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Keeping the Faith, Underground

N. Korea's Secret Christians Get Support From South
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 10, 2001; Page A01

(http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A18300-2001Mar30&notFound=true)

SEOUL -- Alone, at night, the family would gather. Afraid of being observed, they would huddle under a blanket. There, they would whisper Christian hymns from memory and offer prayers that, if overheard, could get them killed.

"We were so scared," the wife said of her life in North Korea. "If you were caught, you would disappear. We didn't know where you would go, but we knew it was prison or execution."

The family was part of an underground church whose members risk persecution by the Stalinist regime by keeping their Christian faith. As North Korea begins to cautiously open its locked society to get the aid it needs to survive, South Korean Christian groups supporting a network of largely Protestant underground worshipers see an opportunity to increase membership.

They have stepped up their activities, both furtive and open. They are smuggling tiny Bibles into North Korea. They have set up secret way stations in China to assist -- and enlist -- the growing numbers of desperate Koreans who cross the border and return to North Korea with food.

Christian groups are sending food and other supplies to North Korea in backpacks and bags that openly identify the donors. And they are cooperating in building projects with the "official" church in North Korea despite reservations about bolstering what they believe is a propaganda prop.

"We want to do whatever we can to penetrate North Korea," said the Rev. Josep Park, director of the Christian Council of Korea in Seoul. "We will help with defectors. We have direct meetings with North Koreans. We will send missionaries and help anyone to help send God's message."

This is a dangerous task. Despite North Korea's official policy of religious tolerance and expanded activities of the government-sanctioned churches, the proselytizing that is fundamental to Christianity is still seen as a threat to the Pyongyang regime that can bring a death sentence.

The U.S. State Department's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 said that "genuine religious freedom does not exist" in North Korea.

A husband and wife who fled North Korea in 1997 described the life of Christians there. They asked that their names not be published, saying it would further endanger two grown daughters living in North Korea, who, because of their parents' flight, already have been stripped of their urban jobs and sent to the countryside where life is hard and food is scarce.

A son, 30, tried to leave with the couple but was caught in China and returned to North Korea. As his mother talked of him, her gentle smile froze, her grief and fear apparent. "He is in prison," she said flatly. "I expect he will die in prison."

Her husband is 64. She is 63, and worked in a factory. "My mother taught me the Ten Commandments, and we memorized hymns," she said. "Of course, we could never keep a Bible in the house. The [Communist] Party would regularly raid the house and go through all the belongings, looking for foreign books.

"If they found a Bible, you could be executed," she said. "My mother always told me although I could not show my belief in God, I must keep it inside."

The family knew only a few other Christians. The husband was surprised to find in a heart-to-heart talk that one of his best friends for decades shared his faith. "He would listen to a Christian radio program broadcast from South Korea. He would make notes and hide them in his hat and come to my house," he said. "We had to do it in secret."

Korea has been a Christian stronghold in Asia since Protestant missionaries came in the 1880s with a faith that seemed more appealing than traditional Confucianism and Buddhism. In South Korea, with a population of 48 million, Christian churches now claim more than 12 million members.

In the northern half of the Korean peninsula there were an estimated 3,000 churches before the country was partitioned at the end of World War II. The Communist government installed in the North closed most of those churches. Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled to the South before the border was sealed by the Korean War. Most others abandoned religion when it was declared an "imperialist invasion tool" by the regime.

Buddhism is tolerated somewhat more, largely because it lacks the imperative to convert others. About 60 Buddhist temples exist in North Korea, though they have been officially stripped of their sacred status by the government and remain more as cultural artifacts.

In place of those religions, the North Korean government has installed a pervasive ideology of juche, roughly translated as self-reliance. And the ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, has completed the elevation of his father, Kim Il Sung, the country's founder, to the status of a deity, creating "Kim Il Sung-ism."

"Kim Il Sung-ism is seen as a religion, and they oppose any other ideology," said Lim Soon Hee, who studies human rights at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

"Even if you talk to [official] Christians in North Korea, they only talk about the connection of Christianity with juche, and talk about how Christianity was perfected there," she said. "In North Korea, the 'Holy Trinity' is Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and juche."

Estimatesfrom study and church groups in South Korea of the number of secret Christians vary widely, from 10,000 to 300,000 in the country of 22 million. Lim said she is skeptical of claims of an extensive underground religious network. "Defectors say the control of society is so total it's almost impossible to believe in anything [religious]," she said.

Some scholars -- though a clear minority -- believe the restrictions on Christians are easing as Kim Jong Il slowly expands outside ties to secure economic and humanitarian assistance.

"They are trying to take a practical approach to bring in aid, to have new churches built, to bring in some books and money," said Kang In Chul, associate professor of religion at Hanshin University in South Korea.

The government has made its official church more visible, inviting South Korean and some Western church leaders to services at the three churches -- two Protestant and one Roman Catholic -- in Pyongyang. With assistance from the South, North Korea has reopened a theological seminary and placed 12 students there to learn about religion.

"If you go into the seminary building, the picture of Jesus is on the side. In front are the obligatory portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il," said the Rev. Eun Hi Gon, general secretary of a faction of the Korean Methodist Church. His faction, the Seobu Annual Conference, has donated $200,000 over three years to support the seminary, despite reservations about the regime's religious sincerity.

"Why are they opening the seminary? A majority of the humanitarian aid from South Korea is coming through the churches, and North Korea needs more people to deal with those aid projects," Eun said.

"Some people who criticize our project say the North Korean church is basically a business to extract money from South Korea. We understand that criticism, and we don't deny it," Eun said. "But we think we should take one step at a time to get into their society."

Critics note that members of the official church are handpicked by the Communist Party, and the three churches in Pyongyang are usually locked until there are foreign visitors, who often have to dust off the hymnals and pews. Sermons consist mostly of political speeches. One South Korean man who attended a service there scoffed, "I've been a minister for 20 years and I can feel it if they have it in their soul. They don't."

More ominously, reports of persecution of Christians outside of Pyongyang continue to filter out. In the notorious "Prison No. 15" in the northern part of the country, an estimated 6,000 Christians are incarcerated with little hope of release, their South Korean supporters assert.

The State Department report on religious freedom concludes there is "no reliable information" on how many religious prisoners exist. But the report quotes defectors as saying that Christian prisoners are considered insane, and their families are "identified for extermination for three successive generations."

Lee Soon Ok, 55, spent seven years in a political prison camp in North Korea. She was not a Christian, but saw how Christians were treated.

"The torture, and the worst ways of execution, were most harsh on the Christians," she said. "They didn't give them clothes. They were considered animals. And in the factories, they killed them by pouring molten steel on them."

"Believing in God instead of Kim Il Sung was the biggest sin in their eyes," she said.

As a result, Christian groups attempting to spread their message to North Korea try to operate by stealth. One South Korean missionary contact opened a sturdy safe to retrieve files on his operations in the North. Along the border with China, there is an extensive network of Christian aid groups operating despite opposition from China, which forcibly returns North Korean refugees and defectors.

"We believe we are making progress. We believe there's a big change going on in their minds when they meet our people in China," said one churchman involved in the underground effort.

In response, North Korea reportedly has taken steps to tighten control and increase punishments at the porous Chinese border, and has increased the reward for informing on anyone doing missionary work. There are now said to be "education sessions" about how to identify Christian leaders and "extract" them from society, according to Lim.

"Personally, I think as long as Kim Il Sung-ism remains the one true religion there, there will not be much room for others," Lim said. "Even if the North Korean refugees go to China and get back, I don't think they will spread the Word. For them, what's urgent is food. Yes, they will take Bibles, but I don't think they would risk their lives."

But Lee, who saw persecution firsthand in prison, disagrees. "I witnessed them being asked to choose God or Kim Il Sung, and they were told they would be released if they chose Kim Il Sung," she said. "I saw them choose God."