Repressive, atheist North Korea has a surprising relationship with Christian missionaries

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: As Jason mentioned, there were lots of Christians in North Korea before the Communist regime took over there. I asked Isaac Stone Fish to tell us more about that. He’s asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine.


Isaac Stone Fish: North Korea in the 1910’s and 1920’s was a hotbed of Christian Evangelicism. It was known as the “Jerusalem of the East.” There’s a lot of strong links between the western church and North Korea, and then when Kim Il-Sung took over and started the Korean War in the late 1940’s-1950’s, these people were all driven out.


Werman: So the “Jerusalem of the East.” If you go there today, I would suspect that we’d find the prominent religion being “Kim-ism,” if you will. How much residue from that history of being this thriving Christian capital is there today? Any competition with “Kim-ism”?


Stone Fish: None at all. There’s very, very small marks that Christianity left on North Korea. Some people have said that some of the songs that the regime sings to glorify the Kims reminds them of Christian hymns. There are a couple of churches in North Korea. These are all Potemkin churches, they’re all just there for show. People who pray there don’t actually pray and are planted by the regime. That’s basically it.


Werman: When we talk Christian activists in North Korea, what are we talking about? Who are they and what do they think they can do there?


Stone Fish: Well, there’s two different types of Christian activists in North Korea. There’s people like Jeffrey Fowle, who go as a tourist and then do things like leaving Bibles in the bathroom of sailor’s clubs, as Fowle allegedly did. One of the other Americans who was arrested, Kenneth Bay, also allegedly did something similar, spread Christian messages illegally. But there’s also a surprisingly large group of missionaries who work in Pyongyang and who work in the far northwest of the country near the Chinese border and they’re almost sanctioned by the North Korean state. They do nonprofit work -- some guy owns a tofu factory; there’s a Christian university in Pyongyang that hires a lot of teachers and they’re not allowed to overtly proselytize, but there are ways that communicate what they believe, the ascendance and the strength of Jesus Christ, even in North Korea. “Praying with their eyes open,” I think is the phrase they like to use.


Werman: In the absence of Bible thumpers in the streets of Pyongyang, when you hear about the Christians who have put up a Christmas tree along the border facing North Korea, do you think of them as activists who go as geographically as far as they can to push Christianity to the north?


Stone Fish: I guess I could expand my two types of missionaries who work in North Korea -- there’s also the types who are not actually in North Korea, people on the border of South Korea, the border in China, who either -- things like the recently torn down Christmas tree tower or they will send pamphlets in talking about Jesus, talking about the importance of the Bible. Or they will work with defectors who have recently come out of North Korea and try to convert them to Christianity and, in some cases, once they’re converted, try to send them back into North Korea to act as itinerant preachers. So the majority of the people who work on North Korean issues in both South Korea and the West tend to be Christian, and a lot of them tend to be Evangelical Christians because North Korea is seen as this last great untouched territory for Christianity. And indeed, it’s probably the only country in the world where no one officially is Christian.


Werman: If North Korea does maintain this Communist dogma of atheism, why would they even entertain Christian-funded university or anybody who expressed some kind of Christian thought?


Stone Fish: It’s so lucrative. The Christian churches in South Korea are very, very well-funded. In a lot of ways, proselytizing in North Korea is a pay-to-play game. This university, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, reportedly cost $35 million to set up. You have to imagine that a lot of that money is lining the pockets of people who are making decisions about who gets to come into North Korea and who doesn’t. That, for a country that’s as impoverished as North Korea”¦ The other angle on that too is I don’t think the North Korean government fears that, from the amount of missionaries that they’ve let in, from the amount of access that their people have to the outside world, that Christianity will actually spread. My sense is that they believe that they have it under control.


Werman: Isaac Stone Fish, asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine, good to speak with you again. Thank you.


Stone Fish: Thanks Marco.