Competing with Secular Gods in North Korea

Kim Jong-un at a ruling-party meeting in Pyongyang in December 2016. (Korean Central News Agency/via Reuters)
If Kim Jong-un wants the blessings of foreign commerce, the U.S. and others should press him to do more to liberalize his society.

Some of President Trump’s critics complain that the Republican party has become a cult. And some GOP apparatchiks have taken the position that the president can do no wrong. Nevertheless, support for him still falls decidedly short of the transcendent.

That doesn’t mean that politics cannot become a religion. In North Korea, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are demigod the father and demigod son; Juche is the political gospel. Writings of the Kims are treated as scripture. Which helps explain the North’s position as the world’s worst religious persecutor.

The Korean Peninsula long hosted a variety of religious beliefs. Shamanism, Confucianism, and Buddhism go back centuries. Catholicism arrived in the 16th century; Protestantism was promoted via missionaries in the 19th. John Ross, a Presbyterian, completed the first Korean-language New Testament in 1887. The new faith took particularly strong hold in the north; with hundreds of churches, Pyongyang was known as the “Jerusalem of the East.” From there Christianity spread throughout the peninsula and into adjoining China (Manchuria).

The Korean kingdom resisted the foreign import. The peninsula’s Japanese colonial overlords attempted to force adherence to Shintoism, resulting in persecution focused on Korean Christians, who refused to adopt their oppressor’s faith. Korean Christian expatriates were among leading independence activists for Korea. Even the parents of North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung were Presbyterians, and his grandfather was a minister.

During the Soviet occupation, religious persecution in the northern half of the peninsula went from bad to worse. The Bolsheviks waged war on Christianity in the USSR and were no more friendly when occupying Korea. The Soviets chose Kim Il-sung, an anti-Japanese guerrilla leader, to rule the occupation zone. Once the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in 1948, “the regime suppressed religious freedom by arousing the sense of struggle against anti-revolutionary elements and spreading anti-religious sentiments far and wide to strengthen the socialist revolutionary force,” write Yeo-sang Yoon and Sun-young Han, of the North Korean Human Rights Archives and Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, respectively.

Kim brutally consolidated power, initiated war, and enforced uniformity. His government targeted faith in anything other than the Communist party. After the Korean War, according to Yoon and Han, “religious organizations were completely dismantled in the wake of relentless religious suppression, leaving no room for self-regulating religious activities or collective resistance.” Over time, Kim’s personality cult became utterly suffocating, leaving no room for independent thought.

Kim Il-sung, still considered the DPRK’s “eternal president,” once explained that “we came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad habit if they are killed.” While North Korean policy later relaxed — it could hardly grow stricter — religion remains under siege. Indeed, as border controls have loosened, Yoon and Han note, “the North Korean regime has tightened its watch on the refugees and defectors who are deported from China because of the fear that they have been exposed to religion.”

Although the North’s constitution formally protects freedom of religion, it bans activities that allegedly harm the state or enlist foreign influences. Which in practice means everything religious. No wonder the DPRK long has occupied the No. 1 position on Open Doors’ “World Watch List.” Indeed, the group reported worsening conditions: “an increased number of arrests and abduction of South Korean and Chinese Korean Christians and missionaries in China, strengthened border control with harsher punishment for North Korean citizens who are repatriated from China, and increased efforts by the North Korean government to eliminate all channels for spreading the Christian faith.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has marked the North as a “country of particular concern” and noted that the DPRK “continued to carry out systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.” In its most recent report, USCIRF reports that North Korea “is one of the most isolated and repressed societies in the world.” Pyongyang “places unjust restrictions on its people’s inherent right to freedom of religion or belief.”

Perhaps 50,000 people have been jailed for religious offenses. In labor camps prisoners, “face dire living conditions and are likely forced to provide hard labor,” according to USCIRF. Five churches operate in Pyongyang, but “defectors interviewed after fleeing North Korea often question the legitimacy of these institutions,” which may have been established “in order to maintain the illusion of religious freedom for international audiences.”

The State Department in its latest religious-liberty report paints an equally depressing portrait, citing the “almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and in many instances, violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity.” North Koreans typically “concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear their activities would be reported to the authorities.”

Refugees reported that religious liberty had declined over the past decade. Human-rights and religious-freedom groups reported that “members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs,” the State Department explains. Children were enlisted to inform on their parents and look for Bibles. Religious activities, including just reading the Bible, that occur outside of state-sanctioned churches can “lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps.” Punishment was “very strict” for those in contact with missionaries. Moreover, “the government deported, detained, and sometimes released foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within its borders.”

Five churches — three Protestant, one Catholic, and one Orthodox — operate in Pyongyang, but multiple reports suggest that they are Potemkin affairs, with sham congregations. Indeed, one defector, reported State, “said authorities quickly realized [that] one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and allowing persons to attend church was that many of the attendees converted to Christianity, so authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome.” Further, State cited reports, from academics and non-governmental organizations, that the DPRK’s “policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state.” This apparently is the role of the Buddhist Federation, the Korean Christian Federation, and the Korean Catholic Federation, groups that in practice do not promote their nominal faiths.

Still, Christianity survives. Yoon and Han interviewed North Korean defectors and refugees. They report a small but important bright spot: “The number of unofficial, behind-the-scenes and clandestine religious activities has increased little by little despite the North’s anti-religious policies.” Since then, increased cross-border traffic has expanded opportunities for evangelism, leading the government of Kim Jong-un to target returned refugees who converted or had contact with foreign missionaries.

Religious liberty is not just an abstract, theoretical right. Real people suffer as a result of persecution. “According to the outcome of an intensive survey on the level of punishment against those involved in religious activities, only 2.9 percent of those arrested are sent to labor training camps,” Yoon and Han report. By contrast, 14.9 percent are sent to prisons and an astonishing 81.4 percent to political prisons camps, the harshest level of punishment in North Korean society. This testifies how severely the regime punishes those involved in religious activities.”

Earlier this year the South China Morning Post published a detailed account of persecution in the DPRK. For instance:

One North Korean defector in Seoul describes her family back home quietly singing Christian hymns every Sunday while someone stood watch for informers. A second cowered under a blanket or in the toilet when praying in the North. Yet another recalls seeing a fellow prison inmate who had been severely beaten for refusing to repudiate her religion.

Defector Ju Illyong reported that his cousin’s family was jailed after authorities discovered that a distant relative was a Christian. Ju’s relatives were executed for proselytizing.

Believers are most limited in their opportunity to share their faith. From the South China Morning Post: “Most of North Korea’s underground Christians do not engage in the extremely dangerous work of proselytizing, according to defectors and outside experts. Instead, they largely keep their beliefs to themselves or within their immediate families. But even those who stay deep underground face danger, defectors say.” Their desire to fully practice their faith spurs defections. Explained one who went to the South: “I wanted to build my church and sing out as loud as I could.”

Kim Il-sung eventually recognized that ostentatiously claiming to eliminate religion was bad for his international image. The regime realized “that a claim about the nonexistence of religion in the North could never be a matter of pride, but would only make it a laughingstock or a target of criticism in the international community,” Yoon and Han observe. Moreover, religious groups have been in the forefront of providing humanitarian aid.

In the 1970s, Pyongyang officially claimed to guarantee religious freedom. “The policy reached its climax in 1988, bringing perfunctory and even qualitative changes to various religions,” according to Yoon and Han. However, hostility remained paramount. Yoon and Han:

North Korea has adopted a so-called “parallel policy” toward religion, whereby it takes advantage of religion politically, but in fact suppresses it. The “parallel policy” is a dual policy through which the regime tries to appear in the international community as if it is tolerating religion and guaranteeing religious freedom, while implementing a policy of suppressing religion internally. It is evident that the regime is only taking advantage of religion politically to seek practical gains, whilst in reality it is destroying the very basis of religion in the North by getting rid of religious people and banning activities by religious organizations.

Still, concern about international opinion offered an opportunity for the gospel. For instance, Kim Il-sung invited American evangelist Billy Graham to preach in the North. The latter’s words planted seeds to sprout in later years. South Korean President Moon Jae-in conveyed Kim Jong-un’s similar invitation to Pope Francis, who replied, “If the invitation comes, I will surely respond to it, and I can possibly go.” However, even if he does go, the North Korean people will have to wait to live out their faiths freely.

Pyongyang is not just an enormous humanitarian tragedy. The country also presents an obvious foreign-policy challenge to America. But increased contact with the North offers at least a glimmer of hope for the future on both counts.

Transforming the security environment almost certainly is a necessary precondition for improving human rights. Increased engagement also creates an opportunity to press for a dialogue on respect for human life and dignity, including religious freedom. Kim Jong-un, who has broken with his father and grandfather in numerous ways, has proved to be surprisingly conscious of his international image of late. If he wants the blessings of foreign commerce, the U.S. and others should press him to do more to liberalize his society.

In the meantime, people of good will around the world should work and pray for the North’s transformation. Even if engagement fails to remake the DPRK, that strategy remains a better bet than isolation. The North Korean people deserve to be free.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire and Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics.


The Latest