North Korean men, women, children, newscasters, soldiers weep openly, gnashing their teeth and pounding their fists on the ground in grief. The unthinkable has happened. Their “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, is dead.
Kim Jong Il ruled North Korea since 1994 when his father, Kim Il Sung, “The Great Leader,” died leaving him in charge of the world’s last remaining Stalinist nation. Calling his 17-year regime “brutal” or “cruel” is an understatement.
North Korea under Kim has been a nation of deprivation — at least for the vast majority of North Korean people. During the mid-to-late 1990s, Kim spent so much money to build his military and to advance his quest for nuclear weapons that he had none to buy food for he people. The resulting famine killed between two and three million.
Meanwhile, in a country where the per capita annual income is $900, Kim indulged his taste for fine cigars, gourmet cuisine, alcohol and young women. He was said to be the world’s biggest buyer of Hennessey cognac, spending as much as $800,000 annually on premium bottles. When doctors told him to lay off the brandy, he switched to the prestige Bordeaux vintages at hundreds of dollars per bottle. He was fond of haut cuisine as well as lobster and pizza and had his pizzaiolos trained by Italy’s best. For entertainment Kim had a collection of more than 20,000 bootleg movies and was attended by the ladies of his “Joy Brigade.”
While indulging himself and his inner circle, Kim demanded perfect obedience. Even small signs of disloyalty could mean incarceration in North Korea’s concentration camp system for the offender and family including children. Since camp guards are instructed that they are never under any circumstances to treat prisoners as human beings, the results are predictably brutal with Christians often singled out for the worst treatment.
Melanie Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, notes in The Wall Street Journal that through the trickle of men and women who have escaped North Korea, “we have a glimpse of Kim's human legacy: a brutalized and starving people, whose access to food is controlled by the state and dependent upon their perceived political reliability; the world’s most corrupt society, where the rule of law is nonexistent; and a gulag-like system of prison camps, where some 200,000 people are incarcerated, often with three generations of their families, for such ‘crimes’ as listening to a foreign radio broadcast, reading a Bible, or disrespecting a portrait of Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung. Refugees frequently use the word ‘hell’ to describe their country, and it is impossible to disagree.”
Internationally, Kim allied with terrorist states while blackmailing everyone else with threats of violence and broken promises. North Korea’s nuclear weapons have been one of the world’s great worries, a worry that has escalated with Kim’s death and replacement by “The Great Successor,” his 28-year-old inexperienced son, Kim Jong Eun.
And while the world hopes for changes with the new regime, according to the Wall Street Journal, “North Korea’s new leader is depicted in U.S. intelligence assessments as a volatile youth with a sadistic streak who may be even more unpredictable than his late father, according to U.S. officials.”
And it is all in service to a great lie.
When asked about paying taxes to Rome, a sensitive subject representing one’s entire attitude toward the state, Jesus replied, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17). Those who heard him, St. Mark adds, were amazed and for good reason.
In the Roman Empire, there was no distinction between the things of Caesar and the things of God. Caesar was God and required loyalty tests of everyone. Emperor worship was expected and became the occasion for many early Christian martyrdoms.
And this great statist lie lives on in North Korea and elsewhere. The state takes on the role of the divine in the lives of its subjects. It arbitrates truth and morality, bestows the law, dispenses or withholds blessings, renders judgment, grants salvation or pronounces damnation. Thus, the state demands our highest loyalty. This is the great lie from which all the other lies and their attending brutality naturally flow.
On the first pages of The City of God, St. Augustine (A.D. 358-430) makes the distinction between what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar by talking about the City of God and the City of Man. The City of God is the Church on pilgrimage through this age to the Eternal City that will be established when Christ, the King, returns. It is the divine commonwealth ruled by God and governed by the law of love. By contrast, the City of Man is the secular order. It is the earthly city ruled by humans using their own laws and for their own gain. Above all, says Augustine, it “is itself ruled by the lust of rule.”
In this sense, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea is nothing unusual. It’s another example of the City of Man run amok without regard for any authority — tradition, Natural Law, God — higher than the will of whoever managed to be in charge. It is a particularly vile and repulsive example, but little different from other regimes that have, as William Cavanaugh puts it, absorbed all of civil society into the state.
Cavanaugh, a professor at DePaul University, writes in Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church that this absorption is seen it three ways.
“First,” he writes, “is the exponential and continuous growth of the state.” North Korea is a picture of what happens when the state is full-grown and controls everything.
Second, he notes, “the progressive enervation of intermediate associations.” Church, voluntary organizations, political parties, and family are all intermediate associations that serve as buffers between the individual and the raw power of the state. North Korea has eliminated all but the family. Yet even in the family, how much trust can there be if you can go to a concentration camp for something stupid your relative says or does? Better to disassociate even from family and trust no one.
Third, the absorption of civil society is seen in “the collapse of separation between politics and economics.” In North Korea, politics and economics are one. Add the three together and the state is deified, Caesar is God, and human freedom and dignity are crushed.
The news of Kim’s death comes in the final days of Advent as we look forward to Christmas. Advent reminds us of the coming of the eternal King who is Truth and in whom there is no shadow of falsehood. He came once in humility to shame the powerful in their lies. He comes today to rule over his people and to set us free with his Truth. And he will come again “in glory to judge the living and the dead” and his Kingdom will have no end.
At Christmas, let us join the North Korean people in mourning, not for a monster and tyrant, but for the horrific results of the great lie. And let’s pray that even in North Korea, Immanuel who is the Truth will be born and will shatter the lie, setting the people free.
More of Jim Tonkowich's writing can be found at www.jimtonkowich.com.
Publication date: December 21, 2011