Thanks to two historic encounters in recent months, North Korea has become headline news in the media recently. The first meeting took place on April between the respective heads of state of North Korea and South Korea with a view to ending the state of hostilities that have marked their bilateral relations ever since the Korean War of 1950-1953. The second was on 12 June, when US President Donald Trump and his opposite number Kim Yong Un held a summit meeting in Singapore. Outside of these meetings in the glare of the media spotlight, what do we actually know about the situation of the North Korean people? How do they live, how many Christians are there and how do they manage to live their faith?
In order to find out more and go beyond the newspaper headlines, the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) interviewed Father Kang Ju-Seok, director of the Catholic Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Institute, which is based in Paju, in South Korea, very close to the demilitarised zone on the frontier between the two Koreas, a place where for the past 70 years thousands of guns have been trained on each other from the two opposing sides. The aim of the institute is to study peace building methods in Northeast Asia and work for the evangelisation of the North.
The interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for ACN.
As we know very little about North Korea, can you give us a picture of the day to day life living in this country?
North Korea is often just seen as a security problem, as a potentially kind of irrational dictator with missiles. And often we miss out on the story of 24 million ordinary people, just like you and I, who are living their lives in that country. In fact, we don’t know much about their stories. Nonetheless, according to the refugees coming from North Korea, they are no longer able to function within the state socialist economy – the lack of rations to the people and so on – and so the people have had to take lives into their own hands and they have started smuggling goods back and forth from China. Many refugees say, there is more foreign information and more foreign media seeping into the country. More North Koreans have access to things like mobile phones, DVD players, and computers. And increasingly they are watching South Korean movies, soap operas, even Hollywood movies secretly.
The country has about 24 million inhabitants, of which half live below the poverty line?
In the 1990s, there was a great death as a consequence of starvation. We don’t know the exact numbers. We think about 1 million people died in those days and still today most North Koreans are suffering from extreme poverty. Because North Korean regime violated the international rules for example, concerning nuclear weapons, the UN has imposed sanctions for a long time. I worry about the people, especially the poor and vulnerable, who suffer from those sanctions.
Few understand the political structure in North Korea, the fact of the personality cult of the Kim family. Can you explain?
Many experts say the country is a kind of religious group and that the people worship the Kim family. We don’t know exactly the reason why people do this, how the system of the society works. But one thing that we can assume is that the fear and hatred of the people [towards South Korea] could be a reason. During the Korean War 2 or 3 million people died in North Korea. The government of North Korea is still using this trauma of their people.
Before the reign of the Kim family, the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in the early 1900s was such a source of Christian activity that it was known as the Jerusalem of the East? At its height, 3 out of 10 people in Pyongyang were practicing Christians and more than 2000 churches were built in the region. What happened to decimate Christianity, and so quickly?
After the North Korean regime began, the government thought that religion was the most dangerous enemy which would disturb their regime eventually. Therefore they started to persecute religious groups in various ways. Even before the Korean war, many North Koreans, mostly Christians, crossed the border seeking freedom of religion. In addition, before and during the war in which millions of people were murdered, the Christians were persecuted without remorse.
Today there are four state sanctioned churches in Pyongyang: two Russian Orthodox, one Roman Catholic and one Protestant. They exist as “proof” that North Korea tolerates religion. Are these just facades?
It is a complicated thing. The Catholic Church in North Korea founded the “Chosun Catholic Members Association” with the completion of the Changchung Cathedral in 1988. With the Changchung Cathedral in Pyongyang and the Chosun Catholic Members Association thus established, they began to represent North Korean Catholics, whereby the Church in South Korea began a series of efforts for the sake of inter-Korean exchange and support.
Over the past 20 years, those priests and Catholics in the South who have visited North Korea through various channels had opportunities to visit Changchung Cathedral and to attend Mass together with the North Korean faithful. Humanitarian exchanges and aid have also been going on through the Changchung Cathedral. However, the reaction toward the North Korean Church varies among South Korean priests and faithful. Some of them were impressed by the Service in which they participated together with the North while others have come to have suspicions. It is understandable that some would have such suspicions saying: “Are the North Koreans who come to mass at Changchung Cathedral true believers?”
In my opinion, the truth is that there are some faithful among those North Koreans who come to Mass held in the Changchung Cathedral. Though most of them are mobilized by the North Korean regime, I believe that some of them are real Catholic faithful.
In 2001, North Korea claimed that there were 38,000 religious believers: 10,000 Protestants, 3000 Catholics, 10,000 Buddhist, and 15,000 Cheondoists (followers of a syncretic believe largely based on Confucianism). Are there Christians and what numbers are we talking about?
Unfortunately, we are not sure the numbers. However, we believe there are Christians.
Can you tell us about North Korea’s “Songbun” social stratification system and how Christians are classified within the system? (“Songbun determines access to necessities such as food, education, and healthcare?)
“Sungbun” is known to be a system to secure and maintain the North Korean regime. We only have to rely on the testimonies from the North Korean defectors so it is not easy to draw a complete and detailed conclusion. We can only assume that in the process of distribution of goods and services, the class or group of people who are loyal to the regime gets more share or more generously treated.
The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report “found the regime guilty of crimes against humanity saying that” Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and our persecuted. What persecution are we talking about?
Most defectors I met said they have never encountered religions in North Korea. I personally believe that it is quite impossible to carry on one’s faith in a long term without being undiscovered under the strict regime. In the case of Catholics, it is an exception. The Catholic liturgy continues at the Jangchung Catholic Church. Naturally, there are disputes among South Korean Catholics whether the faithful gathered at the Jangchung church are genuine Catholic faithful.
The centre also seeks to integrate refugees – what are some of the challenges that these defectors encounter when arriving South Korea?
The refugees mainly encounter problems of being the minority. Moreover, the special characteristics of the Inter-Korean relations further reinforces their hardships. When the relations worsen, the refugees are usually regarded as enemy within the South Korean society. When the relations thaw, then they are sometimes considered as a hindrance in the reconciliation between the two.
Do you have hope that one day Christianity will come back to the north?
Yes. Not soon but very slowly, I believe that Christianity will come back to the North with the reform and opening of North Korea. The North Korean regime will not put down their guard against religions and missionary works so easily. I believe that the Holy Spirit will be with us and we will need to make effort continuously with much patience.
How can we help?
At the end of all things, we need to earn the hearts of North Korean people. The Christian people can help by showing and action on love without expecting anything in return. According to Pope Francis, we, Christians, must believe that the dialogues and negotiations are the only way, not the military forces. It is not an easy path to advance but we must hold high hopes to achieve peace by peaceful ways. Regarding the evangelization of North Korea and the North Korean human rights, let us work together for peace so that the regime would transform gradually in memory of North Korean people who are enduring difficult lives.