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The Koreas



PYONGYANG WATCH
Some of that old-time religion


By Aidan Foster-Carter

These days Christmas is celebrated as a holiday far beyond the Christian world, including in much of Asia. But not, needless to say, in North Korea. There, December 25 is just another working day.

Might it be different this year? There are reports that the doyen of South Korea's Roman Catholics, Cardinal Stephen Kim Soo-hwan, may conduct a Christmas Eve service at Pyongyang's Jangchung Cathedral. His visit, yet to be confirmed, is said to have Kim Jong-il's personal imprimatur.

A Catholic cathedral in Pyongyang? Yes, but not as we know it. Jangchung was opened in 1988, with Vatican representatives in attendance, at the same time as two "Protestant" churches (no denomination specified), Chilgol and Pongsu. This concession followed decades of the usual communist persecution of Christians and Buddhists. North Korea today admits to a mere 3,000 Catholics, 10,000 Protestants, and the same suspiciously rounded number of Buddhists. Each have their own state-controlled body.

It used to be very different. South Korea is Asia's second most Christian country after the Philippines, and it's mostly Protestant. A quarter of the 47 million South Koreans are Christians: it feels like more. President Kim Dae-jung is a devout Catholic, who on a visit to the Vatican in March urged the Pope to visit North Korea (his emissaries already do). His predecessor, Kim Young-sam, was a Presbyterian.

Korea's rare receptivity to Christianity precedes the peninsula's partition in 1945. Catholicism came first, from 1785. The early converts were harshly persecuted - so much so that when in the 1980s these martyrs were canonized en masse, Korea instantly acquired the world's fourth largest quota of saints.

Protestants arrived a century later, playing a pioneer role in education and health from the 1880s which continued under Japanese occupation. Pyongyang in particular was a major center: by 1945, 50,000 of its 300,000 inhabitants were Christian. The (also American) wife of the evangelist Billy Graham, who in 1992 went to North Korea and met Kim Il-sung, was raised and educated in pre-war Pyonygang.

So when in 1945 the young Kim Il-sung came home in Soviet uniform, initially he had to share power with a respected Christian nationalist leader, Cho Man-sik. Within a year Cho was arrested, later to be shot, and the persecution of Christians - smeared as agents of imperialism - began. Many fled south. By the 1950s all churches and temples were closed, and would remain so for three decades.

As with other North Korean "openings", the true state of religion today is hard to assess. Critics claim Pyongyang's trio of churches is purely cosmetic and mainly for external consumption. Their arrival coincided with Kim Il-sung University quietly starting a department of religion - again mainly to deal with the outside world, and said to be very popular due to the travel opportunities its graduates enjoy. Yet a service I attended in 1990 felt genuine, if constrained. The worshippers seemed to be not so much actors, as believers who had proved their loyalty to the regime - much as, by the 1940s, Korean Christians had to acknowledge the divinity of the Japanese emperor if they wanted to stay in business.

That Japanese background is one source for the quasi-worship of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. But there are others. Kim Il-sung had a partly Christian upbringing: he once startled a visiting US-Korean priest by asking him to say grace. The iconography of the Kim cult clearly borrows from Christianity. In another apparent move to be more inclusive, a few years ago North Korea claimed to have found the grave of Tangun, the mythical founder of Korea and an object of worship for some in South Korea.

But the Kim cult also has its downside. Foreigners find it grotesque or worse. In a classic own goal, one hagiographic work published in English as Kim Il-sung: A Divine Man (the thespian overtones doubtless lost on the comrades) appeared in Arabic as Kim Il-sung Is God - to the fury of devout Muslims, with whose anti-US sentiments Pyongyang has sought to make common cause. Similarly, some fundamentalist US Christians view North Korea as literally diabolical - the work of the devil - citing both the idolatry of the Kim cult and reports of continued persecution of the faithful, especially those evangelized by the many missionaries working to help refugees across the border in China.

On the other hand, a liberal Pentecostalist I met recently, a regular visitor to North Korea, claims that a house church movement is both growing and to some extent tolerated. In the country's present straits, the regime may be unable to rule by suppression alone. Cardinal Kim, a noted conciliator within South Korea, will do his best to assess the prospects. As in other communist regimes, it would be no surprise if behind the conformist facade, in the quiet of people's hearts, the old faiths remain vibrant and strong. With little enough to be thankful for in this world, North Koreans may well pin their hopes on the next.

(Special to Asia Times Online)




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