Andrei Lankov: North Korea's Missionary Position





[Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, the 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.]

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.

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).

In the early 1970s the North Korean approach to religion was softened, but the liberalization was initially designed for export only....

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....




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