North Korea is known for its government’s lack of tolerance towards religion. Defectors have described the torture and execution of Christians, and the UN reports that North Koreans repatriated from China face harsher punishments if they are known to have interacted with Christians.
Some scholars and observers draw parallels between the Kim regime’s cult of personality and religion, ranging from assertions that Kim Il Sung borrowed aspects of Christianity to remarks comparing the level of devotion North Koreans hold for the Kims to deep religious reverence.
The regime worries that traditional organized religion can provide an ample base for civil society and, in some cases, political dissent to organize, and attempts to keep religion out of ordinary North Korean homes – at least in part – to maintain control and prevent opposition from fomenting.
This is because the suggestion that forces besides the Kim regime could be responsible for the well-being and care of the North Korean people would undermine the crafting of the Kim family as benevolent, knowledgeable figures responsible for all positive aspects of life in the DPRK.
Officially, the authorities do recognize some religious groups, such as Cheondoists and Christians, through officially sanctioned bodies. Such efforts are likely to be displays for the outside world rather than sincere spaces for free religious worship.
Taking all this into account, it is thus somewhat surprising that religious non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have successfully gained access to the DPRK to deliver humanitarian aid programs.
Since the DPRK’s initial appeal for foreign aid in 1995, over 200 NGOs from around the world have worked to deliver food aid, medical assistance, agricultural training, and material goods to North Korean citizens.
At least 60 of these groups have ties to religion, including Christianity and Buddhism. The majority of religious NGOs are American or South Korean, though Canadian, Hungarian, Italian, and French faith-based organizations (FBOs) have worked in the DPRK.
The regime attempts to keep religion out of ordinary North Korean homes – at least in part – to maintain control
NGOs with a religious background vary from simple one-line mentions of their faith-based motives on their websites to groups that proudly showcase their religious identity. For example, Christian Friends of Korea (CFK), an American NGO, not only includes the word ‘Christian’ in their name but also feature a cross in their logo. But while FBOs can gain access to the DPRK, they are not allowed to proselytize while in the country.
The DPRK has some mechanisms for interacting with FBOs. Government-approved churches and temples can host religious groups for tours, exchanges, and sermons.
The authenticity of these institutions is often questioned, and foreign visitors have been surprised by the content of ostensibly religious activities. In 2015, for example, a German NGO reported that a German priest was shocked during service in a Pyongyang Catholic church after the North Korean ‘preacher’ called for help from God in a merciless war against South Korea.
The DPRK also has ‘NGOs’ of its own, though in reality these groups are closely connected to government bodies. The Korean Christian Federation (KCF) is a Protestant group which acts as a liaison with some FBOs, and has participated in inter-Korean unification activities with its South Korean counterparts. The KCF is not significantly involved in humanitarian aid and NGOs, instead focusing more on links to churches through organizations like the World Council of Churches.
FBOs working in aid usually work through the same channels as secular groups, highlighting their primary role as aid NGOs and not as sources for purported religious exchange.
But in a state with such a hostile environment towards religion, do FBOs have any advantages or tools that help them do their work?
For one thing, the DPRK does not appear to limit how groups can source their funding, thus allowing groups to tap into religious networks for donors. Unlike some secular NGOs, religious groups may have access to more consistent funding and may not face the same degree of fundraising challenges such as donor fatigue, political influence, and negative public opinion. Some FBOs, such as the Eugene Bell Foundation (EBF), provide avenues for committed donors to travel to the DPRK and help with projects.
FBOs with histories of long partnerships in the DPRK include CFK, EBF, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), First Steps, and World Vision. Three of these NGOs – CFK, EBF, and First Steps – are dedicated solely to working in the DPRK. These groups have demonstrated a lasting commitment to helping the DPRK and working with their North Korean counterparts.
Some of this success may be attributed to a deep-seated motivation manifesting in perseverance, patience, and a steadfast desire to help North Koreans.
The DPRK also has ‘NGOs’ of its own, though in reality these groups are closely connected to government bodies
A video segment on the CFK claims the group “send[s] what [North Koreans] need, with a prayer that they may come to know Jesus Christ.”
On their homepage, First Steps proclaims that “We exist to practically demonstrate the love of Christ in North Korea by providing sustainable, progressive, and life-enhancing nutritional relief.” These motives, guided by strong personal beliefs, are unlikely to change with politics or rising need in other parts of the world.
An additional advantage is that several North American FBOs have fluent Korean speakers on staff. These Korean speakers are often the children of missionaries, and have spent time in the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea). They do not hold ROK passports, however, and are thus not subject to the same restrictions as South Korean citizens, but they bring a familiarity with Korean language and culture that can facilitate dialogue.
This was especially notable in the early years of humanitarian aid to the DPRK, when UN organizations were barred from employing Korean speaking staff. Despite this, Korean-speaking FBO staff were able to gain access and begin their projects as early as 1995.
FBOs face the same challenges as secular humanitarian groups: access and projects are subject to negotiations, and groups must devise strategies to monitor their aid work without being able to perform random visits or interviews.
South Korean FBOs, which include Christian and Buddhist groups, are subject to the same laws as secular NGOs. Their access hinges not only on agreement from the DPRK, but also from the government in Seoul. South Korean NGOs enjoyed higher levels of access during the Sunshine Policy period, but have been subject to greater restrictions since 2010, which has resulted in low levels of NGO engagement.
An additional advantage is that several North American FBOs have fluent Korean speakers on staff
FBOs that are intent on proselytizing by handing out materials such as Bibles are not able to work in the DPRK through official channels, and some such religious groups instead opt to work underground. These groups smuggle material aid, such as blankets, clothing, or personal hygiene materials, into the DPRK through secret networks or via large balloons sent from the South, which sometimes include Bibles or memory sticks with religious content.
Examples of such groups include Alpha Relief, Open Doors, Christian Aid Mission, and Voice of the Martyrs Korea. The prohibition of such groups demonstrates the limits of the authorities – FBOs can implement aid projects, foreign individuals can pray while in the country on humanitarian work, and groups can even use words like ‘Christian’ or ‘church’ in their name, but attempting to overtly spread their beliefs to North Koreans is forbidden.
Somewhat surprisingly considering the regime’s stance on religion, the author has not come across any evidence that the DPRK systematically subjects FBOs to greater scrutiny than their secular counterparts.
The presence of dozens of religious groups delivering humanitarian aid over the past twenty years indicates that the North Korean authorities do not view keeping religious foreigners or South Koreans out of the country as a priority. Put simply, aid is valued more highly than eliminating interactions between North Koreans and religious individuals.
North Korea is known for its government's lack of tolerance towards religion. Defectors have described the torture and execution of Christians, and the UN reports that North Koreans repatriated from China face harsher punishments if they are known to have interacted with Christians.Some scholars and observers draw parallels between the Kim regime’s cult of personality and religion, ranging
Nazanin Zadeh-Cummings is a Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies at Deakin University's Centre for Humanitarian Leadership. Her research interests include the DPRK, humanitarian aid, disaster management and civil society.