Kim Jong-Un attending a photo session with teachers STR/Getty Images

The North Korean Cult

It is possible that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, and perhaps even some subjects of his despotic rule, would rather be obliterated than give in. It would not be the first time that a quasi-religious movement turned suicidal.

NEW YORK – The absurdity of the North Korean dictatorship is easy to caricature. Kim Jong-un, with his 1930s-style pudding-bowl haircut (cultivated, it is claimed, to make him resemble his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the regime’s founder), his antiquated Mao suit, and his short, plump body, is almost like a cartoon character himself. Officially regarded as an omnipotent genius, he is worshipped like a god and shown constantly surrounded by people, including his highest military officers festooned in medals, laughing or clapping, or shouting hysterically.

As we know, of course, life in North Korea is anything but amusing. Periodic famines devastate the population. Up to 200,000 political prisoners are kept as slaves in brutal labor camps, where they are lucky if they are not tortured to death. And free speech does not exist. It is not only forbidden to express reservations about Kim’s divine status; staying alive requires regularly proclaiming one’s devotion.

It is possible, even likely, that many North Koreans behave like worshippers only because they must. Others fall into line because they don’t know any better. Like people everywhere, they reflexively conform to the norms of the world around them, without thinking through their merits. But some North Koreans, perhaps many, might genuinely believe in the cult of the Kim Dynasty, which, like all cults (or indeed religious faiths), is made up of bits and pieces taken from other cultures, beliefs, and traditions.

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