist’, Kim argues, ‘must be enrolled in our ranks without hesitation’.

The question in all this is how he understands opium. Given the history of China in relation to opium, with the British Empire forcing opium onto the Chinese context so as to empty the latter’s coffers, one can expect that the opium metaphor would be a negative one – on contrast to the ambivalence of the image when Marx deployed it. The key for Kim is yet another encounter, this time with two peasant brothers who were opium addicts. Opium, he observes, was even used as money, and the ‘more misruled the country is, the more prevalent are drugs like opium’. So why did they engage in this ‘terrible habit’ that ‘sapped their strength in both body and mind’. The brothers’ reply is telling: how can we live in this world when there is nothing for which one may live? They would prefer to die, but if they have to live, they need to escape. Drinking is no good, since one needs friends in order to drink and the Japanese have forbidden gatherings. All they have left is opium. In response, Kim opines that a human being ‘without dreams is as good as dead’. Dreams mean a purpose in life and thereby pride and a worthwhile life. The brothers were existing, not living. Clearly, in this context under Japanese occupation, opium meant a futile escape from a life not worth living. So also with religion in a negative dimension, which explains why Kim seeks to reinterpret Marx’s metaphor in terms of the specific situation in Korea. It is not, he argues, a universal formula that should be applied everywhere, but rather a guide for action that should be sensitive to the specific conditions and traditions of a situation. Chondoism was certainly not an opium in this sense of the term.

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