Spare a thought for 24 million of our fellow human beings, made in God’s image, living in North Korea, currently mourning the death of their Dear Leader.
Their suffering has a lot to teach us.
For over six decades, the rule of Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung is all these people have known. Before that was decades of harsh, exploitative rule by the imperialist Japanese.
Kim Il Sung institutionalized a grotesque combination of oppression and cult of personality. He enacted communist economic policies that isolated his country and impoverished his people. He outlawed dissent. He decreed that his enemies and political opponents “must be eliminated through three generations,” condemning them and their families to prison camps, without trial, for life. Meanwhile, he erected monuments to himself by the tens of thousands and enshrined himself in the constitution as the nation’s “Eternal President.” He suppressed all religion outside the worship of himself.
The unsettling result of this propagandism was on display when Kim Il Sung died in 1994 at age 82. His son declared a 10-day grieving period, and hundreds of thousands attended his funeral, outdoing one another with their weeping and gnashing of teeth. The crowds of mourners were so intense that some people actually died in the crush.
What can explain it? How can a people so tyrannized be so filled with remorse at the loss of the tyrant?
Kim’s body was preserved and embalmed in a glass coffin for viewing—where it bizarrely remains. To this day, the president of North Korea is, legally, a man who has been dead for nearly two decades.
Kim Jong Il has ruthlessly perpetuated his father’s failed totalitarian policies. He funneled much of the poor country’s money into building a massive army and weapons of mass destruction. His government’s economic mismanagement has made life miserable for millions. His people broadly suffer from chronic malnutrition; hunger and famine are rife. North Korea is functionally a broken state.
Such failure is carefully protected through crushing authoritarianism. There is no freedom of speech or information. All radio, tv and news organizations are government-controlled and heavily censored. A blackout of outside media is enforced. The people have no right to privacy; their correspondence is rigorously monitored. They have no freedom of assembly or religion, except to worship the Dear Leader or his father, the Great Leader, whose portraits are everywhere.
Those who break the rules pay terrifying penalties. Korea’s gulags are chambers of horrors: arbitrary imprisonment in terrible conditions, hard labor, torture, forced abortions and infanticide, deliberate starvation, public executions by hanging or firing squad, cannibalism. In terms of the percentage of the nation’s populace that has starved or wasted away in his concentration camps, Kim Jong Il ranks among the bloodiest dictators of the 20th century.
Still, with his death this past Saturday, we are witness to the same unearthly story: uncontrollable crying and anguish on display by a nation of mourners. “Father!” they cry—speaking not of God, but of Kim—beating their chests, convulsing, losing their balance between sobs.
By all accounts it is sincere sorrow—amplified, surely, by the contagious nature of such hysteria. It is the genuine agony of a people who have been programmed their whole lives to praise and worship this man. Who have been indoctrinated, brainwashed, day after day after day, into seeing only good in him.
Even as he trampled and ruined them.
It is a disturbing, potent example of the vulnerability of the human mind to dangerous deception.
A person can become conditioned to accept the perverse, the degrading, as normal. Without an accurate gauge of measurement, his perception gets distorted. And propaganda colors his thinking all the more. He comes to embrace circumstances that are beneath the God-given dignity of human beings.
The noble North Koreans are an extreme example. But such deception is not nearly as rare as one might think.
The Bible reveals, in fact, that all nations are under the sway of a particularly deadly deception, foisted on them by a tyrant far worse than Kim Jong Il. Satan the devil is the deceiver of this whole world (Revelation 12:9).
Just before he died in 1986, Herbert W. Armstrong explained this remarkable truth in a booklet titled A World Held Captive. He wrote of the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, who was brainwashed into preferring the criminal life of her captors. “But most astonishing,” he wrote, “is the actual fact of the colossal kidnapping of all time—in which the captive for 6,000 years has willed to pursue the life and evil philosophy of the archkidnapper—Satan the devil. The willing victim in this case is the world that inhabits this planet Earth! Yet this world has been so completely deceived that it cannot realize what actually has happened to it.”
The devil’s way of life causes nothing but misery. Yet from our earliest days in life, Satan bombards us with his propaganda to convince us the opposite. He is “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience,” encouraging people to satisfy “the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Ephesians 2:2-3). That is how he cements his power. Sin is bondage. When we fall into its snare we become “servants of corruption” and captives of this despot (e.g. 2 Peter 2:19; 2 Timothy 2:26). And yet the vast majority are duped, blinded to their plight. In their deception they are convinced of the inherent rightness and goodness of the very things that are destroying them.
Through his political system, the devil has wreaked untold suffering and destruction; he has “weaken[ed] the nations” (Isaiah 14:12). Yet remarkably, when God brings this beastly power to justice, Scripture prophesies a scene, one might say, uncannily similar to what is unfolding in North Korea right now. As much suffering as this beast power has caused, when it falls, people will “bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning” (see Revelation 18:9-11).
The story in North Korea is one of a queer and tragic type of unrequited love: people deceived into loving the cruel dictator who did not love them back. It typifies a greater tragedy enveloping our whole world.
Kim Jong Il’s death will not substantially improve life for his people in the near term. But soon—very soon—God will permanently dethrone “the god of this world,” free North Koreans and all other peoples from their captivity, and establish a new world, a world free of deception.
As Jesus Christ, who at that time will rule as King of kings, promised, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” ▪