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North Korean state media says Billy Graham thought Kim Il Sung was ‘God’

An April 13, 2016, photo shows Kim Il Sung's portrait above a flower display at the Immortal Flower Festival "Kimilsungia" in Pyongyang, North Korea. The country marked the "Day of the Sun" on April 15, celebrating the birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung. (Franck Robichon/EPA)

To mark the 104th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung on Friday, state newspaper Rodong Sinmun made a bold proclamation: Even foreign religious leaders think Kim is comparable to a god.

It's not so surprising that a North Korean state paper would suggest that Kim was a deity – the founder of the North Korean state and his family are purportedly revered within the country with a devotion that approaches religious fervor. But what was more surprising was the reported source of this comparison: American evangelist Billy Graham.

Graham is an icon for millions of Christians and a well-known figure in the United States. His relationship to North Korea is perhaps not well-known, but it is hardly a secret. Despite this, the quotes attributed to Graham by Rodong Sinmum, first reported by NK News, are startling. The article quotes Graham as effusively praising Kim and saying he was impressed by the lack of homelessness and drug addiction in North Korea.

"Having observed the Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung’s unique political leadership, I can only think that he is God," Graham is quoted as saying. "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."

Later in the article, Graham is quoted as expressing understanding that the North Koreans did not allow him to preach: "Kim is this world’s God. Why would a country like this need the Holy Bible?"

It's unclear whether Graham actually said anything like this — there certainly appears to be no other record of it, and North Korean state media is not known for its accuracy.

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 for Graham. "These words do not even remotely resemble Mr. Graham's theology or his language."

Graham's visit  in 1992 had made him one of the first international religious figures to visit North Korea. During his trip, he lectured at Kim Il Sung University and met with the North Korean state's founder. His visit was unusual – while Korea was once a major center of Christianity in the east, North Korea was now officially atheist and discouraged religion. Over the years, activist groups have complained frequently that Christians are persecuted in the country, and a number of foreign citizens have been detained for allegedly proselytizing there.

Graham was apparently greeted warmly by the North Korean elite, however, and he returned in 1994. His wife, Ruth Graham, who had spent time in Pyongyang as a child with her missionary parents, also visited in 1997, and the couple's son Franklin Graham has visited a number of times. Franklin Graham has become a vocal supporter of rapprochement with the North Korean regime, and in 2008 he told Fox News that the family's relationship with the Kim dynasty had helped them bring in relief supplies to North Korea. “There has not been any hindrance from the government whatsoever,” Franklin Graham said.

While Billy Graham may not have called Kim Il Sung a god, he did have words of praise for the man. "In person, I found President Kim to be a forceful and charismatic leader, and I could understand why he was held in such high esteem by his fellow citizens," Graham said after Kim's death in 1994. "Although he met few Americans, he always expressed the hope for better relations with the United States."

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