Out of Korea: 'Great Leader' stands outin land of many messiahs

Click to follow
SEOUL - 'Their basic philosophy is like a religion,' said the former US president Jimmy Carter, after returning from a controversial four-day visit to North Korea last week.

'After observing their psyche and their societal structure and the reverence with which they look upon their leader,' he concluded, imposing punitive sanctions over the nuclear issue would have no effect.

In a dictatorship it is slightly difficult to calibrate the degree of general reverence in which the 'Great Leader' is held - since 1948, when he was made head of state, there has been little alternative: those who sought one were shot. But at the same time Kim Il Sung does seem to have tapped into a deep need of the Korean people to have a saviour to believe in.

In all but name Kim functions as God in North Korea's bizarre ideology, to be worshipped and obeyed at all times.

Enormous statues of the Great Leader are as common in North Korea as statues of Christ in the villages and towns of Italy or Ireland. The loaves and the fishes were as nothing compared to some of the industrial production miracles achieved under Kim Il Sung's 'direct guidance'.

In one particularly blatant borrowing from the Christian tradition, the official biography of Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, relates how farmers saw a star rising over the mountain where he was born. This Bethlehem on Mount Paekdu makes the junior Kim, literally, the son of God.

Religion, these days, seems to hold little interest for other East Asians: in China the overriding concern is how to make money now that it is permissible under 'socialism with capitalist characteristics', while in Japan, karaoke and package tours to Hawaii make up for a general lack of religious instinct. But in Korea, North and South, there is still a deep yearning for a messiah, for redemption from the suffering of this world.

Kim Il Sung's apotheosis is almost complete and unchallenged in the North. In the South, there is a series of self-styled saviours, both Christian and Buddhist, who have little difficulty whipping the emotional Koreans into extraordinary fervour. In a 1985 census, 46 per cent of South Koreans said they were Buddhist and 48 per cent Christian - the product of intensive missionary activity in Korea over the past century.

This religious fervour, however, has the tendency of getting out of hand. Two years ago the leader of the Dami church announced the world was going to end at midnight on an appointed date.

Thousands of his followers gave up their jobs, sold their houses and donated their wealth to the church to be assured a place in heaven. The man is now on trial for defrauding his flock: key evidence against him is his purchase of government bonds which did not mature until well after his predicted doomsday date.

Earlier this year, Tak Myong Hwan, a respected theologian who had repeatedly criticised pseudo- Christian sects, was found battered and stabbed to death. Four members of the controversial Daesong Church were arrested.

The founder of the church left Korea for the US soon after the killing. 'It seems that Koreans have been besieged by the religions of the jungle instead of wholesome ones supposed to keep them from going rotten,' said the Korea Herald. The jungle influence has also seeped into Buddhism. In April monks from the Chogye order, which has 1,750 temples and claims to represent 80 per cent of Korean Buddhists, revolted against the chief monk, Suh Ui Hyon.

They accused him of keeping a mistress, of using his position to acquire enormous wealth, of hiring strongmen to intimidate his opponents and of contributing dollars 10m (pounds 6.6m) to the presidential camapign of Kim Young Sam last year.

Suh was running for a third term as head monk of the Chogye order, and when he refused to step down despite strong opposition, a phalanx of young, grey-robed, shaven-headed monks invaded his office.

The government sent in the riot police. Buddhism's First Precept, according to which no living thing should be intentionally killed or injured, was forgotten in the fray. The monks responded to the assault by the riot police by throwing stones and chairs at them; three days later, 300 monks had been arrested and 80 people injured.

The Chogye order has 8,000 monks. Kim Il Sung has 1 million men in his crusaders' army. And they are armed with more than stones and chair legs. God's anger is a fearsome thing.