Billy Graham meets Kim Il-sung
As a teenager in Appalachia, my father drove a milk truck (though as far as I know, I am not the subject of the Kentucky Headhunters’ “My Daddy Was a Milkman”). Traveling evangelists were a normal part of the scene, but while making a delivery one day, he encountered one who was different than the rest. Had a personal charisma that the others lacked. It was a young Billy Graham at the outset of his ministry.
Fast forward. Graham rose to be arguably the most influential Protestant churchman in the US during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He was always drawn to power, either out of desire for proximity to the powerful or instrumentally as a calculated move to advance his ministry. His closeness to Richard Nixon discredited him in the eyes of many. But Graham responded by refocusing on a spiritual aspect of his ministry and effectively rehabilitated his public image in the 1980s. At the behest of George H.W. Bush, Graham reportedly counselled future president George W. Bush on his substance abuse and Bush has stated that the conversation with Graham was the seed of his Christian renewal. And his ministry was bipartisan: in the 1990s he was back in the White House with the Clintons (Bill attended one of his crusades in 1959), praying with the Clintons during the Lewinsky affair.
But Reverend Graham did not limit his hobnobbing to American presidents. Graham’s wife was born to a missionary couple in Pyongyang, and Korea has maintained a special place in the Graham family’s activities. And for reasons of temperament or calculation, the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, preferred the company of fellow visionaries like Rev. Moon Sung-myung and Rev. Graham to realpolitik types like Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski. So Graham met with Kim Il-sung, one of the few Americans to do so.
Nevertheless, it was quite a shock when Rodong Sinmun on 104th anniversary of birth of Kim Il-Sung, reportedly attributed to Graham the following statement:
Having observed the Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung’s unique political leadership, I can only think that he is God. If God is the leader of another world, savior and ruler of the past and future life that exists in our imagination, I acknowledge the Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung is the God who rules today’s human world.
There is venerable tradition of attributing to the Kim family God-like qualities. Once a North Korean minder mentioned that Kim Il-sung was God. I conceded that point, but asked about Kim Jong-il. “Seventy-five percent God,” came the reply. (For his part, Kim Jong-il was described in North Korean propaganda as “a contemporary God,” “superior to Christ in love, superior to Buddha in benevolence, superior to Confucius in virtue, and superior to Mohammed in justice,” and, ultimately, “the savior of mankind.” Not too shabby.)
But the Rodong Sinmum account of the Kim-Graham meeting, as reported by Adam Taylor in the Washington Post is extraordinary. Graham reputedly accepts denial of his request to preach in North Korea with “Kim is this world’s God. Why would a country like this need the Holy Bible?”
Taylor reports that representatives of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association “expressed bewilderment over the alleged comments. ‘While Billy Graham made two trips to North Korea and knew the elder president Kim Il Sung, Mr. Graham has not said anything like this,’ said Jeremy Blume, a spokesman. ‘These words do not even remotely resemble Mr. Graham’s theology or his language.’”
It’s an odd move by the North Koreans. Despite Graham’s son Franklin taking a harder political and social edge on the American scene, the Graham organization has remained committed to humanitarian relief work in the North. Attributing outlandish remarks to the patriarch: not the best way to make friends and influence people.