What do Friedrich Engels, Louis Althusser, Terry Eagleton, Kim Il Sung and Stalin have in common?

They all made the – often difficult – step from religious faith to Marxism. Engels, with his Reformed background and the strong religious commitment of his youth, set the initial example. In his footsteps followed Louis Althusser, Henri Lefebvre, Terry Eagleton and Kim Il Sung, to mention but a few. Crucially, they did not give up their interest in matters theological and ecclesiastical. Even if they had “lost” their faith (and not all did), they maintained a lively interest in, if not an insight into, the realities of belief, theology and the church. So also with Stalin.


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.

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.

Kim Il Sung’s assessment of 1989 in Eastern Europe

As part of my bed-time reading, I continue with Anecdotes of Kim Il Sung’s Life. Towards the end of the second volume is his assessment as to why the communist governments in Eastern Europe were overthrown by coups.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, an abnormal event took place in the world: Socialism collapsed and capitalism was restored in a number of countries.

The renegades of socialism, who had destroyed socialism, tried to justify their despicable betrayal, claiming that the ideals of socialism itself were wrong.

On the other hand, the imperialists asserted that the socialist system was in itself problematic, talking about the ‘bankruptcy of the socialist system,’, with regard to the collapse of socialism in those countries.

This caused ideological confusion among many people.

Are the ideals of socialism and the socialist system wrong?

A stream of foreigners came to Pyongyang to find an answer to this question.

Among them was the chair of the Worker’s Communist Party of Sweden.

On June 29, 1992, Kim Il Sung met him, and explained the cause of the collapse of the Eastern European socialist countries.

He said it could be explained in two ways: the first was that the leaders of those countries took to sycophancy and the worship of great power.

He continued: ‘In the past the East European socialist countries used to do everything the way the Soviet Union did; for example, if the Soviet Union uttered “A”, they said “A”, and if the former pronounced “B”, they said “B”‘.

He cited an example at this: the people of the former German Democratic Republic were said to have remarked that when it was raining in Moscow Berliners used to take an umbrella with them, although it wasn’t raining in their city. In this way Germans criticised the sycophantic attitude of their Party leadership towards the big power.

Secondly, the ruin of the East European socialist countries was due to the fact that the leaders of those countries were grossly bureaucratic.

He said: ‘In capitalist society, where state officials and economic officials are separated from each other, even if the ruling officials act bureaucratically and administer state affairs unskilfully, businessmen can still make money without much interference. In socialist society, however, the situation is different; in socialist society the masses of the people are the masters of state power and the means of production. Leading officials must therefore always go among the masses to learn about their demands and manage the state and economy to meet their will and demands; however, the leaders of the East European socialist countries failed to mix intimately with the masses; instead, they administered state affairs by looking up at the ceiling of their office or asking Moscow what to do. When their subjective opinion was not in accordance with the will of the masses or the reality was not accepted readily by people, they would enforce it in a bureaucratic manner. Consequently, they became alienated from the people and ultimately produced the serious outcome of destroying socialism’.

He continued: ‘It was because of such mistakes as the sycophantic attitude to the great power and a bureaucratic manner that socialism has collapsed in the former East European socialist countries; it was never because the socialist system is in itself problematic’.

After listening to the explanation, the guest from Northern Europe said confidently: ‘It was indeed the right option for me to travel a long way to see you’.

Kim Il Sung and Grace Before a Meal

I have been meaning to write something on the increasing shift in Russia to appreciating the positives of the Soviet era. Or rather, the increasing numbers of Russian scholars at Chinese conferences drawing upon the Soviet experience for common ground with China. However, that will have to wait, for my bed-time reading of late has been none other than Anecdotes of the Life of Kim Il Sung, the founding president of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. So here is the first of a selection, called ‘Arranging Grace Before a Meal’:

On July 3, 1981, Kim Il Sung met the Rev. Kim Song Rak, a Korean resident in the United States.

Kim Song Rak was the president of the Society for the Promotion of National Reunification, an advisor to the South Korean Churches Association and a member of the Corps of Chairmen of the Asociation of the Overseas South Koreans for Democracy and National Reunification in the United States. He had previously served as president of Sungjon University in South Korea.

He had received religious education in the United States and obtained permanent residence there: he was influential in US religious circles and was widely known among US politicians. He was the only Korean to be receiving an annual salary from the US government. In short, he was deeply immersed in anti-communism.

As soon as he arrived in the north, he asked the relevant officials to make arrangements so that there was no news coverage of his activities there, saying that he wanted to return to the United States soon, after a quiet visit to his home-town, Pyongyang.

President Kim Il Sung met him and called him a patriot, praising his national conscience out of which he had made up his mind, though belatedly, to devote himself to the reunification of the country. The President arranged a luncheon in honour of his guest.

Kim Il Sung advised him to say grace before eating.

The Rev. Kim Song Rak was completely taken aback at his host’s advice. His face turned red and his heart beat faster.

His face beaming, his host again urged him to say grace, arguing that he should not violate the rules of Christianity he had observed for his whole life.

The guest’s deep-seated fear and doubts about communism disappeared in an instant.

In fact, he had decided not to say grace on that particular occasion, even if it meant violating the rules of his faith. Moved by his host’s broad-mindedness and magnanimity, he said grace, just as he had done for decades. However, the grace he offered there was totally different from anything he had done before.

He prayed for the good health of President Kim Il Sung, a peerless great man, and for the country’s independent reunification and complete sovereignty.

Before his departure, the Rev. Kim Song Rak asked for a press conference to be convened, contrary to his previous request made upon his arrival. He talked about his feelings when he had said grace before the luncheon: ‘I offered grace because I could not reject the President’s advice. I earnestly prayed for him’ (Anecdotes II, pp. 18-20).