About the Author
View more articles by Park Ui-sung
Park Ui-sung is a North Korean defector now living in the South. He grew up in the country's coastal regions.
Every week or so, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Got a question? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Today’s question comes from Jeremy Jiménez, from Ithaca, New York: What discussions do North Koreans ever have about life after death, and is this a safe thing to talk about in public?
Fear of death is a universal human sentiment, and North Koreans are no different. But our understanding of, and discussion about, the topic of death has developed in some unique ways.
Religion has long offered people a way to overcome this fear of death. But for an atheistic country like North Korea, there is another way.
The first is the belief in “a group sharing a common destiny.” According to a theoretical explanation of this process, the leader, party and the people are one “group sharing a common destiny,” which goes on for eternity because the three elements that compose this group are immortal.
Above all, the leader is an immortal entity. There is a saying that North Koreans can recite the phrases “Great leader Kim Il Sung lives with us forever” or “Great Kim Jong Il lives eternally,” like a verse from the Bible. Through the country’s indirect brainwashing, these ideas become imprinted in our minds.
The second element that makes up this group, the ruling party, does not die. It goes through repeated cycles of death and rebirth internally but, overall, it is maintained. For similar reasons, the people that make up this group are also a larger entity that cannot die. Therefore, a “group sharing a same destiny” composed of the leader, the party, and the people, does not die.
Do North Koreans really believe this? My answer is, for the most part, yes
It is also argued that a citizen’s political life is more valuable than physical life. This is because physical life is limited by the human lifespan, but political life can be extended. Under normal circumstances, political life ends with physical life, but there are special cases in which it can be extended – or cut short.
By chance, if someone were to achieve or accomplish something for the leader, party and the people, then, in this case, they earn eternal political life from the “group that shares a common destiny.”
The reason that this is made possible is due to the immortal nature of the group. Eternal political life remains in the memory of the immortal leader, party, and the people.
However, if anyone carries out any act that harms the leader, party, and people, then in this moment their political life is lost. In this case, while they may be physically alive, they are no better than being dead. This is because they have lost their political life, which is more valuable than physical life.
By this logic, defectors like this author, or someone like diplomat Thae Yong Ho, have lost their political life. They go into a vegetative condition the moment that they defect.
Do North Koreans really believe this? My answer is, for the most part, yes. When I hear of people who run into burning houses to save portraits of the leaders, I know that this propaganda is still effective.
But some of the foundations of these beliefs have been challenged. Until Kim Il Sung died, this theory was perfect without any loopholes.
If you listened to people that lived in the Kim Il Sung era, quite a large number believed that he was immortal. In fact, there were people that died from shock across the nation when Kim Il Sung died.
The key premise of the theory started to waver, but with Kim Jong Il’s ability to adapt to circumstances, he was able to prevent its complete disintegration.
He preserved Kim Il Sung in the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and to secure the logic of immortality of the leader, he became the leader himself.
However, when Kim Jong Il died and Kim Jong Un took power, I can’t help but to think that the crack in this theory has grown bigger. As a result, people who want to overcome the fear of death are exploring other options.
If you listened to people that lived in the Kim Il Sung era, quite a large number believed that he was immortal
As I think more about it, ghost stories, which closely touch upon life after death, are not an easy subject in North Korea, because the regime seeks to prevent discussion of the afterlife.
When I was a young boy, some of my favorite stories were ghost stories that the elderly people in town told each other.
Winter in North Korea, where there is no light, is long. On those nights, the elderly, who don’t sleep much, find pleasure in eating dinner early, gathering at one of their houses, sitting on the ondol (heated floor) and talking until dawn. Of all the stories they tell, ghost stories are the most popular.
But one of the crimes that the regime is most vigilant about is superstition. Therefore, ghost stories are usually dramatized as rumors or as folk stories. I was always fascinated by them: every now and then, I would wake up from nightmares after hearing ghost stories and I would get too scared to even walk home alone at night, which was not even 50 meters away.
But I was always excited to tell these stories to other students the next day at school. Sometimes, even my teacher could not help but listen to my stories.
As I think about it now, I know now that the logic and elements of these stories have religious tendencies. Surely religion, which lays out the foundation for the afterlife, is the source of all this.
Among stories that I have heard, there is this one story I remember the best. This happened in a place not so far from my town.
In that town, there were two people named Ri Il Nam. One was an elementary school student and the other was over sixty years old. It was a winter night. The river was frozen and some children were skating on top of the frozen river, including young Il Nam.
Little Il Nam was busy skating when all of a sudden, he fell through the ice and into the water. Many children around saw what had occurred and adults around rushed to look for him, but were not able to find him. After around ten to twenty minutes passed, somewhere down the river, Il Nam came afloat but he was unconscious.
One of the crimes that the regime is most vigilant about is superstition
People rushed and got him out of the river and moved him to a house. Il Nam woke up and started to talk about what he had dreamt while unconscious. He said that he had visited the underworld and met the king of the underworld.
The king of the underworld looked at Il Nam and said to him “Why do you look so young even though you are old?” Il Nam was scared so he couldn’t say a word, but one of the emissaries that brought him to the underworld cautiously mumbled: “He is only twelve years old.” In that moment, the king yelled “I told you to bring 63-year-old Ri Nam Il not a little kid, did I not? Fix this situation right away!”
Little Il Nam said he woke up when the king yelled. But what was even more shocking was that around that time, 63-year-old Ri Nam Il died. There is no way to know whether this story is true or not.
But what we can glean from this story is that the underworld that a 12-year-old child had described is not very different from the one portrayed in Buddhism. In other words, whether this story came from elementary students or whether this story was fabricated by adults, the people that first told this story must have imagined an afterlife.
While it is not a serious discussion about afterlife, the fact that an entertaining ghost story is passed around among people in form of a folk story also holds true.
In addition, dividing the afterlife into hell and heaven, as Christianity does, is not also uncommon among North Koreans. While I cannot name every episode, I can give you a brief example. For one thing, there are some daily phrases that suggest Christian viewpoints on the afterlife.
Once in a blue moon, when something good happens, someone would say “This is heaven!” or if one is cursing at someone you would say “Go to hell.”
There was also a time in the past when Christianity flourished in Pyongyang, to the point that it was known as the “Jerusalem of the East.” Perhaps this era influenced the language that the North Koreans use today.
Yet, Confucian tradition, which was sustained for over 500 years, remains inherent in the lives of North Koreans. The culture of ancestral rites is closely related to people’s perception of the afterlife. Confucian views of the afterlife are more visible in North Korea, and its traditions and history are allowed.
From this, the Confucian perspective is most common among North Koreans and this outlook is more openly discussed. Apart from this, there are those that reject the existence of the afterlife. North Korean beliefs in the afterlife vary.
Translation by Rose Kwak
Edited by Oliver Hotham