North Korea Undercover
North Korea Undercover: Inside the World's Most Secret State

The BBC’s John Sweeney on North Korea’s zombie gods

North Korea Undercover

North Korea Undercover: Inside the World's Most Secret State

“Like Hitler’s Third Reich, the regime is depressingly popular with masses of North Koreans. They are joyfully in thrall to a political religion. The slavishness of its adherents reminds one of America’s death cults, but in North Korea they don’t have Kool-Aid. They have nuclear bombs.”

That’s a quote from John Sweeney’s new book “North Korea Undercover: Inside the World’s Most Secret State.”

“Most secret state” is no exaggeration. North Korea comes in dead last on Freedom House’s global press freedom rankings and is one of eight countries committing “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” according to the U.S. State Department.

In March, Sweeney posed as an academic to accompany his wife and a group of students to North Korea. A documentary of his trip aired on the BBC in April, and Sweeney published a book on the experience and his findings last month. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Brian Pellot: Let’s start with some of your general impressions of North Korea. Very few foreign journalists have reported from there in recent years. Why did you go?

John Sweeney: North Korea is the darkest place on earth, both literally and metaphorically. You can actually see how dark the country is from space. It’s almost as if it isn’t even there. It’s also the darkest place I’ve ever been to in terms of information. I used to be a war reporter. I went to Ceaușescu’s Romania, Saddam’s Iraq, Gadhafi’s Libya. I’ve been to about a dozen tyrannies. In Iraq and Libya, I’d meet people who would let you know their government is full of shit. That didn’t happen in North Korea. It feels like bad science fiction there. It’s like walking inside the “The Matrix.” It’s really weird and creepy. I wanted to shed some light on this dark state to show how North Korea is using nuclear blackmail against the West. Behind the mask of this, there is an immense human rights tragedy unfolding.

BP: In your new book, you write that North Korea is seized by a political religion. What do you mean by this and how do people express their faith in this political religion?

BBC investigative reporter John Sweeney at the Demilitarized Zone in North Korea

BBC investigative reporter John Sweeney at the Demilitarized Zone in North Korea

JS: North Korea is right-wing, xenophobic, elitist, very old-fashioned and rooted in the past. North Koreans have never known anything like free speech or democracy, they’ve only ever known this oppressive form.

In the past, the kings of North Korea were considered gods. Today it feels like the three Kims are considered gods. Kim il-sung was God the Father, Kim Jong-il God the Son, and the current Kim Jong-un is God the Grandson, Fat Boy Kim. The three of them are venerated, and it definitely feels like a political religion. These beliefs are reinforced through murder and gulags and by denying people genuine religious freedom. There are official Catholic and Protestant churches in the country, but I believe those are shams. I met no one in North Korea who espoused any religious preference, but maybe that’s because we were never allowed to go anywhere on our own.

BP: What’s some of the most striking or significant iconography you saw around this political religion?

JS: There are vast billboards on the sides of roads with God the Father Kim Il-sung smiling like Doris Day and Kim Jong-il smiling behind him. There are statues of the men everywhere. This deification is constant.

[tweetable]This is a zombie state ruled by a zombie, the only necrocracy in the world.[/tweetable] Kim il-Sung is the reigning president, even though he’s been dead since 1994. I met people who talk about the joy of meeting Kim Il-sung. He presided over a famine where 3 million people died and yet he’s venerated. We went to where his body is interned and were asked to bow in front of a dead man, a waxwork. It’s hideous. I have respect for other people’s belief in God, but I found this to be foul. This was the only place where the power was on and it was comfortably air-conditioned. In hospitals, factories and restaurants there were power cuts, everywhere apart from where the dead gods live.

BP: I know North Korea is officially an atheist state, but the constitution provides for “freedom of religious belief.” Why do you think religious liberty is explicitly mentioned in the constitution if it’s not being upheld?

John Sweeney

John Sweeney at a fence in North Korea

JS: Whichever goon drew up the constitution probably saw that religious freedom was fashionable and proper in other constitutions, but it’s a lie. There is no freedom of expression and no freedom of belief. It is a totalitarian state, a three-generation tyranny, in which no one is allowed to profess their love of god in any way they wish, and that is evil. It sounds like you’re assuming there is some sort of impediment to freedom of religion specifically, when actually there is just no freedom whatsoever.

BP: Why is this freedom so restricted in the country? Because the state fears that religious allegiances might challenge their political authority?

JS: I believe everyone has the right to believe, but also the right to scrutinze and mock others’ beliefs. Tyrannies and dictatorships don’t like mockery or humor, which is the great antidote to totalitarian mindsets.

Funnily enough, Kim Il-sung’s family was Presbyterian. Now Christianity is almost a kind of guerrilla religion in North Korea. Certainly under Japanese occupation, Christianity became a valid option for pro-nationalist people. But Christian messages like love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, all of these things question the nature of political power. There’s a lot of subversion in the Bible and Buddhism, and there are anti-state messages in Confucianism. All of this has been replaced by deification of the Kim family.

BP: What do you think of external efforts to bring religion into the country, like the Colorado-based Christian group that’s dropping thousands of Bibles over North Korea? Given that North Koreans can be punished if caught with a Bible, don’t efforts like this put people in danger?

JS: It’s a kind of message, that there are people out there, on the other side of the fence, who don’t agree with the government. And that’s good. We shouldn’t blame Christians for trying to get their message out. It’s difficult territory, but I believe it’s the North Korean government’s fault for torturing people who pick up these Bibles, not the fault of those who send them. In a different context, Aung San Suu Kyi once said, “use your liberty to promote ours.” I think that applies here as it did in Burma.

A lot of the effort in standing up to the North Korean regime is coming from Christians. Good on them. President Reagan said in West Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” None of the main international actors in the North Korean tragedy, namely South Korea, China, Japan, and the U.S., are saying with the same moral clarity that Reagan did, “tear down this wall.” I think all the big powers have been afraid of transition in a nuclear-armed state. They prefer stasis to dangerous change, or change that may bring danger.

Christians are some of the bravest people in North Korea and among those working outside the state. When the truth is free, when the regime falls, we’ll better understand how people of different faiths operated. It’s my sense that there are Christians in North Korea whose true story, when it can be written, will be a great and moving testimony of courage.


  1. Anyone else find it ironic that an article about some foreign country with a “zombie religion”, is written by someone who’s home country’s biggest religion literally worships a God who was executed and buried, but then seen walking, talking, (and flying) around?

  2. So you would equate the Christianity practiced in Great Britain with the murderous totalitarianism of the cult of the Kims? You must really be a barrel of laughs at Christmas parties.

  3. Boy, you two are a couple of sourpusses! You’re probably too busy cheering on the guys with throat-slitting knives to attend any Christmas parties, and cleaning your shovels to bury folks up to their necks for stoning. – Christianity has slipped badly in England, Europe and the USA, which means a lot more people are on the road to hell, without a Christ to save their souls. – Satan loves naysayers like you and it looks like you’ve been enrolled in his cadre of hate and hostility. Why not come over and learn to like people – even the ones who aren’t so likeable, as you’ve chosen to be? Merry Christmas!!!

  4. “North Korea is right-wing…”

    Sorry, but a COMMUNIST dictatorship is not by any stretch of the imagination “right wing”. What an incredibly ridiculous and biased statement.

  5. Palamas-

    To be clear, I condemn in the strongest terms the dictatorship of North Korea, and other human rights abuses, past and present, regardless of what religion (or ideology) they are done under. I hope you will join me in that.

    My comment was only about the name chosen – “Zombie religion”.

    Speaking of murderous human rights abuses, non-Kim religions & ideologies have certainly spurred much more death and torture than over history than the Kims could dream of. (again, not to defend the Kims, just to keep from turning a blind eye to other abuses).

  6. Maybe while the USSR existed they kept up the pretense of a political ideology. At this point “left wing” and “right wing” are pretty much irrelevancies to the situation. There is no ideology other than, “do what the government says, or die!”

    Nowadays, its just all about the Kims. Its a totalitarian feudal system. Government functionaries carve up personal fiefdoms and survive through slave labor.

    Frankly with all the crap going on in that country, lack of religious freedom seems awfully short sighted. There are far worse and far more obvious problems over there.

  7. A very interesting and insightful article. Someday when that regime collapses, the details of what they’ve been doing to their own people will come to light and it will be both shocking and heartbreaking.

    I have one issue with the article and it is largely a matter of semantics. North Korea is described as a “right-wing” totalitarian state. The use of the terms right-wing and left-wing has gone from describing quantifiable freedoms, property ownership rights, and other personal liberties, to now just calling anything that is evil “right wing”. In other words, those who occupy the more conservative spectrum of personal beliefs and politics are more closely related to a state like North Korea. May I remind that the DPRK is a hard communist nation. All means of production are state-owned. Personal property rights are limited or non-existent. Monetary transfers are infrequent and heavily monitored and regulated. There is nothing “right-wing” about this society or government.

    To the right-wing conservative, government regulation is a creeping disease that threatens to swallow society. To a left-wing liberal, the government is benevolent and knows what is best for its people. In free Western societies, there are examples of successes and failures of both types. But the core philosophies come down to property rights, and who is best to decide the welfare and direction of the people- a smart and caring state, or the independent individual.

  8. About the “Right-wing” description-

    The right wing in America as become increasingly defined by fundamentalist religion (after all, on issues of abortion, gay marriage, marijuana, and so on, right wing views are guided by religion and go directly against the idea of an independent individual). Maybe that is why the DPRK is being referred to as “right wing”. In that way, the DPRK shows the same religious fundamentalism that is the current face of the right wing/tea party in America.

  9. Ahh. Now it shows.

    You can describe how people vote with polls or with an actual count. But alas, you cannot say what motivates them without a making broad stereotypes. Two prominent right-wing commentators are George Will and Charles Krauthammer. Both have recently described their personal belief system as non-religious. Perhaps, people oppose gay marriage, marijuana legalization, abortion, and other “right-wing” platforms for reasons other than religion.

    And don’t kid yourself, legalized recreational use of marijuana will have an effect on people who are not the individual user. Abortion, by its very nature, affects another person, and so forth.

    It is okay to disagree. It is not okay to disparage others for their opposing views by using broad and incorrect blanket statements.

    It is as incorrect to identify the DPRK as a right-wing society as it would be to call Cher a folk-singer. She may share some outward attributes, but that does not define her as such.

  10. You are both wrong.

    You are applying very American-centric or outright obsolete political notions to a country which for all intents and purposes defies traditional categories.

    The “right wing” line was not accurate but neither is claiming it is “left wing”. What made it more idiotic was going through the ridiculous process of associating American political spheres to North Korea in an attempt to tar and feather the other in a partisan fashion.

    North Korea is a totalitarian state. One of maybe 5 left in the world. There is no ideology to speak of beyond, “follow the leader”. Their economy and political structure has more in common with Feudalism than Communism (extreme left wing) or Oligarchy (extreme right wing). They have even revived serfdom and divine right rulership!

  11. Brace, relying on data is not “making broad stereotypes”. Data shows repeatedly that those referring to themselves as “Tea Party” and as “evanglical” overlap quite a bit.

    For instance:
    “A new analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that Tea Party supporters tend to have conservative opinions not just about economic matters, but also about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In addition, they are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues.2 And they draw disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants.”


    And there are more data showing the same thing that are available if you’d like.

    It seems we’ve come across another example of the tea party aversion to evidence…..

  12. The only real religion in NK is veneration of the leaders, especially Kim Il Sung. If there’s any residual religion there, it would be Confucianism, which promotes veneration of forebears/fathers. Sweeney seems to get the leader-worship part, but otherwise his understanding of the country and its ”death cult” (his term) population is embarrassingly shallow for a purported journalist. His interraction with actual locals has been zero, apart from interviews with refugees, who by definition provide a very particular view. Moreover, the short trip he took there by no means qualified him to write an entire book about the place. But, as they say, it’s not what you know – and this is the proof.

Leave a Comment