The migration mission: How Christians shape the defection process

Scholar describes how faith-based Korean groups have made defection a ‘religious exodus’ and nationalist goal
June 6th, 2014
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Like it or not, Christians play an especially large role in the lives of North Korean defectors.

North Korea holds a special place in the hearts of both South Korean and Korean-American Christian missionaries who look to North Korea as a place with a common past and, possibly, a shared future. And Professor Ju Hui Judy Han, a Korean-American scholar who earned her Ph.D at the University of California at Berkeley and is currently an assistant professor in geography at the University of Toronto, has done much of the groundbreaking research on their efforts, and their effects on defectors’ new lives outside the North.

Han’s research on North Korea began as part of her Ph.D studies on religion, race, ethnicity and mobility. She began her doctoral research with an interest in the political geography of immigrant Korean-American religious communities, and expanded it to examine not only how Korean and Korean-Americans gathered in churches, but also how they built transnational networks and sent missionaries worldwide. She has conducted research in South Korea and North America, as well as China, Uganda and Tanzania to examine Korean and Korean-American missionary projects in a variety of geographical destinations.

NK News spoke to Han on a number of topics related to her research on the relationship between religious groups and North Korean refugees. The following is part one of that conversation.

NK News: At the beginning of your essay in the latest issue of Critical Asian Studies you describe the narrative surrounding North Korean migrants as prominently populated by Christian accounts, so much so that “out-migration itself emerges as a kind of religious exodus.” Could you elaborate on that?

Judy Han: I suppose it’s complicated to explain why some topics get a lot of attention, and some topics not enough. I would start by suggesting that there is a belief, perhaps a secular belief, that tends to treat religion as something entirely irrational, something not quite real or tangible. And conversely, some treat migration as an entirely rational and economic process. I’m interested in the cultural politics and spaces in between – how migration can be based on faith, and how the experiences of migration can cultivate and reinforce structures of faith.

‘Many people engaged in the process of out-migration from North Korea … see it as a religious project as well’

Many people engaged in the process of out-migration from North Korea, or people who are in the position to facilitate or promote that migration, see it as a religious project as well. Their purpose then is not simply to weaken the North Korean government, or promote “inside change,” or provide safe refuge for those who escape and want to reach the South, but altogether what has emerged in recent years is a distinct geographical imaginary that projects out-migration from North Korea as a God-given “exodus to freedom,” much as one can find in the Old Testament of the Bible. Religious advocates see themselves playing a role in this exodus, as in a mission from God.

This is where things get really interesting in terms of cultural geography, because there are at least three overlapping and co-operating layers of geographical imagaries that animate these projects (for Korean Evangelical Christians, who are the primary actors in it). One is obviously the modern Westphalian system of nation-states with territorial claims to sovereignty within national borders. On top of this we have a geographical imaginary with Christianity cast as a universal religion, one that follows the mandate of something called the Great Commission to spread the Christian Gospel to all the nations of the world.

In addition, there is also a national and nationalist geography of Korea that imagines a historically ethnic nation, presently partitioned and divided as a result of historical injustice. Here, the idea of reunification becomes a project of restoration, a mission to bring what is supposedly “one nation” together again under one flag. This nationalist imaginary operates powerfully within Korean Christianity, in South Korea as well as in the Korean diaspora, especially in the U.S. In a forthcoming article, I discuss how this religious geography encompasses even a narrative about the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which covers present-day northeast China. This is not to say that all Korean Christians believe this, of course. But I find plenty of these geographical imaginaries underpinning contemporary evangelical projects.

‘It is striking that leaving North Korea is seen not only as difficult and dangerous, but naturalized as desirable’

So in a nutshell, the very concept of out-migration can be interpreted in terms of at least three geographical layers. Within the modern nation-state system, migration is simply a movement of people crossing borders from one national territory to another. But unlike “migration,” the very use of the term “out-migration” suggests an exit from a clearly demarcated inside to an outside, whether or not this movement is authorized.

Within the evangelical Christian geographical imaginary, migration from North Korea is presumed to be an emancipatory process of seeking not only political and economic freedom but also freedom of religion, moving out of a place where religion is forbidden to a space of religious faith. This is rather simplistic. And in the third layer, in the Korean evangelical nationalist imaginary, North Korean out-migration is perceived as an exodus, a kind of deliverance from suffering, and ultimately leading to Korean reunification under Christianity.

It is striking that leaving North Korea is seen not only as difficult and dangerous, but naturalized as desirable. Implied is a certain “destiny” in which out-migration is perceived as both natural and necessary. The religious aspects may sound fantastical and far-fetched to non-believers, but I think there is a logical structure worth examining.

NK News: You describe North Koreans in China as being perceived by Christian associations as “lost lambs, in a land of horrors.” Where does this interest in Northeast Asia as a “land of rescue” come from?

Judy Han: There are indeed religious interpretations of this region’s significance. Korean Evangelical Christians find certain passages of the Bible relevant and applicable to the case of North Korea and of Korean history more broadly, and faith is a strong motivation for action. It is a fascinating subject and given how interesting it is, it’s also astonishing to me how few studies there are on this, especially if we think about faith-based advocacy in South Korea and the U.S. as well.

The point, I think, is not to dismiss any belief system as irrational or irrelevant, because they are certainly important for the participants in it. The motivations behind what people do, and how their actions are structured by their belief systems, are enormously significant. Yet in much of North Korean studies, beliefs are dismissed as though they only affect fringe religious actors or supposedly brainwashed citizenry, but not others. In fact, all of us operate within various belief systems, among our own constraints, priorities and blind spots.

NK News: There could be a lesson to be learned there, if we think of how little importance most analysts usually attribute to North Korean beliefs.

JudyHan

Judy Han

Judy Han: Yes, and that applies to all aspects of North Korean studies. Juche ideology, for example, is treated by many observers as a dominant state ideology that shapes North Korean practices, but the international human rights regime is also a hegemonic belief system and a contested set of political ideologies. Given how much disagreement there is about the definition and enforcement standards for human rights, I think we could be much more critical in conceptualizing human rights in North Korea and beyond, and examine how concepts of justice, equality and dignity operate within North Korea.

NK News: What kind of fieldwork did you conduct in order to document the dynamics of North Koreans’ “Christian passage” in Northeast China?

Judy Han: Well, to begin with, my research involved a rather limited scope of fieldwork, and I would never claim to represent the whole reality of Christian associations dealing with undocumented migrants or refugees in northeast China or South Korea. So I am not saying what I have found in my work is necessarily the same across all shelters and all missionaries in all places. Of course not. But I would say that I’m interested in the general and theoretical ideas of aid, shelter, care and compassion.

Shelters for undocumented North Korean migrants in China seem to differ quite a lot from place to place; there are well-known accounts that describe shelters as very rudimentary places of hiding, such as caves in mountains, well outside urban areas. The particular shelter I visited in northeast China, however, was run by a Christian missionary couple in a well-to-do urban area, and what I saw was a pretty nice two-story, two-bedroom apartment, tidy and well-kept, and in all appearances quite ordinary.

NK News: Was it hard for you to get in? Most of these shelters as the whole “underground railroad” are supposed to operate in secrecy, so they probably do not like much attention from researchers or the press.

Judy Han: They do operate in secrecy, and this is why I do not disclose many details about their activity or location – nothing that would pose any risk to anyone in any way. This is the tricky part of doing ethnographic research work on topics like this: you need to pay close attention to details, but at the same time you cannot disclose much of the identifying details to ensure confidentiality. But in terms of access, I have to say it was quite easy. All I did was to get in touch with a Christian organization in Seoul, who then put me in touch with the missionaries in China. It did not seem to matter to them that I was not part of the evangelical Christian community or that I was conducting research – all of which I disclosed from the outset, of course.

I suppose all this may change as more critical researchers approach missionary organizations, but in my work on North Korea and other evangelical missionary projects, I’ve always had the impression that they welcomed the attention, and many were quite eager to talk to me. In regards to the substance and form of their activities, I am a critical researcher, as I have always been of all the institutions and practices I study, but I also try to be respectful of people who face heavy risks by doing what they do, and people who demonstrate courage and initiative, sacrifice personal gains and profit to help people that they think need their help.

I can’t help but be in awe of the intensity of their conviction and commitment, and I’m fascinated even when I disagree. I think this is something for other researchers to keep in mind, that even when you do not share the religious faith or political beliefs of your research subjects, you can find ways to build trust.

NK News: What is the primary motivation for some religious groups to help North Korean refugees? Are they more interested in converting North Koreans or in providing unconditional help?

Judy Han: In principle I would agree with putting material needs before spiritual needs, but this isn’t always so simple. During my fieldwork in Africa I also encountered situations in which missionaries were distributing Bibles, and not material aid like, say, food, medicine or shoes, and these moments required a closer examination of their belief systems and priorities.

The missionaries believed that temporary relief from poverty in this world did not equal real and eternal salvation, as this could only come through the love of God, or Jesus  – in other words, by embracing Christianity. It is not that they don’t care about people’s suffering, or that they only want to take advantage of vulnerabilities in order to proselytize.

‘During my fieldwork in Africa I also encountered situations in which missionaries were distributing Bibles, and not material aid like, say, food, medicine, or shoes’

There are complicated balances to strike between conditional help and unconditional help (if that’s even humanly possible), material needs and spiritual needs, and this world and the next world (afterlife). Before we judge these dynamics with an inherently secular bias and assume simply that religious faith is something that one can simply set aside, I think we should first try to comprehend the motivating logic and the structure of these intentions.

We also have to remember that the “impulse to help” operates powerfully not only among Christians but also among so-called secular actors as well. Take, for instance, the efforts of Korean-American groups like LiNK that seem to believe that simply by exposing brutalities in North Korea and helping passages out of North Korea, they are achieving something good. That’s extremely unreflexive and quite dangerous.

I think there is growing awareness in South Korea and the Korean diaspora that doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing. Doing something can mean spreading misinformation and inflicting harm. Doing nothing could include careful planning and critical reflection. Since Korean evangelical missionary activities concerning North Korea involve large, decentralized, transnational networks, and they are not led by a single leader or a singular agenda, we will continue to see a variety of approaches and different strategies.

And changes may be difficult to take hold and catch on. But I am hopeful that critical approaches and dissenting viewpoints will continue to grow and diversify, and that Korean missionary activities in North Korea and China, as well as throughout the world, will undergo critical self-reflection and intense scrutiny. There are strong voices of concern especially when it comes to Korean missionary complicity in war and occupation in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, as there should be.

NK News: Do you see correlations or differences, between larger HR groups such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International and the smaller, religious groups that deal with North Koreans in China?

Judy Han: There are huge structural differences. We are comparing large, international groups with professional staff working in branch offices worldwide with what are often ad hoc organizations with volunteers and limited capacities. There are differences in structures of transparency and accountability, as well as the scale of operations. Some are no-name brands and others are really quite corporate. I think it can be even harder to ensure accountability and transparency in smaller groups that answer only to a few individuals or donors.

They can also be ill-prepared in terms of linguistic capacity and cultural competency, and some may lack safety training or political knowledge. In cases of missionaries dispatched by individual congregations in South Korea and the U.S., or individuals working as independent missionaries in China, there are hardly any systems of oversight or protection. And that’s worrisome.

Picture: House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Flickr Creative Commons

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About the Author

Gianluca Spezza

Gianluca is the research director of NK News. He focuses his research on North Korean society, the role of education in the DPRK, gender issues in North Korea and North Korean ideology. He holds a Master in Humanities from the University of Torino (Italy) and a M.Soc.Sc. in Asian Studies from the University of Turku, Finland. He worked in East Asia (including South Korea) as an education consultant for five years. Mail: [email protected] Follow: @KazakhPilot

Join the discussion

  • Xavier

    Han says “The point, I think, is not to dismiss any belief system as irrational or
    irrelevant, because they are certainly important for the participants
    in it.”

    While I agree that we must recognize the relevance and importance of these people’s belief systems in motivating their activities, these belief systems may still be entirely irrational. The fact that an idea is so powerful that it may lead you do embark on dangerous endeavours in a testament to the strength or personal relevance of that idea, not to its foundation in truth or reality.

    Most of these groups’ beliefs are objectively irrational, and that can never be completely separated from their work.