The fate of Kenneth Bae (also known as Pae Chun-ho), arrested and detained in North Korea, has attracted much attention in recent days. From what little is known about his arrest earlier this year in North Korea, it appears that Bae was involved in North Korea’s catacomb church. He seems in fact to have used his visits to the North to do missionary work, and therefore he was indeed engaged in what North Korean authorities would deem “subversive activities.”
Of course, the North Korean Constitution, like the constitutions of other Communist states, claims that it’s citizens have religious freedom. Article 68 states as much, albeit with an important caveat: “Citizens shall have freedom of religion. This right shall be guaranteed by permitting the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies. Religion shall not be used in bringing in outside forces or in harming the state and social order.”
It is not widely known, but a significant part of the first generation of Korean communist leaders – people born between 1900 and 1920 – came from devote Christian families. Kim Il Sung himself was no exception: Both his parents came from families of early converts to Christianity.
One should not be surprised about this fact, since its introduction to Korea in the late 18th century Christianity was widely associated with the West and modernity. Often when a Korean in the early 20th century said, “I am a Christian,” it often indicated that the person in question was also likely to believe in Western science, parliamentary democracy and modern medicine.
JERUSALEM OF THE EAST
It may seem strange now, but since the late 19th century and until the Korean War, Pyongyang was the major stronghold of Korean Christianity. In the colonial days, it was not known as the “Jerusalem of the East” for nothing: in the 1930s Christians constituted some 30 percent of the population of the city (at the same time, only 1 percent of all Koreans were Christians).
However, communist ideologues were very hostile to religion, which they saw as the “opium of the masses.” In the Soviet Union under Stalin, the church was not officially outlawed, but it was subjected to systematic harassment. A somewhat similar policy was conducted by other communist regimes as well.
Initially, North Korea adopted a similar approach. In the late 1940s the North Korean government co-opted the small number of church ministers willing to collaborate – these people were called “progressive churchmen.” Kang Ryang Uk, a Protestant missionary and distant relative of Kim Il Sung, was the most prominent of these collaborators. The vast majority of believers, however, were subjected to discrimination. The result was a massive exodus of Christians to South Korea.
Soon after the war, North Korean religious policy took a turn which had few precedents in the history of the Communist Bloc. From around 1956-57, North Korean authorities began to close down all the few surviving churches and religious associations in the country. From then on, the North Korean media claimed that North Korea was the only country free of “religious superstition.” In December 1964 Kim Il Sung proudly said: “In the course of the Fatherland Liberation War (Korean War) religion disappeared from our country.”
There is little doubt that some believers continued to practice their faith in secret, in spite of the risk of real persecution if discovered. I have come across stories about Christians and even tiny underground Christian churches (of three-five individuals) that allegedly existed in the 1960s and 1970s, but it is impossible to verify most of these reports.
Simultaneously, Christianity became the object of near constant and virulent attacks in the North Korean media. While all communist states sponsored anti-religious activities and propaganda, in few countries of the Communist Bloc was this propaganda as vicious as in North Korea.
(IN)TOLERANCE OF CHRISTIANITY
In propaganda publications churchmen were not merely reactionary, but national traitors. As every reader of North Korean magazines and books knew well, churches were all controlled by foreign missionaries, who were mercenary spies of the foreign imperialists, or sometimes sadistic killers who fantasized about butchering the Korean nation. One recurrent topic of North Korean propaganda was missionary involvement in “organ snatching.” Missionary doctors were alleged to steal kidneys, eyes and bone marrow (among other things) from those innocent Koreans who were stupid enough to come to a missionary hospital. Alternatively, naive Korean patients were subject to diabolical experiments, conducted by the same missionary doctors.
In the early 1970s, the North Korean government seemingly made a minor adjustment to its earlier uncompromising policy. Official religious associations, including “the Korean Christian Association,” which had not been heard about for some 15 years, suddenly reappeared around 1972. However, they were allowed to reemerge largely to handle overseas propaganda campaigns. In other words, officials of “the Korean Christian Association” were mentioned by the official media only when they signed a particular statement about the “beastly nature of U.S. imperialism,” or alternatively when they met visiting overseas delegations from “progressive clergy.”
The next serious change to religious policy happened in 1988, when the North Korean authorities suddenly decided to build a Catholic and a Protestant church in Pyongyang. I have heard stories from refugees who say that many Pyongyangites were shocked one day when they saw a building in the neighborhood that looked remarkably like a church (from propaganda pictures), with a cross atop its spire. For decades, North Koreans had been told that such places could possibly be only dens of spies and sadistic butchers (their reaction was perhaps similar to the average D.C. resident if they found a big al-Qaeda recruiting center in their neighborhood, complete with a large neon sign).
At present, there are four officially tolerated churches in Pyongyang (two Protestant, one Catholic and one Orthodox). Foreign visitors are regularly shown around and can participate in services at the churches, which are also attended by well-dressed North Koreans, equipped with bibles and who are well-cognizant of church behavior. Opinions are divided on how authentic these activities are. Some say that these “churchgoers” are props – politically trusted North Koreans whose job is to present visiting foreigners with a politically correct show. Some others believe that a measure of genuine religious activity takes place, albeit in a highly controlled place.
The history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Pyongyang seems to support the former viewpoint. In 2002 Marshal Kim Jong Il, on a visit to Russia, suggested that a Russian Orthodox Church be opened in Pyongyang. Obviously, he thought that churches (as North Korean propaganda understands it) are merely spiritual branches of governments. The perplexed Russian diplomat asked the Great Marshal whether there were any Orthodox believers in Pyongyang; this is a fair question given that the North Korean capital has never had a sizable Orthodox community. Kim Jong Il replied that believers would be found. They were indeed – the Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Church now operates in Pyongyang.
AN UNDERGROUND CHURCH
However, all these political shows in Pyongyang should not distract us from the real revival of North Korean Christianity, which quietly began in the late 1990s in the Sino-North Korean borderlands. In the late 1990s, many North Koreans fled to China trying to escape a disastrous famine in their country. In 1998-99, the number of such refugees peaked at around 200,000.
Most of them established good contacts with ethnic Koreans in China. By that time, many Korean-Chinese had been converted to Christianity – which is increasingly seen worldwide as the major religion of the Korean diaspora. Thus, refugees came into contact with South Korean missionaries and/or their ethnic Korean converts, and many of them were converted. It helped that Korean churches in China were perhaps the only institutions that were ready to provide the refugees with assistance and a modicum of protection. Experienced refugees told novices that in the most desperate situation, when all else fails, they should look for a church.
Churches were also very involved with a kind of underground railway that helped North Korean refugees in China to move South. Inside South Korea, church communities are the major institution that provides otherwise generally neglected North Korean refugees with support and protection. One should not therefore be surprised that a significant number of North Korean refugees convert to Christianity soon after their arrival to the South.
Meanwhile in China, from around 2000, many missionaries began to use refugees to spread Christianity in North Korea proper. Many converts were indeed willing to take the risk and go back to their native villages and towns with Korean-language bibles and other literature. Thus, North Korea’s catacomb church was born.
The scale of this phenomenon cannot be measured, and to be frank, Christian activists of today (and the Christian historians of the future no doubt) would like to exaggerate the scale of this movement. From what little is known, it appears that the catacomb church consists of a few dozen or hundred groups, isolated and located largely in the borderlands. This is a modest success, but we should also remember that this appears to be the only underground network existent in North Korea.
The North Korean government does not look upon such developments favorably. Contrary to what is widely believed, in most cases refugees face relatively minor punishment if they are caught in China and sent back to North Korea. However, if a particular refugee is known to be in contact with missionaries he/she will face far more severe punishment. For the average non-religious border crosser, the punishment is likely to be a few months of imprisonment, but known religious activist is likely to spend 10 years in prison.
Nonetheless, the risks do not deter either missionaries or converts. Kenneth Bae’s case demonstrates this once again, as there is good reason to believe that Bae was heavily involved in missionary activities inside North Korea.
Predictions are a tricky business of course, but judging by the success of Christianity among North Korean refugees in China and South Korea, as well as by the level of commitment demonstrated by the catacomb church, one can expect that Christianity (especially of various protestant denominations) indeed has a great future in North Korea. Once the ban is lifted, the gospel may start to spread in North Korea like wildfire.
Main picture: Eric Lafforuge
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