North Korea: where Hollywood movies are being watched secretly

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.

 

Father Kang Ju-Seok, director of the Catholic Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Institute
Father Kang Ju-Seok, director of the Catholic Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Institute

 

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.

 

The Korean Demilitarized Zone
The Korean Demilitarized Zone

 

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.

 

the inner-korean border at Panmunjeom
The inner-korean border at Panmunjom

 

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.

 

North Korea
North Korea

 

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.

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Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

La visite du Pape nous remontera le moral, plus que toute autre chose. Tous les yeux de la planète seront dirigés vers Baghdeda. Le monde saura ainsi ce qui est arrivé à cette ville : les terribles destructions et la migration forcée. Ce serait également bien si nous recevions ensuite un peu plus d’aide et de soutien. Cette visite est très importante pour nous qui sommes ici, surtout après l’énorme migration forcée de tant des nôtres. Cette visite signifie que nous ne sommes pas seuls et qu’il y a des gens qui prient pour nous. Cela nous donnera de l’espoir, nous encouragera à rester dans notre pays et à ne pas le quitter.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Si j’ai l’occasion de le rencontrer, je voudrais le remercier pour sa visite qui nous rend très heureux, et pour ses prières. Je tiens également à le remercier pour toute l’aide qu’il nous a procurée ces derniers temps. Je n’oublie pas sa grande solidarité et le geste qu’il a fait en vendant aux enchères la Lamborghini qu’on lui avait donnée pour soutenir avec l’argent récolté la reconstruction de la plaine de Ninive. Je voudrais aussi qu’il continue à prier pour nous afin que la paix arrive en Irak.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

Je voudrais lui montrer l’église historique Al-Tahira et des photos de Baghdeda, je voudrais qu’il voie comment l’État Islamique l’a détruite et comment les gens d’ici ont eu le courage de la reconstruire.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa levantará el ánimo y la moral, más que cualquier otra cosa. Todos los ojos del mundo se dirigirán a Baghdeda. Así, el mundo sabrá lo que le sucedió a esta ciudad. La terrible destrucción y la migración forzada. También sería bueno si luego recibimos más ayuda y apoyo. Esta visita es realmente importante para nosotros, los que estamos aquí, especialmente después de la enorme migración forzada de tantos de los nuestros. La visita significa que no estamos solos y hay quienes rezan por nosotros. Esto nos dará esperanza, nos animará a permanecer en nuestra tierra y no dejarla.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Si tengo la oportunidad de encontrarme con él: quiero agradecerle su visita, que nos hace muy felices, y su oración. También quiero darle las gracias por todo lo que nos ha ayudado durante el último periodo. No me olvido de su gran solidaridad y del gesto de subastar el Lamborghini para apoyar con ese dinero la reconstrucción de la llanura de Nínive. También quiero que siga orando por nosotros para que la paz llegue a Irak.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Quiero mostrarle la histórica iglesia Al-Tahira y fotos de Baghdeda, quiero que vea cómo fue destruida por ISIS y cómo la gente de aquí ha sido tan fuerte para reconstruirla nuevamente.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes wird die Stimmung und die Moral heben, mehr als alles andere. Alle Augen der Welt werden auf Baghdida gerichtet sein. Dann wird die Welt erfahren, was mit dieser Stadt passiert ist, die schreckliche Zerstörung und die erzwungene Migration. Es wäre auch gut, wenn wir anschließend mehr Hilfe und Unterstützung bekommen würden. Dieser Besuch ist wirklich wichtig für uns hier, besonders nach der großen Zwangsmigration so vieler unserer Leute. Der Besuch bedeutet, dass wir nicht allein sind, und dass es Menschen gibt, die für uns beten. Das wird uns Hoffnung geben, es wird uns ermutigen, in unserem Land zu bleiben und es nicht zu verlassen.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Wenn ich die Gelegenheit habe, ihn zu treffen: Ich möchte ihm für seinen Besuch, der uns sehr glücklich macht, und für sein Gebet danken. Ich möchte mich auch bei ihm für alles bedanken, was uns in der letzten Zeit geholfen hat. Ich werde nie seine große Solidarität vergessen sowie die Geste, den Lamborghini zu versteigern (siehe Link zur Meldung), um mit diesem Geld den Wiederaufbau der Ninive-Ebene zu unterstützen. Ich möchte auch, dass er weiterhin für uns betet, damit im Irak Frieden einkehrt.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die historische Al-Tahira-Kirche zeigen und Bilder von Baghdida, ich möchte, dass er sieht, wie alles von ISIS zerstört wurde und welcher Kraft die Menschen hier es wiederaufgebaut haben.

What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
The papal visit will lift up our spirits and morale more than anything else. All the eyes of the world will be on Baghdeda. And in this way the world will know what happened to this city. The terrible destruction and the forcible ethnic cleansing. It will also be a good thing if afterwards we get more support and help. This visit is really important to us, to those of us who are living here, especially after the massive ethnic cleansing and expulsion of so many of us. His visit means that we are not alone and that there are people who are praying for us. This will give us fresh hope and encourage us to persevere, here on our own soil, and not leave it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
If I get the opportunity to meet him, I would like to be able to thank him for his visit, which has made us very happy, and for his prayers. I would also like to thank him for all he has done to help us in recent times. I have not forgotten his great gesture of solidarity in auctioning the Lamborghini in order to use the money to help pay for the reconstruction of our homes on the Niniveh plains. I would also like to ask him to continue praying for us and for peace to return to Iraq.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? Which places should he visit?
I would like to show him our historic Al-Tahira church, and some photos of Baghdeda. I’d like him to be able to see how it was destroyed by IS and how the people here have worked so hard recently to rebuild it once more.

Qu’est-ce que cette visite signifie pour vous ?

La visite du Pape est ce que nous désirions le plus ici. C’est une grande bénédiction. Nous avons un grand désir de le voir. Ce qui rajoute de l’importance à cette visite, c’est la situation de vulnérabilité que nous, chrétiens, subissons en Irak. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cette fragilité, toutes sont les séquelles de l’État Islamique. Toutes ces destructions ont grandement contribué à l’émigration des chrétiens. De nombreux problèmes pèsent sur nous. Mais par sa visite, le Pape nous donnera de l’espérance et de la confiance, il nous encouragera et réduira notre fardeau. Bien que la situation soit instable en Irak en ce qui concerne la sécurité, tout spécialement dans le domaine politique, on s’attend à ce qu’à l’arrivée du Pape, sa sécurité soit correctement assurée.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Je voudrais lui demander de me donner sa bénédiction, de bénir mon travail et le dévouement des prêtres d’ici, et de bénir le peuple par ses prières. Je voudrais lui demander d’aider tous ceux qui sont en danger dans ce pays, qu’ils soient chrétiens ou musulmans. Qu’il tente de mobiliser les pays du monde entier pour soutenir ce pays qui a besoin d’aide.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais qu’il visite l’église Al-Tahira, parce que c’est un symbole et un élément du patrimoine de Baghdeda. Cette église est la mère, le foyer et le patrimoine de chacun des habitants de Baghdeda. Nos ancêtres ont construit cette église, nous avons tous le sentiment d’en faire partie. Bien sûr, nous serions heureux qu’il visite de nombreux endroits, des églises, monastères et maisons traditionnelles, et qu’il rencontre également beaucoup de gens qui ont le désir de le voir.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa es lo que más hemos deseado aquí. Es una gran bendición. Sentimos un gran anhelo de verlo. Lo que agrega importancia a esta visita son las condiciones tan vulnerables que sufrimos los cristianos en Irak. Hay varios motivos para esa fragilidad, todas las secuelas que ha dejado el ISIS, esa enorme destrucción ha llevado en gran medida a la emigración de cristianos. Muchos problemas pesan sobre nosotros. Pero cuando nos visite, nos dará esperanza, confianza y aliento y reducirá esta carga. Además del hecho de que la situación de seguridad en Irak, especialmente la política, es inestable, se espera que a la llegada del Papa se garantice su seguridad de manera correcta.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Querría pedirle que me dé su bendición, que bendiga mi servicio y la entrega de los sacerdotes aquí y que bendiga al pueblo a través de sus plegarias. Le pido que ayude a todos los que están en peligro en este país, ya sean cristianos o musulmanes. Que intente movilizar a los países del mundo para que apoyen a este país que necesita ayuda.

 ¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda / Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me encantaría que visite la iglesia Al-Tahira, porque es símbolo y patrimonio de Baghdeda. Esta iglesia es madre, hogar y herencia de cada uno de los habitantes de Baghdeda. Nuestros antepasados ​​construyeron esta iglesia, todos nos sentimos parte de ella. Ciertamente, nos alegraría que visitara muchos lugares, iglesias, monasterios y casas tradicionales,  también que vea a muchas personas que anhelan verlo.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes ist das, was wir uns hier am meisten gewünscht haben. Es ist ein großer Segen. Wir spüren eine starke Sehnsucht, ihn zu sehen. Was diesen Besuch noch wichtiger macht, sind die äußerst prekären Bedingungen, unter denen wir Christen im Irak leiden. Es gibt mehrere Gründe für diese Zerbrechlichkeit. All die Folgen, die ISIS hinterlassen hat, diese enorme Zerstörung hat in großem Maße zur Auswanderung von Christen geführt. Viele Probleme lasten auf uns. Aber wenn er uns besucht, wird er uns Hoffnung, Zuversicht und Ermutigung geben und diese Last verringern. Auch wenn die Sicherheitslage im Irak, insbesondere die politische Situation, instabil ist, hoffen wir, dass bei der Ankunft des Papstes seine Sicherheit ausreichend gewährleistet ist.

 

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Ich möchte ihn bitten, mir seinen Segen zu geben, meinen Dienst und die Hingabe der Priester hier zu segnen und die Menschen durch seine Gebete zu segnen. Ich bitte ihn, all jenen zu helfen, die in diesem Land in Gefahr sind, ob sie nun Christen oder Muslime sind; und die Länder der Welt zu mobilisieren, um dieses Land, das Hilfe braucht, zu unterstützen.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida / Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte, dass er die Al-Tahira-Kirche besucht, denn sie ist ein Symbol und Erbe von Baghdida. Diese Kirche ist die Mutter, die Heimat und das Vermächtnis eines jeden einzelnen Menschen in Baghdida. Unsere Vorfahren haben diese Kirche erbaut, wir alle fühlen uns als Teil von ihr. Sicherlich würden wir uns freuen, wenn er viele Orte, Kirchen, Klöster und traditionelle Häuser besuchen würde, und auch, wenn er viele Menschen treffen würde, die sich danach sehnen, ihn zu sehen.

What does the visit mean to you?
The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.

 

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
I would like to ask him to give me his blessing, to bless my ministry and the hard work of all the priests here, and also to bless all the people through his prayers. I would ask him to help all those in danger in this country, whether they are Christians or Muslims. And that he might strive to encourage the countries of the world to support this nation, which is truly in need.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places ought he to visit?
I would love him to visit the Al-Tahira church, because it is a symbol and a rich cultural legacy of Baghdeda. This church is the mother, the home and the inheritance of every one of the inhabitants of Baghdeda. Our forefathers built this church, and we all feel we are a part of it. Of course, we would be happy for him to visit many different places – churches, monasteries and traditional homes – and also for him to be able to meet all the many people who are longing to see him.

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

Elle a une valeur morale, et non pas économique. Cette question occupera l’opinion publique mondiale, et tout spécialement irakienne. J’ai l’impression d’y tenir une place importante.

 

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Ce sera formidable de faire sa connaissance, et je voudrais lui dire : « Nous avons besoin d’une protection internationale parce que notre communauté chrétienne a subi une migration forcée ».

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais lui montrer les églises et les maisons brûlées, afin qu’il voie les dégâts que l’État Islamique a laissés derrière lui dans cette ville. Et aussi notre Musée du patrimoine de Baghdeda pour lui présenter notre histoire et notre culture.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita tiene un valor moral, no económico. Este tema ocupará la opinión pública en el mundo y especialmente en Irak. Siento que tengo un lugar importante en él.

 

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Será genial conocerlo y querría decirle “necesitamos protección internacional, porque nuestra comunidad cristiana ha sufrido una migración forzada”.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me gustaría mostrarle las iglesias y las casas quemadas, para que vea el daño que dejó ISIS en esta ciudad. Y también nuestro Museo del patrimonio de Baghdeda para presentarle nuestro historia y cultura.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch hat einen moralischen Wert, keinen wirtschaftlichen. Er wird die öffentliche Meinung in der Welt und insbesondere im Irak beherrschen. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich einen wichtigen Anteil daran habe.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Es wird großartig sein, ihn zu treffen, und ich möchte ihm sagen: „Wir brauchen internationalen Schutz, weil unsere christliche Gemeinschaft unter der erzwungenen Auswanderung gelitten hat“.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die Kirchen und ausgebrannten Häuser zeigen, damit er den Schaden sieht, den ISIS in dieser Stadt angerichtet hat. Und auch unser Heimatmuseum in Baghdida, um ihm unsere Geschichte und Kultur näher zu bringen.

What does this visit mean to you?
This visit has a moral value rather than an economic one. This is a topic that will engage public opinion around the world and especially in Iraq. I feel as though I have an important part to play in it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?

It would be wonderful to be able to meet him, and I would like to be able to say to him, “We need international protection, because our Christian community was forcibly displaced.”

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places should he visit?
I would like to be able to show him the churches and houses that were burnt out, so that he could see the destruction left behind by IS in this city. And also our Baghdeda Heritage Museum, so that we can show him our history and culture.