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     Mar 16, 2005
North Korea's missionary position
By Andrei Lankov

SEOUL - Churches are opening in North Korea, a country long known for its hostility to any religion, and especially Protestantism. But it is not the handful of officially sanctioned churches that are interesting so much as reports of a revival of the North's "catacomb church".

Given the privation and suffering in North Korea, it's not surprising that the masses would find solace in the opiate of the people.

North Korean defectors to South Korea recently were asked about the fate of those escapees who were apprehended in China and sent back for interrogation in North Korea. Their treatment is harsh but they are not necessarily doomed. If an arrested escapee does not make some dangerous confessions while subjected to relatively mild beatings, he or she is likely to be set free very soon (not very nice, but still it's a vast improvement over the situation that existed two decades ago). This correspondent asked, "What do interrogators see as dangerous activity?" The answers were virtually identical across the board: "Contacting missionaries and bringing religious literature to North Korea."

For three decades North Korea and Albania were distinct in being countries without any organized religious worship and without a single temple of any religion. But this is changing fast - and the Pyongyang authorities obviously worry that they do not have complete control over the fast-developing new situation concerning religion. The central authorities also are losing control, as cracks appear in the country's "Stalinist" ideology.

Once upon the time, Christianity played an important role in North Korean politics. Indeed, few people are now aware that in the colonial era, between 1910 and 1945, what is now North Korea was the stronghold of Korean Protestantism. Protestant missionaries came to Korea in the 1880s and achieved remarkable success in conversions. By the early 20th century Koreans had come to associate Protestantism with modernity and progress, and many early Korean modernizers came from Protestant families. Although Christians composed just 1-2% of the population, they were over-represented among intellectuals and professionals. It helped that Korea was colonized by a non-Christian nation - Japan - so in Korea the teachings of Jesus avoided those associations with colonialism that proved to be so damaging in many other parts of Asia.

Once upon a time, relations between early Korean communism and Korean Christianity were much closer than either side is willing to admit nowadays. Kim Il-sung himself, the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), was born into a family of prominent Protestant activists. His father graduated from a Protestant school and was an active supporter of the local missions, and his mother was the daughter of a prominent Protestant activist. This was fairly typical: it seems that a majority of early Korean communists had Christian family backgrounds, even though Christians were few and far between in the general population.

By the early 1940s Pyongyang was by far the most Protestant of all major cities of Korea, with some 25-30% of its adult population being church-going Christians. In missionary circles this earned the city the nickname "Jerusalem of the East".

Thus, throughout the first years of North Korean history, the nascent communist government had to reckon with the power of the Christian community. Even Kim Il-sung's own family connections with the Protestants could be put to a good use. A large role in the North Korean politics of the 1940s and 1950s was played by Kang Ryang-uk, a Protestant minister who also happened to be a relative of Kim's mother. He even became the target of an assassination attempt by rightist agents, specially dispatched from the South.

Nonetheless, left-wing Christianity was not a success in North Korea. Most Protestant preachers and activists were enemies of the new regime. There were a number of reasons for this. Most pastors came from affluent families and were not happy about the redistribution of wealth during the land reforms of 1946 and subsequent nationalization of industries. As well, many Christians had personal connections with the West and admired the United States as a beacon of democracy, and thus were alienated by the regime's intense anti-American propaganda. The increasingly harsh and repressive policies of the new government did not help either.

Thus in 1946-50 Protestants formed one of the major groups of the refugees who moved to the South. When the Korean War began, these Protestants often helped the advancing United Nations troops. Such incidents once again demonstrated to the Pyongyang leaders what they believed anyway: that Christians were politically unreliable.

In the 1950s anti-Protestant propaganda reached a hysterical pitch. All kinds of religious worship were banned, but Protestantism was particularly singled out as a "wicked teaching of the US imperialists". All churches were closed by the mid-1950s, and those Protestant leaders who were unlucky, naive or foolish enough to stay in the North after the Korean War were purged in the late 1950s as "American spies". Even those who renounced their faith, though doing so usually saved their lives, were not completely off the hook: under North Korea's elaborate system of hereditary groups, such people became members of "hostile group No 37" and remained branded until the end of their days.

Meanwhile, the official media bombarded North Koreans with ranting anti-Protestant propaganda. The educational efforts of the early missionaries were explained as part of their scheme to pave the road for the long-planned US invasion. Pastors and activists were portrayed as a spies and saboteurs on the payroll of the US Central Intelligence Agency, or as sadists killing innocent and naive Koreans with their own hands. Works of fiction depicted how missionaries were killing innocent Korean children in their "clinics" - in order to sell their blood, eyes or body parts (very improbable in the era before body-parts transplantation, but good propaganda anyway). The "regeneration" of a Korean Christian was another favorite topic of North Korean fiction of the late 1950s. A protagonist of such stories was initially misled by scheming missionaries and their willful collaborators and foolishly became a Christian, but then some incident or bitter personal experiences helped him or her to discover the depraved nature of Christian teaching. Of course, he or she rejected the "imperialist ideological poison" and led others to eventual enlightenment.

Even nowadays, in Sinch'on Museum, a propaganda center dealing with US atrocities (largely invented), one can see a collage of photos of all prominent American missionaries active in Korea around 1900, accompanied by the caption: "the American missionaries who crawled into Korea, hiding their daggers in their clothing".

By the mid-1950s, not a single church was left functioning. As usual, the Korean Stalinists outdid Stalin himself: even in the worst days of Josef Stalin's rule a handful of churches remained opened in Soviet cities, and some priests avoided the gulag (more often than not through cooperation with Stalin's secret police).

Some North Korean believers continued to worship in secret. The precise scale of the North Korean "catacomb church" is likely to remain unknown forever. Serious research is made impossible by the secrecy of the church, and in the post-unification future (if there is one), the picture is likely to be distorted by exaggerations and myth-making to which religious organizations are usually so prone. A lot of martyrdom stories are certain to emerge in post-unification Korea, and some of them are certain to be true, but none of these stories should be taken at face value without careful checking. Nonetheless, the existence of the Protestant underground is beyond doubt.

In the early 1970s the North Korean approach to religion was softened, but the liberalization was initially designed for export only. By the 1970s, Pyongyang had given up its earlier hopes of a communist revolution in the South. Long and persistent efforts would be needed to bring the "Seoul puppets" down, and cooperation with "progressive religious forces" in the South would be useful.

Thus some Christian associations had to be created under the auspices of the North Korean government, to be put to good use as propaganda organizations. In 1974, the Korean Christian Association reappeared on the political scene. This association was established in 1946 to steer religious activity in the right direction, but in 1960 it was disbanded. Of course, the restoration of the KCA did not mean much for the few surviving underground Christians. Its sole task was to influence South Korean religious circles and provide a convenient outlet for dealing with them. Indeed, the KCA conducted a number of remarkably successful propaganda exercises that targeted credulous Southern lefties.

The real turning point came in 1988 when the first North Korean church was opened in Pyongyang. This was done under some pressure from overseas religious circles, but was significant nonetheless.

Nowadays, North Korea has two Protestant churches with, allegedly, 150 believers. That figure is suspect, however; one should not be surprised to learn eventually that these people were appointed to be "believers" after careful selection by the party and screening by secret police. After all, their major role is to be props during frequent visits of foreign delegations.

The existence of two churches is hardly a sign of revival in a country that once boasted 3,000 churches and some 250,000 believers. Nonetheless, it could be a sign of liberalization. North Korea has also opened a Catholic church, also located in Pyongyang.

Recently, Pyongyang suggested opening an Orthodox church as well. The hitherto unknown "Orthodox Committee of the DPRK" contacted Russian church leaders - and nobody was surprised by the fact that nothing has been heard about North Korean Orthodox believers for six decades (and even in 1945 they hardly numbered more than few hundred). The dear leader, Kim Jong-il, assured a Russian official who expressed some doubts in this regard: "Do not worry, we'll find believers!" No doubt they will - the North Korean "competent agencies" know how this should be done.

However, there are signs of a genuine Christian revival in North Korea. From the mid-1990s an increasing number of South Korean missionaries have been going to northeastern China, adjacent to the almost uncontrolled border with the DPRK. These missionaries are overwhelmingly Protestant, of various denominations. They preach among the refugees, and their mission is remarkably successful. This is understandable: Christian organizations are among the few organizations that take note of the refugees and work hard to help them - much to the annoyance of the North Korean authorities. Newly converted North Koreans often go back to their country, taking Bibles and religious literature there. The North Korean authorities take the problem very seriously. As mentioned above, defectors extradited from China and then interrogated by North Korean political police are always asked whether they have been in contact with Christian missionaries.

There are reports about the growing Christian underground. Alas, these reports cannot be verified. Still, it seems that some sort of catacomb church is fast developing in North Korea - a development that has nothing to do with the elaborate performances staged by the authorities in the officially approved churches.

It is remarkable how successful Protestantism is among Northern defectors who are currently living in South Korea. Many of them converted in the first months of their sojourn. Once again, this can be partially explained by the active involvement of right-wing Christians with the refugee community (the secular left and South Korean society in general are quite indifferent if not hostile to these people). Still, it is clear that North Koreans are willing to embrace the religion with exceptional zeal.

Perhaps this is a sign of things to come, and Pyongyang is on the verge of regaining its old title "Jerusalem of the East". The collapse of Kim Jong-il's rule someday is likely to leave a serious ideological and spiritual vacuum, which can be easily filled by Christianity. The associations between Christianity and South Korean prosperity will not hurt either - as well as right-wing sympathies of Korean mainstream Christians (the left is unlikely to be popular in post-Kim North Korea for at least a generation). And it seems likely that in many cases the new-found North Korean Protestantism will take rather extreme forms.

Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.

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