On Christian aid groups working in the DPRK

Below are some excerpts from a recent blog post at Foreign Policy:

Despite the perception of North Korea as a country hermetically sealed to the outside — and despite the very real risks — dozens, if not hundreds, of Christian missionaries operate inside the country, sometimes living there for months at a stretch, in the capital, Pyongyang, or in the Rason region, near the country’s Chinese border. Some run factories, distributing bread and soy milk to the poor. Others work for NGOs or universities, like the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, North Korea’s first privately funded university (launched in 2010), which is bankrolled mostly by evangelical Christian movements. Its founder James Kim, who has spent prison time in North Korea for proselytizing, likes to say that he has “unlimited credit at the bank of heaven.”

Of the five NGOs that formed the consortium that the U.S. government worked with to deliver food aid to North Korea until 2009, four are evangelical Christian organizations. One of them, World Vision, only hires candidates who believe in Jesus. Heidi Linton runs Christian Friends of Korea, an organization that has sent more than $55 million dollars in food, supplies, and medical equipment throughout the country since 1995. Linton explains to North Korean patients and hospital staff that the donors give out of their love for God. “You don’t go into a lot of detail at that point, but we love because God first loved us,” says Linton. “No, we cannot give Bibles, we cannot give tracts, but we can live out for them what it means to be a Christian.” Asked how many people have been converted, she demurs: “We plant the seed and God brings in the harvest, in his time and in his way.”

So how do you bring the morals and values of Christianity to the world’s most closed country? With infinite patience. A missionary from the United States with almost 20 years of experience working with North Korea explains: “We’re not allowed to visibly pray. You can’t bow your head, and you can’t close your eyes. But when you’re praying you’re talking to God,” she says. “All the education we’re giving them is designed to make them think the truth — of all sorts.” Linton brought four ambulances into North Korea emblazoned with the Christian Friends of Korea logo, which includes a prominent cross. “They’ve told us multiple times that we need to change our name and our logo,” she says. “And we said, ‘No, that’s why we’re here.'” Proselytizing inside North Korea “has to be done almost exclusively in a one-on-one setting, where you talk to someone, typically someone you know very well, about faith,” says Todd Nettleton, director of media development at Voice of the Martyrs USA, who says that the organization and its partners dropped 1,467,600 Gospel fliers via balloons into North Korea in 2011.

“The picture we have of missionary work, where you go and try to talk to as many people as possible, or where you’re on a street corner handing out missionary tracts, is so far from [what is allowed in North Korea] it’s not even on the same planet. It’s painstaking, risky work.”

Little is known about Christianity in North Korea under Kim Il Sung, because so few North Koreans defected. When his son, Kim Jong Il, took power in 1994 and famine hit, hundreds of North Koreans fled to South Korea; thousands more began traveling back and forth across the Chinese border searching for food, acting as conduits of information between North Korea and the outside world. The famine and the death of Kim Il Sung also “coincided with the opening of North Korea to NGOs, hence the increased presence of missionaries” eager for a chance to preach the Gospel in the closed country, says Marie-Laure Verdier, a Ph.D. student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London who is studying Christian organizations working in North Korea.

The threat of violence or imprisonment hasn’t stopped the evangelical movement; it has just made them more cautious. Chinese border cities like Yanji, the capital of China’s Korean autonomous region, and Dandong, through which most of the official trade between China and North Korea passes, act as bases for hundreds of American and South Korean evangelical Christians who help North Koreans get out of the country and who attempt to get themselves inside. One missionary living on the border spoke off the record because he didn’t want to upset the Chinese regional authorities, which he likened to “a sleeping dog.” Proselytizing is illegal in China, too, and the Chinese government, at least publicly, supports North Korea’s effort to forcibly repatriate defectors. In March 2011, I visited a Western cafe in Yanji where missionaries congregate and saw a woman wearing a sweatshirt from Wheaton College, the evangelical Protestant liberal arts university outside Chicago. I asked one of her tablemates whether that’s what had brought them to Yanji. “Food’s great here, isn’t it?” he replied.

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Despite the danger missionaries face, it’s far more dangerous for North Koreans who come into contact with Christians or evangelical paraphernalia. Defectors have spoken about seeing friends and neighbors executed for the crime of simply owning a Bible. North Koreans themselves are often converted or co-opted to smuggle the Gospel into North Korea at great personal risk. On a 2011 visit to the border, I saw food packaged with a Christian symbol for delivery into North Korea. “People come across the border, we make them Christian, and then we send them back,” said the missionary associated with the food distribution. “We had a North Korean Christian several years ago who took five Bibles in with him, and he was beaten, literarily to death, when they found out that he had the Bibles on him,” says Nettleton.

But the majority of the missionaries involved with North Koreans work with them only when they’re safely outside the country. “For the ones who come out, Christianity can do a lot more for them because they need so much healing,” says a Christian activist in South Korea. Tim Peters runs Helping Hands Korea, an organization that helps North Korean women and children who have already crossed into China flee to other countries. He told a story of a man in North Korea who, in late December after the death of Kim Jong Il, became interested in Christianity. But after speaking about it in his community, he raised the suspicion of security forces. He and his family fled North Korea the next day, and Peters’s team near the Chinese border is now helping them. “Because they were discovered listening to Christian radio, if they were to be repatriated the punishment would be extraordinarily harsh,” says Peters. In a way, they’ve succeeded: More than half of the roughly 20,000 defectors in South Korea identify as Christians. “North Korean defectors associate Christianity with democracy,” says Verdier.

Rights groups estimate that of the 24 million North Koreans, there are only tens of thousands of Christians there today, though the exact number is unknowable. “My understanding is that the underground church is extremely underground,” says Peters. South Korean churches have amassed war chests of millions of dollars to bring Christianity to — and build thousands of churches for — their “brothers in the North” when the regime falls. Ben Torrey, raised in South Korea by missionary parents, runs the Fourth River movement, an organization that enhances preparedness among South Koreans and North Korean defectors, training them “as agents of reconciliation, healing, and problem solving” so that they can eventually enter North Korea and “rebuild the country on a foundation of biblical principles.”

Is the death of Kim Jong Il a propitious time, though, for missionaries and Christian organizations working inside North Korea? One spokesman at a Christian group that does extensive work in North Korea said hopefully, “We don’t have any contingency plans [for the regime falling], but the wheels could fly off the wagon and the structure could disintegrate. Who knows?” Many Christians who work with North Korea are worried that new leader Kim Jong Un, in a desire to reinforce his new mandate, will be even more hostile to them than his father. “We understand that [the North Korean underground church] is being even more cautious at present,” says Peters.

Read the full story here:
Preaching the Gospel in the Hermit Kingdom
Foreign Policy Blog
Isaac Stone Fish


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