In recent weeks the international community and human rights groups have worked hard to prevent China from sending North Korean refugees back to North Korea. When repatriated, the refugees are subjected to imprisonment, torture and possibly, execution. But why should we criticize China for disregarding human lives for their own political agenda, when Christian missionaries do the same thing for exactly the same reasons ?
1. Christians and North Korea: More Than Spiritual Warfare
Richard E. Kim:
Propaganda, if you insist. Do you think you can do it? Can you tell all sorts of people we are fighting this war for the glorious cause of independence, our liberty, and, to make the matter more complicated, for the interest and preservation of our democratic system of government? (…) Or would you rather tell them this war is just like any other bloody war in the stinking history of idiotic mankind, that it is nothing but the sickening result of a blind struggle for power among the beastly states, among the rotten politicians and so on, that thousands of people have died and more will die in this stupid war, for nothing, for absolutely nothing, because they are just the innocent victims, helpless pawns in the arena of cold-blooded, calculating international power politics? (Richard E. Kim 1964: 121-122).
In his novel, The Martyred, written in 1964, Richard E. Kim (a Korean born in North Korea who fought for the South Korean army and later migrated to the United States) challenged the manufacturing of Christian martyrdom for the sake of propaganda. His novel investigated the execution of ten ministers by the Communists at the beginning of the Korean War. The North Koreans told them they would spare them if they recanted their faith (a Christian is martyred when he or she is ready to die for his or her faith). In the novel it is progressively revealed that the ten ministers in fact begged for their lives, with one refusing to pray before being executed. One survivor, whose life was spared precisely because he did not recant his faith and in fact had the courage to spit at his executioner’s face, subsequently decided to not unveil the truth about his lucky escape, because he believed that the nation must believe in Christianity to survive the horrors of the war. Thus, he and the South Korean army decide to “manufacture” martyrs out of the situation, even though some of them in fact were betrayers and cowards:
“The twelve martyrs are a great symbol. They are a symbol of the suffering Christians and their eventual triumph. We must not let the martyrs down. We must let everyone witness their spiritual victory over the Reds” (Kim 1964: 48-49).
According to The Martyred, the Korean War was nothing more than the expansion of a conflict of power between Christians and Communists as both ideologies were already competing under Japanese occupation. In the aftermath of the Korean War, the North proceeded to eliminate the Christian community while the South persecuted Communist sympathizers. While that war is by all intents and purposes over (despite the lack of a peace treaty), fundamentalist Christians no longer want to wage war against Communists, but are instead using the humanitarian and human rights crisis to promote their own ideological and political agendas. Often fundamentalist Christians regard catastrophes as opportunities: the tsunami in Indonesia allowed them to penetrate the Muslim region of Aceh, while the recent earthquake in Japan was described as a God given opportunity to spread the gospel in a country which has hitherto been very resistant to the spread of Christianity.
I deeply admire Christians and missionaries who risk their lives to bring North Korean refugees to a safer place where they will be able to rebuild a new life. We must also give credit to the Christian human rights organizations and individuals who have so often taken the lead in providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea and divulging the existence of labor camps. And as successive South Korean Presidents have failed to address the needs of North Korean refugees, churches have often done excellent work in filling the void by providing social services, education and so on.
In today’s North Korea, there is no or little respect for human rights. All forms of religion have been repressed and Christians are severely persecuted. Most Christians in South Korea and around the world believe that Christianity threatens the ideology of the North Korean regime, forming the main reason why Christians are persecuted in the DPRK. It is believed that the North Korean government recognizes Christian converts as a security threat and therefore strictly forbids missionary and proselytizing activity. Yet China and North Korea have been tolerating a limited presence of Christian missionaries alongside the China – North Korea border and inside North Korea—because officiously they benefit greatly from the humanitarian and social activities provided by missionaries. But the activities of these groups are not without consequences, as authorities in both countries regularly arrest and deport religiously oriented aid workers. More importantly, it is North Koreans who painfully pay the price, sometimes with their lives, if discovered that they have been exposed to Christianity either in China or North Korea.
2. Christianity as a political tool
In light of the above, I question the intentions of those who voluntarily manipulate the vulnerability of the refugees to promote their own conversion agenda. A recent article published by the LA times revealed how a South Korean American writer rescued a North Korean refugee not from the hands of the Chinese police, but from the hands of a South Korean missionary who was keeping him hostage to raise funds at home.
Another question that I raise is whether it is ethical to send back North Koreans to evangelize their brethren. In light of the fact that proselytizing activities in North Korea and China are officially illegal and dangerous, such work is conducted underground, which raises the question of transparency, integrity and more importantly, humanity. When North Korean refugees are being trained to go back to North Korea and evangelize, I question the extent to which these people are able to make conscious decisions in light of the post-traumatic stress that ensues departure from North Korea, the predicament of every day life in North Korea itself, and the danger of life in China. Furthermore, it is said that North Koreans can easily absorb new ideologies and do not necessarily fully understand the implications of their decisions: “a survey of defectors point out that North Korean people do not tend to be particularly concerned with ideology. They stress that an ‘absolute obedience to ideology, then, becomes more of a survival tool, something that is, in effect, quite removed from the daily lives and beliefs of people”. In South Korea, many North Korean refugees turn to Christianity because they see it as a survival tool in a highly competitive society and because they are being told that Christianity is the religion of democracy. Furthermore, South Korean Christianity has been deeply influenced by the prosperity gospel, according to which poverty is the product of sin. Therefore they believe that South Korea has become a wealthy and prosperous nation because the church is strong, whilst in North Korea, where people worship their leaders like gods, the citizens have been cursed with famine and poverty. By converting to Christianity, North Koreans will not only be forgiven for their sins but will also automatically embrace capitalist and middle-class values.
Christians will tell me that we should not avoid persecution, however the Bible also teaches us that we should not “volunteer” to be martyrs, so why are these groups exposing North Koreans to such great risks? Jesus himself rarely wanted to reveal his true identity to the people he helped; but instead he often asked them not to tell anyone about him (Matthew 9: 30).
The fact that the Church is being persecuted cannot justify the political discourse that some Christians hold with regards to North Korea. They reinterpret the suffering of the North Koreans to promote their own political and Christian nationalistic agenda. For example, recently the press has highlighted the plight of human rights activist Robert Park, who crossed the North Korean border on Christmas Day 2009 and was detained for two months before being released by the North Koreans. Understandably, Robert Park does not want to share the details of his ordeal with the world but nevertheless wants to see the perpetrators of the crimes committed against him be brought to justice. In a recent interview, Robert Park told NK News that his case was being exploited by the South Korean press and Christian fundamentalists – representatives of the organization Pax Koreana- to promote an agenda of hatred towards North Korea. The truth is that some Evangelical Christians, especially in South Korea but also around the world, have been unable to distinguish between human rights activism and their hatred for the North Korean regime. The fact that many North Korea human rights activists are supportive of the South Korean National Security Law means that their aim is not to fight for democracy and human rights but to fight against North Korea. To be clear, these are not the same things.
3. Promoting religious freedom for all
The great majority of North Korea human rights organizations have made “religious freedom” the main issue of their campaigns. They condemn the persecution of Christians in North Korea and advocate religious freedom. Sadly though, they do not advocate for the freedom of other religions. Yet all forms of religious expression have been repressed in North Korea including Catholicism, Cheondogyo and Buddhism. At an all party political parliamentary group hearing organized in the British Parliament on North Korea in June 2011, a North Korean defector revealed that she had witnessed the public execution of a woman who had been found guilty of consulting a Shaman because her daughter could not become pregnant. But Christian human rights activists never defend the right of North Koreans to consult Shamans or for Shamans to exercise their religious activities in peace. Is the life of a Shaman thus less important than the life of a Christian to these groups?
Such “political” Christianity has taken on an authoritarian character that is exclusive of other beliefs and forms of expression. Where does the South Korean Church stand when Jehovah Witnesses are being imprisoned in South Korea for refusing to comply with their military duty? Where is the Church when the South Korean government repatriates Falun Gong refugees to China? In Korea, some fundamentalist Christians regularly destroy Buddhist places of worship and last year tensions rose between Christians and Buddhists because of favors granted to Christians by current President Lee Myung-bak .
According to a recent article published by the Korean version of the magazine Christianity Today, the only reason why the North Koreans failed to “Communize” South Korea is because (or rather thanks to) the overwhelming presence of the Evangelical church (note that Evangelicalism is not the predominant religion in North Korea, Buddhism is). Does the author, Professor Hoe in fact mean that South Korea did not become Communist because of the evangelical support for authoritarian regimes and military junta in South Korea that characterized the Cold War era? As far as I know, it was not the Evangelicals who brought democracy to South Korea, but the so-called liberal Protestants, minjung theologians and Catholics. Professor Hoe subsequently encourages all Christians to engage in the struggle for human rights in North Korea and, yes, of course we all should.
4. Freedom First Policy
Christians and non-Christians alike should unite to bring about peace, justice, and human rights on the Korean peninsula. But it is not the time to prioritize one human right over another one or to use Christianity as a political tool, as it has been done too many times in history. John Paul II said:
“Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing socio political realities in a rigid schema, and it recognizes that human life is realized in history in conditions that are diverse and imperfect. Furthermore, in constantly affirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom”.
UN resolutions with regards to human rights in North Korea never prioritize civil and political rights over the right to food, but always emphasize the need of improving all aspects of the lives of North Koreans. Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, former UN rapporteur for human rights in the DPRK, used to plea for a “people first policy” in reference to the military first policy implemented in North Korea. Likewise let us achieve true freedom for all North Koreans and be cautious when being “a voice for the voiceless” – because we Christians have been so loud that we might not have heard what it is that the North Koreans really need and really want. I look forward to the day North Koreans will be free to choose between Buddhism, Catholicism or Evangelical Christianity, Shamanism or choose to believe in nothing – because that is okay too. I look forward to freedom of religions for all North Koreans and I am a pretty sure that God is looking forward to that day too.
 Roland Bleiker, 2005. Divided Korea: Toward a Culture of Reconciliation. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 26-27.