NKorea's Bethlehem is birthplace of Kim religion

By Jean H. Lee

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 7 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Kim also turned isolation into part of North Korea's creed through a "Juche" philosophy, which calls on his people to summon self-reliance even during hard times, such as the famine of the mid-1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people."The Juche spirituality is the force that unites North Koreans in the most dire situations," said Shin Eun-hee, a Korean-Canadian theology professor at Seoul's Kyunghee University who has lectured at Kim Il Sung University in the past.

Kim threw the same mantle of reverence over his family, calling his son Kim Jong Il a "great man of the Mount Paektu type" who shared his ideas and his personality. That status now has been extended to grandson Kim Jong Un, who took over as leader following Kim Jong Il's December death.

The extent of reverence for the Kims can take foreigners by surprise — every sentence is prefaced with thanks to leaders, and they are given credit for every achievement, small and large. Such aphorisms can seem practiced or obligatory; indeed, it is practically state law to pay thanks to the Kims.

"The process in which people start to see God and Jesus as absolute entities is very similar to the way Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are revered," observed Lee Su-won, a North Korea researcher at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Biblical shades come through clearly in the legend of Kim Jong Il's birth at Paektu in 1942.

Some accounts suggest Kim Jong Il was born in Siberia in 1941. But according to North Korea, his mother, Kim Jong Suk, gave birth to the future leader in a simple log cabin at the height of winter in 1942, swaddling the infant with military blankets until fellow guerrilla fighters came to her with a quilt stitched together with salvaged scraps of cloth. Guerrilla fighters spread the news of the baby's arrival in messages painted in ink on the bark of trees across the Paektu region, the official history says.

Kim's memoirs make other religious and cultural references.

For instance, he recounts visiting an ethnic Korean community living on the Chinese side of Mount Paektu where most followed a religion called Chonbulgyo. He cites their belief that 99 fairies descend daily from the heavens to bathe in Lake Chon on Mount Paektu, and that the people built a 99-room temple to house them.

Kim also describes being intrigued by the Chondo religion, a native Korean movement characterized by the idea that all men are equal and bear the spirit of the heaven in themselves, said Jeong Jeong-sook, a chief educator for the sect in Seoul. As with Juche, Chondoists consider people to be the masters of their own fates, Jeong said.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in North Korea's constitution, and there are still several sanctioned churches and Buddhist temples across the country. However, Kim frowned upon the practice of religion, and the official number of followers dropped drastically after he took power.

By contrast, Mount Paektu has been recreated as an altar of sorts to Kim, his wife and his son, who routinely are referred to as the "three commanders of Mount Paektu."

By the 1980s, very little was left of the simple log cabins built in the 1930s apart from some decaying timber and a few charcoal briquettes. But Kim Il Sung retraced his steps in 1986, and researchers unearthed a few cooking utensils that once belonged to his wife in the spot where the cabin once stood, guide Kim Kum Ran told The Associated Press. He ordered the encampments rebuilt the way they looked in 1937, down to the roebuck deer hooves used as door handles, she said.

It is rare for foreign journalists to see Mount Paektu; even for North Koreans, it's not easy to get the permission and the means to travel to the far north unless they are part of organized "study tours." Still, the guide claimed that tens of thousands of mourners trudged to the mountain cabin after Kim Jong Il's December death, leaving as gifts shovels to help keep the paths clear of snow.

Kim, the young guide dressed in a military outfit, said she remembers the death of his father in 1994, when she was a first-grader. She said she had not been able to eat for three days.

"It really was like my own grandfather had died," she said. "Even before kindergarten, as soon as we start speaking, we learn to call the Great Leader 'Our Father.'"

Associated Press writer Sam Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.

Follow AP's Korea bureau chief for Pyongyang and Seoul at twitter.com/newsjean and Sam Kim at twitter.com/samkim_AP.

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