Religion and Revolution in Korea: Kim Il Sung and Protestant Christianity

The following is another 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 Protestant Christianity. I have removed the copious references, since this will be published later.

Kim Il Sung may have championed Chondoism as a distinctly Korean religion focused on the good of the Korean people, but his personal background was Christian, or more specifically the Reformed tradition embodied in Presbyterianism. In the late nineteenth century, Presbyterians and Methodist missionaries – largely from the United States – had been remarkably successful in converting significant numbers, although they tended to come from the various echelons of the ruling class. Pyongyang became a notable centre of Protestant Christianity and a range of hospitals, orphanages, schools and universities were established. Why were these missions so successful here and not in China or Japan, countries with similar cultural histories? The situation is mixed. On a negative register, Protestant missionaries (especially from the United States) exploited a loophole in Korean law that made it difficult indeed for foreigners to be constrained. They found a ready audience among the elite, who were keen to ‘modernise’ and break with what was deemed a corrupt and decadent Buddhist culture. At the same time, a good number came to advocate Korean independence from domination by larger powers, especially some progressive Christians. These are precisely the Christians that Kim highlights in his memoirs.

As with my treatment of Chondoism, my interest is in Kim’s written works. I leave aside any debates over their historical reliability or their political function, or indeed their skilful deployment of story techniques and cultural themes, since I am interested in the nature of his presentation and the engagements with Christianity that emerge. His style is to work through personal incidents or experiences and develop theoretical points from them, so I will structure my assessment in a similar manner. Three incidents are crucial, with each giving rise to a related but distinct theoretical elaboration, which leads me finally to consider a particular Methodist minister who deeply influenced the young Kim.

The first concerns his family’s religious practices. Kim is quite willing to admit that his parents worshipped at a Presbyterian Church, although he asserts that his father was an atheist and his mother went to church only to relax. He writes that at first he, too, ‘was interested in the church’ and worshipped with his friends, but he began to find the ceremony ‘tedious’ and the preaching ‘monotonous’ so stopped attending with the approval of his father. He claims that at the missionary school he attended in Chilgol, he was one of the few students who stopped going to church as part of school life. But just as he has established his non-religious (but not anti-religious) credentials, suitable for a revolutionary, he offers enough suggestions that his involvement in the church was greater than he initially admits. The admissions begin with his mother, who – as is so often the case in religious families – was the more devout of his parents. She clearly worshipped more than his father, and when she went to church at Chilgol, her son went with her. He would wake her up from her doze, weary as she was from domestic labour and responsibilities, at the end of the prayers. At the same time, his father and his maternal grandfather, who was a teacher and elder at Chilgol church, ‘knew much about Jesus Christ’. Further, as a teenager in Jilin, he indicates that he ‘frequented the chapel’ of the Reverend Son Jong Do, ‘to play the organ there’ as well as use the church as a base for a range of organisational and educational activities. Later, he sums up that the environment in which he grew up ‘benefitted’ his ‘understanding of Christianity’.

I am less interested in which of the two representations – between a very youthful son who refused to worship and admissions that he continued to be involved for many years – is more accurate, but rather in the emergence of a slight tension. At a theoretical level, this tension is captured in two sentences:

Some people ask me if I was much influenced by Christianity while I grew up. I was not affected by religion, but I received a great deal of humanitarian assistance from Christians, and in return I had an ideological influence on them.

The difference is cast as one of personal influence and humanitarian assistance. We are left to fill in the gaps slightly in light of the earlier account, so ‘influence’ and ‘affect’ seem to concern religious commitment and assumptions about the existence our otherwise of the divine. At the same time, Kim is clearly not opposed to Christian ‘humanitarian’ assistance, not least because it enables him to engage with Christians. Indeed, he can observe: the ‘spirit of Christianity that preaches universal peace and harmony’ does not contradict his idea of advocating an ‘independent life’ for human beings. Other examples of this humanitarian assistance are not difficult to find in the memoirs, whether the observation that the school attended by his father – Sungsil Middle School – was a Presbyterian mission school, or that a missionary assisted the family in having to move yet again due to harassment by the police, or even that Christians would gather daily to pray for his father’s release from prison. Let me add that in one respect Kim draws near to the young Marx, who gained a systematic gymnasium-level education in theology, church history and biblical languages, but never seems to have had any religious commitment. In another respect, he is closer to Engels (who was deeply committed), not merely in terms of the Reformed background of the two, but also in the continuing interest in religion and religious history. Indeed, the path from Reformed Christianity to communism is not as uncommon as it may seem.

The second incident concerns an organisation for children while his family was in exile in Jilin. Kim begins by noting that there were many children of Christians, believing in God and not initially prepared to change their belief due to the strong influence of their parents. No matter what the communist activists tried, the children would not give up their belief. On a particular Sunday, the children had gone to church and – hungry – had prayed for rice-cakes and bread. None were forthcoming, so the teacher in charge instructed the children to glean grain from the wheat fields, which was subsequently threshed and made into bread. The initial point seems to be the uselessness of religious commitment and belief in God for solving practical matters such as food. But this is not really the point: the aim was not to do away with religion, but religion without action. Or in Reformed theological terms, God’s grace should lead one to a more intense response to that grace. Kim writes: ‘We wanted to prevent them from becoming weak-minded and enervated and so useless to the revolution if they were to fall a prey to religion and hold the Christian creed supreme’. He seems to frame the point in terms of what is primary, whether religious belief or revolutionary action, but the next sentence clarifies: ‘There is no law preventing religious believers from making the revolution’, but it was the lack of action leading to ‘non-resistance’ that was the problem. Or as he observes, psalms alone would not block the enemies’ guns, for ‘decisive battles’ were needed.

The theoretical point that arises from this incident concerns the difference or tension between quietism and action, between sitting back and assuming that God would do all the work and the need for resolute action on the part of believers – a very Reformed tension. In this story, the labour is revolutionary, captured in the observation that there is ‘no law preventing religious believers from making the revolution’. To be added here is a resolute focus on nationalism, embodied in Korean independence. A casual reader may gain the impression that nationalism rather than Marxism is Kim’s overriding emphasis, but this is to miss the close connection between communism and anti-colonial movements – an insight that first emerged out of the logic of the affirmative action program with minority nationalities in the Soviet Union. What applied to the many nationalities within a diverse country also applied to those struggling to gain independence from colonial overlords.

The third incident concerns a certain Reverend Kim Song Rak, who visited the DPRK in 1981. Kim Il Sung relates that at a luncheon to welcome the minister to the country, he advised him to pray before his meal (comparable were the visits by Billy Graham in 1992 and 1994). The reverend was surprised, to say the least, for he had not expected a communist leader to be concerned about prayer, which he duly offered. The account provides Kim with an opportunity to elaborate on the religious policies of the DPRK after its founding. He is clearly aware of the suggestion that the DPRK had attempted to abolish religion in all its forms, given that it is supposed to be an atheist communist state. He had, he says, simply wanted to be a good host to the visiting minister, especially since – as I noted earlier – the DPRK constitution stipulates freedom of religion. A number of examples follow: the state constructs churches for believers and provides them with accommodation; a religious department that was recently established in Kim Il Sung University; the affinity between some Christians in the south and communism, based on a desire for reunification.

The question arises as to how one accounts for the decline in religious observance in the north. The initial cause, he suggests, may be found in the Fatherland Liberation War (Korean War). After United States bombers had obliterated most of the north, few if any churches and temples were left standing. Commanders of United States forces have admitted this point. General Curtis LeMay, head of the U.S. Strategic Air Force Command, openly admitted in an interview in 1984:

So we went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too …. Over a period of three years or so, we killed off – what – twenty percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure.

Or as Dean Rusk, later U.S. secretary of state put it: the United States bombed ‘everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another’. After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops. To do so, the United States dropped 650,000 tons of bombs, including 43,000 tons of napalm bombs (more napalm than they subsequently dropped on Vietnam). Churches, temples, monasteries, crucifixes, icons and Bibles were all destroyed, and the ‘believers were killed and passed on to the world beyond’. On this basis, Kim recounts that religious believers came to see that God had not saved them or their places of worship, indeed that it was proclaimed Christians who had perpetrated such destruction. Not only was prayer to God useless, but they found that their faith was ‘powerless in shaping the destiny of human beings’. As a result, they did not hurry to rebuild churches, preferring to focus on rebuilding the country. Further, due to education and culture, the younger generation simply do not believe that paradise will be attained by worshipping God, Heaven or Buddha, so they do not embrace religion (it is worth noting that Kim’s account largely holds up in light of other research).

Kim is fully aware of the international representation that religion has been supressed in the DPRK, so much so that its apparent ‘reappearance’ in the 1980s was a propaganda move by the government and thereby ‘fake’. His answer is both theoretical and empirical. Theoretically, he simply states that it was and is not a ‘conciliatory trick’ seeking to inveigle religious believers into some form of a united front. Instead, he asserts that he has no intention of turning religious believers into followers of Marx or of communism, for the basic criterion is love of country and nation. But he also has a second move, which is to point out that those who were punished were ‘criminals and traitors to the nation’, selling out the country and people. These occasions were ‘deviations’ in local areas and certainly not a standard policy by the central government. And if this is not enough, Kim falls back to his personal relationships with religious figures, whether Chondoist or Christian, if not criticisms of the more doctrinaire comrades in the Red peasant unions, who smashed windows of churches, tore down crosses and destroyed Bibles in their misdirected revolutionary zeal.

In all this, the greatest appreciation is reserved for the Methodist minister, Reverend Son Jong Do (also spelled in southern form as Sohn Jeong Do), who appears frequently throughout the memoirs, particularly in a whole chapter from the second volume. In the select collection of photographs that typically appear in the opening pages to each volume, Son and his family are given significant space. The reason soon becomes obvious: Kim speaks of Son providing ‘active support just as he would his own relative’, indeed that Son treated Kim as his own son and that Kim regarded him like a father. Materially, this meant financial assistance to Kim’s family, payment of school fees and regular meals at the Son’s home. A significant part of this relationship involved Kim attending Son’s church in Jilin, but also the ability to use the church as a location for organisational work, meetings and rallies of independence groups, for which Son provided guidance. Above all, Son and his family provided crucial support while Kim was in prison in the late 1920s, showing ‘unceasing concern’, providing food and supplies through the warders and even bribing the warlord in question so that Kim would be released and not handed over to the Japanese.

But who was Son Jong Do? According to the biographical sketches provided by Kim, Son had attended the same missionary school as Kim’s father, Sungsil Middle School, which eschewed traditional Confucian education in favour of modern methods and produced many independence fighters and revolutionaries. Son had become a Methodist minister, a signal of the remarkable success of Korean missionary work in the nineteenth century, but had also become in his own way a tireless promoter of Korean independence. Like so many, he had been forced to flee Korea and find a new home in China. At first, he became involved with the Korean Provisional Government based in Shanghai, but internal struggles between reactionary and radical elements (the later anti-communist hitman, Syngman Rhee, was an erstwhile head of the organisation) led to Son withdrawing his involvement and setting up a church in Jilin. The church became a centre for a range of independence groups and their activities, even though Son’s approach seems to have been more reformist than revolutionary. At the same time, Son had acquired some land around Lake Jingbo in Korea, running a small agricultural company that sought to model an alternative and ‘ideal society’. By 1930, after Kim was released from prison, he notes a change in Son’s tone, for the latter had become somewhat melancholy. The gramophone had ceased to play, the independence fighters who used to frequent the home had gone into hiding and the various movements were overcome by infighting. The pious congregation had dissipated, as had the children’s choir and its songs. Kim records that after a futile trip to Beijing to renew connections with independence figures, Son had found them arrested. When he returned to Jilin, the gastric ulcer that had plagued him for years flared up and he died soon after being admitted to the Oriental Hospital in Jilin (with the ensuing speculation that he had been murdered by the Japanese who ran the hospital and had kept a close watch on Son for many years). At the simple funeral, Kim writes that he ‘looked up to the sky above Jilin and wept without cease, praying for the soul of the deceased minister’. But that is by no means all, for on Kim’s telling it was a revolutionary’s prayer: it included a vow to liberate the country, take vengeance on the enemy, break the people’s shackles, repay his benefactor’s kindness, relieve people of their suffering and ‘safeguard their souls’.

In light of this biographical sketch, Kim is willing to admit that Son was a very ‘devout Christian’, being a ‘man of consequence among the Christians and independence fighters in Jilin’. Indeed, like Son, many Korean Christians were ‘respectable patriots’, devoting ‘their whole lives to the independence movement’ even if they held differing views. Not only did they pray for Korea and appeal to ‘God to relieve the unhappy Korean people of their stateless plight’, but their faith was ‘always associated with patriotism’, by which Kim means a ‘peaceful, harmonious and free paradise’. So important was the connection between Kim and Son, that one of the latter’s offspring, Son Won Thae (also spelled Sohn Won Tai, who became a doctor in the United States), records that in 1991, Kim told him, ‘Rev. Son Jong Do was the savior of my life’. How so? In Kim’s own detailed recounting of this reunion in Pyongyang, he relates that just as the Japanese were about to manufacture the excuse of the Mukden (Shenyang) incident, on 18 September, 1931, in order to invade Manchuria, Son Jong Do had advised him to leave Jilin. In this way he became the ‘saviour’ of Kim’s life.


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