Revolution and Revival: Ideology and Faith in North Korea

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Kim Il-sung helps a young guerrilla see the error of his ways in this depiction of an emotional moment in the war for the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule, which is contained in a book printed in Pyongyang, Arduous March.1)Arduous March (Pyongyang: Arts and Literature Publishing House, 1997), 6. | Image: Arts and Literature Publishing House

When discussion turns to religion in North Korea, one may imagine an uneven battle between the Leviathan state and believers armed with nothing more than their faith. And indeed, for the time being the North Korean state does have all forms of spirituality under its iron fist. But the 70-year history of DPR Korea is but a blip on the radar of history. As Christopher Richardson reminds us here, it is almost certain that Christianity, with northern Korean peninsula roots that date back many hundreds of years, will survive the ignominious imposition of Kimist rule.

This is an edited and updated version of a speech the author delivered in Sydney at the St James’ Institute on the 18th of June 2017 during an event with Michael Kirby exploring ideology and Christianity in North Korea.– Christopher Green, Co-editor.

Revolution and Revival: Ideology and Faith in North Korea

by Christopher Richardson

Chilgol Church in Pyongyang, one of a handful of facilities for religious worship in use in North Korea. | Image: Wikicommons

On June 3, 2017, a 61-year-old man was arrested on returning home to North Korea from a border crossing into China. He was, alleges an eyewitness, “dragged by state security officials in front of Wiyon train station [near Hyesan]… shackled and tied with rope… the man had split lips and black eyes, and he appeared to have sustained an injury to one of his legs.” The Ministry of State Security (MSS) arrested Mr Kim, “on charges of spying.” The evidence? According to the witness, “after he came back from China, [Mr Kim] told his neighbors that his relatives [in China] attended a Christian church, and the church’s pastor collected many used clothes from parishioners for him.” Unfortunately for Mr Kim, one of his neighbors would fulfill their duty as a loyal citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and informed the MSS. Christianity, in North Korea, is a thought crime.

Yet it was not always so.

Pyongyang Pentecost | One hundred and ten years earlier, in the winter of 1907, thousands of Koreans gathered in Pyongyang. The pilgrims came on foot, in some cases over a hundred miles or more of snow. They came to Pyongyang for Bible study, prayers and preaching.2)Arun Jones, “The Great Revival of 1907 as a Phenomenon in Korean Religions,” Journal of World Christianity 2, no. 1 (2009): 82-110. Professor Samuel H. Moffett of Princeton Theological Seminary – himself born in Pyongyang the son of Samuel A. Moffett, a key figure in the Korean church of the time – described this as a “Korean Pentecost.” On the centenary of the revival in Pyongyang, Professor Moffett explained to Christianity Today that, “We haven’t had anything as conspicuous… in the last 100 years… this was the foundation for the growth of the church in Korea. The growth was immense and explosive.” North Korean-born Presbyterian pastor Pang Ji-il, who studied at Pyongyang Seminary, described 1907 as the year Pyongyang became the “Jerusalem of the East.” Pang Ji-il would die in 2014 at the age of 103 in Seoul, South Korea, never able to return to his hometown of Sinchon in the north, nor to Pyongyang, where he had trained to be a priest.

In 1903, an earlier outpouring of faith and fervor had occurred in the “Wonsan Revival” on the east coast of Korea.3)Sun-wook Kim, “Evaluating the Revival Experience of Korean Missionary Robert A. Hardie (1865-1949) in View of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections,” Expository Times 128, no. 9 (2017): 434-439. Before that, on the west coast in 1884, the Brothers Seo – Seo Sang-ryun and Seo Sang-u – had built the first Korean church in Sorae, and the Seos helped a Scottish missionary named John Ross to translate the New Testament into Korean for the first time. Catholicism ran deeper still, also flowing from the north. In 1603, a Korean intellectual named Yi Gwang-jeong encountered writings by the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci in Ming Dynasty Peking, and returned home with volumes of Western philosophy, religion, science and geography. For many Koreans, particularly adherents of the reformist Silhak School of Confucianism, Christianity’s egalitarianism appealed to their belief that the rigid feudal hierarchies that prevailed under the Korean Kings were unjust.

Despite periods of intense persecution, Catholicism grew. King Yeongjo tried to ban the faith in 1758, yet by the end of the Eighteenth Century the number of Korean Catholics would swell under the leadership of a charismatic preacher named Yi Sung-hun. By the time of the Protestant revivals of the early Twentieth Century, Christianity was entrenched on the peninsula, and Christians built many of Korea’s first and finest hospitals, schools and universities. In South Korea many remain so to this day, including Severance Hospital (founded by Dr. Horace Allen in 1885), Ewha Women’s University (founded in 1886 by Methodists), and later Yonsei University (founded in 1915 by Presbyterian Horace Underwood).

Render Unto Caesar | Korean Christians – nay, all Koreans – faced a test of faith in 1910, when Imperial Japan began a brutal occupation of Korea that would last until the end of World War Two. Under the yoke of empire, Koreans endured a cultural genocide, forced to take foreign names and learn the occupier’s language. Men were drafted into the Imperial Army, and women drafted into sexual servitude as so-called “Comfort Women.” The Emperor of Japan was to be their god now. Along with communism – another imported ideology by then competing for Korean hearts and minds – Christianity inspired dissent. Many of the men and women most active in the anti-Japanese resistance, including leaders of the March 1st Independence Movement of 1919, were Christians. These included Presbyterian pastor Gil Seon-ju, who – like so many Christians in Korea – had participated in the Pyongyang Revival twelve years earlier.4)Timothy S. Lee, “A Political Factor in the Rise of Protestantism in Korea: Protestantism and the 1919 March First Movement,” Church History 69, no. 1 (2000): 116-142.

Born in 1912, Kim Il-sung was too young to recall the revival in Pyongyang, and yet like many Korean nationalists the future Supreme Leader of North Korea had close ties to the church.5)Yong-ho Choe, “Christian Background in the Early Life of Kim Il-Song,” Asian Survey 26, no. 10 (1986): 1082-1091. His mother served as a Presbyterian deaconess, whilst Kim himself attended mission school, and even played the organ.6)Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2006), 15-16. Kim rose to fame, or notoriety, in the anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle of the 1930s, leading daring raids against imperial forces in occupied Manchuria. By now allied with the Communist Chinese and Soviets, Kim nevertheless wrote in his memoir With the Century that, “I do not think the spirit of Christianity that preaches universal peace and harmony contradicts my idea advocating an independent life for man.”7)Kim Il-sung, Reminiscences: With The Century, Volume One (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1994), 104. Indeed, as Andrei Lankov notes, “Pretty much every single important Korean Communist of the 40s, 30s, and 20s came from a Christian family with very few exceptions.”

The Korean Chidren’s Union, founded in 1946 to induct the youth into a new Kimist ideology. | Image: KCNA

Liberation Theology | According to state propaganda, Kim and his guerrillas brought Japan to heel. In reality, half a century of occupation ended after America’s atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made war, and further occupation, untenable for Tokyo. Following the division of the peninsula into a Soviet-backed north and US-backed south, the new state that Kim Il-sung would preside over soon became one of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians. Pyongyang, once a city of revival, became the capital of revolution. Wonsan and Sorae too had fallen north of the De-Militarized Zone, inside the soon to be Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

It did not take long for the ground to shift beneath the feet of North Korean Christians. The Korean Children’s Union – founded in 1946 along lines similar to the Soviet Union’s Young Pioneers – began inducting North Korean youth into a new Kimist ideology. As Suzy Kim explains, members of the Union soon were “targeting children from Christian families in order to dissuade them from attending church.”8)Suzy Kim, Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 125. Within a decade, most of the Christians in the north, from the upper echelons of the Korean Worker’s Party down, had been purged or executed. Thousands of Christians fled to South Korea, before, during and immediately following the apocalyptic Korean War of 1950-1953. The DPRK soon tore down those churches not already flattened by the US Air Force’s bombing of the north.

Buddhism also earned the persecuting ire of Kim Il-sung. As Dae-sook Suh writes, Kim believed Buddhists made poor revolutionaries, as they “sit and meditate, but do nothing.”9)Dae-sook Suh, Kim Il-sung: The North Korean Leader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 154. Adherents of Chondogyo fared better, at least at first. This young religion combined Donghak-inspired Confucian thought with Korean nationalism and indigenous shamanic practices. Even today, the Chondoist Chongu Party operates inside North Korea, yet only as a shell party to foster the illusion of democracy.

Faith In Hiding | North Korean Christians who would or could not flee went into hiding, and there remain. Estimates of the number worshiping today vary. Open Doors claims 300,000 Christians practice their faith in North Korea, whilst Melanie Kirkpatrick claims up to 400,000. As she explains, “a typical Christian church… is tiny. The congregation may consist of only one family, or even just a husband and a wife. Children are excluded from worship until they reach the age when they can keep a secret.”10)Melanie Kirkpatrick, Escape From North Korea (New York: Encounter, 2012), 166. The risks of discovery are high, and many Korean Christians are victims of the state’s network of prison camps.11)United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” February 7, 2014: 68-73. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry records the story of a woman seized by the MSS, “on suspicion of practicing the Christian religion … she was fully immersed in cold water for hours. Only when she stood on her tiptoes would her nose be barely above the water level. She could hardly breathe. She was gripped by panic, fearing that she might drown.”12)Ibid., 212.

400,000 North Korean Christians sounds like wishful thinking. Perhaps it is. Yet the Korean church is older than the lifespan of the Kim regime, and has survived waves of repression over centuries before. Only when the DPRK reforms or collapses will we know how many underground churches have survived, but I have met North Korean exiles who practiced the faith in secret. As one woman told me, she used to look up at the stars as a child and wonder, “Who made me?” knowing that the answer was not Kim Il-sung.

Image from the museum at Sinchon in Hwanghae Province that memorializes the atrocities that North Korea alleges were committed by the US and its Christians during the Korean War. | Image: Christopher Richardson/Sino-NK

Kim of Kims | Paradoxically, Kim Il-sung’s objections to the church mirrored his objections to the throne he so despised. Christians were called to worship God alone. They could no more worship Kim Il-sung as Great Leader than submit to an Emperor in Tokyo as god. And so the old alliance between Korean Communists and Christians shattered. In a perverse reversal, Christianity became a symbol of imperialism, rather than resistance. In Han Sorya’s 1951 novella Jackals, wicked Yankee missionaries murder a North Korean child with an injection of bacilli, and in images from the Museum of American Crimes in Sinchon, for example, cross-wearing malefactors torture North Korean babies.13)For an English translation of Jackals, see: Brian Myers, Han Sorya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK (Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Series, 1994). Christianity would be henceforth denounced in films, books, newspapers and children’s literature alike.

Yet rather than eliminating Christianity’s cultural legacy altogether, Kim Il-sung appropriated its symbolic and ritual power, building his own state religion and a Cult of Personality that would soon eclipse that of Mao and Stalin for extravagance. Instead of learning about Jesus and the saints, North Korean children would learn of Kim Il-sung and the revolutionary saints. Instead of Bethlehem, children learned of Mangyongdae and Mount Baekdu, humble yet cosmic birthplaces of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.14)Christopher Richardson, “Hagiography of the Kims and the Childhood of Saints,” in Change and Continuity in North Korean Politics, ed. Adam Cathcart, Robert Winstanley-Chesters and Christopher Green (New York: Routledge, 2017). The DPRK even developed its own Ten Commandments. Known as the “Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System,” this moral code is inscribed on every North Korean heart from the cradle to the grave.

Encountering missionaries in Cambodia, North Korean child refugee Kang Hyok recalled how their rites, “reminded me, strangely, of the ceremonies and political studies sessions to the glory of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.”15)Hyok Kang, This Is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood (London: Abacus, 2007), 185. Nevertheless, Sonia Ryang, who grew up in the North Korean school system in Japan notes:

Unlike in the case of God in the context of Protestantism, one cannot claim to have Kim Il-sung inside one’s mind and thereby ‘privatise’ him, so to speak. There is no such thing as having one’s own personal Kim Il-sung … his existence is inseparable from the collectivity of the North Korean nation.16)Sonia Ryang, Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Enquiry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 19.

Or, as I write in my thesis:

In the Christian narrative of fall and redemption, God dies so all may live. In North Korea’s revolutionary mythology, all must be prepared to die so that one, the Supreme Leader, might remain a god.

Now in the third generation of rule by the nuclear-armed Family Kim, North Korean lives continue to be shaped by rituals and songs of adoration for Kim Il-sung and heirs. Kim Jong-un is venerated as the “Sun of the Twenty-First Century.”

“Operation Jericho” | As North Korea’s media environment becomes more porous, and the number of defectors from the North increases, the need for Pyongyang to crack down on heterodoxy has become existential once again. KCNA and Rodong Sinmun excoriate missionaries and aid workers who assist North Koreans in China and in South-East Asia. In 2013, a group of North Korean children traveled via China into Laos. The DPRK insisted that missionaries had trafficked the “Laos Nine” and forced them to convert to Christianity. The North Korean Red Cross claimed:

The south Korean authorities sent flesh traffic dealers under the guise of religionists to the northern border area of the DPRK to lure and abduct dozens of youngsters of the DPRK.… These gangsters, who are old hands at inciting confrontation with fellow countrymen and hatching plots, forced the young people to recite Bible and sing psalm in a bid to make them believe in God…. They showed them undesirable films every day in a sinister attempt to hurt the dignity of the Supreme Leadership of the DPRK and its social system and persistently resorted to brainwashing in an effort to create illusion about south Korea. When children refuse to properly receive religious education and brainwashing, these hooligans unhesitatingly beat them with iron-clubs and punished them….17)“S. Korea’s Inhumane Allurement and Abduction of Youngsters of DPRK Denounced,” KCNA, June 5, 2013.

Laos detained the children and returned them to North Korea via China.

This is no war of words. Missionaries and aid workers have died or disappeared along the Sino-Korean border, including the Rev. Kim Dong-shik. Kim was abducted from China in 2000, and perished in detention inside North Korea. In 2012, a Korean-American named Kenneth Bae was arrested in Rason inside the DPRK for plotting to overthrow the state through prayer in “Operation Jericho.” He was released from a labor camp two years later. In May 2014, an American named Jeffrey Fowle was detained for leaving a Bible in a restaurant toilet in Chongjin, and in February that year an Australian named John Short was seized attempting to distribute Christian pamphlets outside Pyongyang.

On Christmas Day 2009, Robert Park was arrested after an illegal border crossing into North Korea. He was carrying a Bible and shouting, “South Korea and America love you!” Park also, in an act of anti-North Korean “blasphemy,” destroyed a portrait of Kim Jong-il. He was released from North Korea after 43 days in captivity, and has alleged extremes of psychological, physical, and sexual torture. Another missionary, Kim Dong-chul, remains in detention as of mid-2017. The case of Otto Warmbier was even linked – in North Korean state media, at least – to an alleged Christian conspiracy to overthrow the Kim regime. Warmbier’s crime, defacing a poster venerating Kim Jong-il, was purportedly committed at the behest of the CIA … and Methodists. The absurdity of this allegation would only deepen with the revelation that Warmbier was Jewish. For this, the young man would be sentenced to 15 years hard labour, yet sent home in mid-2017 in “a state of unresponsive wakefulness … [with] extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of the brain.” Warmbier had been held in this condition for a year without consular assistance. Within a week of his return to the United States of America, he would be dead.

North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung greets American evangelist Billy Graham on his visit to Pyongyang in 1994. | Image: The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

“Would this country need the Holy Bible?” | Despite its war on Christianity, the DPRK still courts Christians who bring money and resources to the North, but only if they may be quarantined from preaching. Evangelicals constitute a significant proportion of those teachers volunteering at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), offering a world-class education to North Korean students on the proviso that the teachers not evangelize. As Suki Kim recalls, “We had all been warned never to say anything about Jesus. As far as I could tell, the missionaries contented themselves with showing North Koreans the love of Christ simply by being kind to them.” Nevertheless, as Kim also notes, “During a previous semester, one of the teachers had been expelled from the DPRK for leaving Christian texts in the men’s bathroom.”18)Suki Kim, Without You There Is No Us (London: Rider Books, 2015), 70. PUST continues to generate debate, and in 2017 two Korean-American ex-PUST professors were detained in North Korea on charges of anti-state activities. PUST has distanced itself from Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang-duk, and so for now its work continues.

Seeking to maintain good relations, the state might take aid workers and Christian donors to a Sunday service in one of the small number of churches in Pyongyang built on the orders of Kim Jong-il. Yet they are “Potemkin” churches, operated by the Korean Worker’s Party. As North Korean exile and former psychological warfare officer Jang Jin-sung explains:

North Korea has a number of religious institutions that are controlled by the United Front Department [of the Korean Worker’s Party]…. The UFD’s religious institutions exist in order that North Korea may claim that it is a pluralistic society, and thereby appear to comply with the values of those who wish to give it aid… a cadre might be a monk or priest as far as the outside world was concerned, in the UFD they were all faithful followers of the Kim cult… the congregations [in Pyongyang’s model churches] are composed exclusively of UFD operatives and their family members who are obliged to attend out of duty to the Party.19)Jin-sung Jang, Dear Leader (London: Rider Books, 2014), 185-6.

North Korean state media has a knack of wringing propaganda value out of the least likely targets. Ruth Bell Graham – wife of evangelist Billy Graham – grew up in Korea during the 1930s, and studied in a mission school in Pyongyang. Returning in 1997, at the height of a famine that killed between 600,000 and 3 million North Koreans, Ruth Graham preached in one of Pyongyang’s model churches – who knows? – perhaps softening the hearts of the psychological warfare officers and their families in the congregation.20)For an overview of the debate over the number of famine deaths see: UN COI, 203-204. In 1992 and 1994, Billy Graham himself visited Pyongyang. There he met with Kim Il-sung, gave Kim a Bible, and spoke to him of the faith of his childhood. Franklin Graham told FOX News, “Kim Il-sung for some reason liked my father, and gave my father a big bear hug when he met him, and called him family.” Since then, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse have sent more than ten million dollars worth of aid to North Korea.

And how does the Family Kim repay the Graham family’s charity? In 2016, on the 104th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth – known in North Korea as the “Day of the Sun” — state media proclaimed that Billy Graham had hailed Kim as his god. The Rodong Sinmun – North Korea’s state newspaper – quoted Graham as saying back in 1992:

Not believing in God but believing in his people, Premier Kim Il-sung who governs the country in his own way made me think that he might be God.… I admit that Premier Kim Il-sung is God who exists in the world of human beings… he, with his supreme political belief and method has created the greatest heaven on earth that even God might have not been able to do.… Kim Il-sung is this world’s God. Would this country need the Holy Bible?

Responding to an enquiry from NK News, a spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association simply said, “these words do not even remotely resemble Mr Graham’s theology or his language.”

Hills of the North | According to 2015 Population and Housing Census, 27.6 percent of South Koreans identified as Christian (19.7 percent Protestant and 7.9 percent Catholic), and the Republic of Korea remains one of the world’s chief exporters of missionaries. Yet the one place that they cannot reach, except through aid and prayer and channels to clandestine networks, is North Korea, even though many still have family behind the mines and wire of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Kim Il-sung’s conflation of Christianity and foreign interference had always been bitterly ironic. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Koreans themselves – not foreign missionaries – had been the key engines of church growth on the peninsula. For now, as for most of the history of North Korean Christianity, the future of the faith remains in the hands of North Koreans. And yet, if history is our guide, this age of isolation too shall pass, and some day a New Jerusalem may rise north of the DMZ.

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1. Arduous March (Pyongyang: Arts and Literature Publishing House, 1997), 6.
2. Arun Jones, “The Great Revival of 1907 as a Phenomenon in Korean Religions,” Journal of World Christianity 2, no. 1 (2009): 82-110.
3. Sun-wook Kim, “Evaluating the Revival Experience of Korean Missionary Robert A. Hardie (1865-1949) in View of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections,” Expository Times 128, no. 9 (2017): 434-439.
4. Timothy S. Lee, “A Political Factor in the Rise of Protestantism in Korea: Protestantism and the 1919 March First Movement,” Church History 69, no. 1 (2000): 116-142.
5. Yong-ho Choe, “Christian Background in the Early Life of Kim Il-Song,” Asian Survey 26, no. 10 (1986): 1082-1091.
6. Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2006), 15-16.
7. Kim Il-sung, Reminiscences: With The Century, Volume One (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1994), 104.
8. Suzy Kim, Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 125.
9. Dae-sook Suh, Kim Il-sung: The North Korean Leader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 154.
10. Melanie Kirkpatrick, Escape From North Korea (New York: Encounter, 2012), 166.
11. United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” February 7, 2014: 68-73.
12. Ibid., 212.
13. For an English translation of Jackals, see: Brian Myers, Han Sorya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK (Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Series, 1994).
14. Christopher Richardson, “Hagiography of the Kims and the Childhood of Saints,” in Change and Continuity in North Korean Politics, ed. Adam Cathcart, Robert Winstanley-Chesters and Christopher Green (New York: Routledge, 2017).
15. Hyok Kang, This Is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood (London: Abacus, 2007), 185.
16. Sonia Ryang, Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Enquiry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 19.
17. “S. Korea’s Inhumane Allurement and Abduction of Youngsters of DPRK Denounced,” KCNA, June 5, 2013.
18. Suki Kim, Without You There Is No Us (London: Rider Books, 2015), 70.
19. Jin-sung Jang, Dear Leader (London: Rider Books, 2014), 185-6.
20. For an overview of the debate over the number of famine deaths see: UN COI, 203-204.

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