Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Barbara Demick on Christianity in North Korea

In the Chosŏn Kingdom of the late 19th century, Christian missionaries and their followers attracted people to their churches and gatherings by providing medical care and education. Undoubtedly, some came for the chance to get better or to improve their minds, but clearly there were people who came to find out what possessed these people of wealth, power, and position to reach out to the poor, the sick, and the lower social classes.

This pattern continued. During the often brutal occupation of Korea by Imperial Japan, many Christians (especially Protestants) were instrumental in fomenting Korea's struggling independence movement. A lot of them also stood up to Imperial Japanese demands that Koreans worship the Emperor.

Now in North Korea, home of the new Chosŏn monarchy, as Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times reports, the Christian faith may be sneaking over the border from China, despite the risks to believers of torture and execution.

Ms. Demick starts with something reminiscent of 19th-century efforts in the waning days of the Chosŏn Kingdom:
A few years ago, an astonishing rumor spread among the teenagers of Musan, a sad, hungry mining town hugging the North Korean side of the border with China.
If you slipped over and looked for a house with a cross, the people inside would give you a lecture on Christianity and a bowl of rice.
It's not that simple, though. Take the experiences of Choi Hwa, the focus of Demick's opening. When she was twelve years old, she and her classmates "had been called out to watch the execution of a young woman and her father who were caught with a Bible."

Chosŏn-era Catholics practiced under threat of death, just as Christians in today's DPRK do. But that is not the only demise they are facing: modern-day North Korean Choi "knew as well that the pangs in her stomach meant she might soon succumb to the starvation that had killed dozens of neighbors, [so]the girl followed her stomach. Through it, she found her way to faith."

Joshua of Free North Korea writes that "famine may indeed be harder to face without the belief in an afterlife," which I would agree is probably a factor in this nascent movement. But for some North Korean peasants, it may be that searching out believers may simply mean "life" in this world.

At a Fulbright event earlier this year, I encountered several North Koreans who had made their way to South Korea and a better life. They were enrolled or were soon to be enrolled in Christian schools, and it was church groups that had brought them to where they were and gave them much of what they had (the South Korean government had given them considerable, but limited, help in resettling). Knee-jerk critics of Christianity might call this a scam to just gain followers or some financial gain, but in many ways it is Christians who are risking their lives to save North Koreans from death or capture in North Korea and China.

North Korea has sought to eradicate Christianity, and it's easy to see why. Nineteen-year-old Choi, now in Seoul, says it all: "Once you read the Bible, you stop believing in Kim Il Sung."

For those who argue engagement with North Korea props up the Pyongyang regime and should be stopped, Ms. Choi's narrative seems to offer a different view. She describes numerous executions, but that of the Christian daughter and father was especially brutal:
The accused, a woman in her twenties, and her father, about sixty, apparently had had their legs broken and had to be dragged out like dolls before they were tied to poles and shot. Choi said the pair had been found out when the daughter accidentally dropped a Bible with laundry she was washing by the river.

The soft-spoken Choi, who wore dangling earrings inscribed with the word "love," said the executions stopped in 2000 because of scrutiny from the international community.

"There were United Nations people who came in with fancy boots, clothing and cameras," Choi said, recalling that it was the first time she had seen a Caucasian. "The children were fascinated and followed them as they went around asking questions. All we knew is there were no more executions after that."
Demick warns, though, that human rights advocates suspect that public execution is making a comeback, based on the smuggling out of North Korea of an infamous videotape and other reports of executions.

Katolik Shinja has an unusual but thoughtful "defense" of North Korea's recent public execution.

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