Since coming to South Korea, I have met several religious leaders who have visited North Korea. Despite their many visits to North Korea, they still ask whether there really is a freedom of religion in North Korea, whether people at Bongsu Church or Changchung Cathedral are really Christians and if it is true that North Korea really has hundreds of home churches. Of course when South Korean religious persons visit North Korea, North Korean religious leaders will greet them and show them religious facilities and pretend that there religious freedom in the country. In fact, if you visit a church in North Korea and watch one of their religious ceremonies you could be tricked into believing that there really is religious freedom.
According to Chapter 5 Article 68 of North Korea’s Socialist Constitution, “Citizens shall have the right to faith.” And so, from a legal perspective it seems that North Korean law ensures the freedom of religion. However, in North Korea, the constitution does not have any legal authority. It is the ‘words’ of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, the Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System, the policies of the Workers’ Party and the Suryeong that form the principles of all law in North Korea. While the constitution states that there is freedom of religion, as the party’s policies state that people must only believe in Juche, Kimilsungism and KimJongilism, having a religion is essentially going against the party’s policies.
Since the Korean war, North Korea has channelled the hostility against the US into Christianity and other religions, and continued to oppress religion. Religious persons are stigmatized through the Songbun system (Social Classification) and are thoroughly monitored. North Korea goes one step further from the general communist statement that “religion is the opium of the people” to say that religion “is a tool that oppresses and exploits the people” and “an agent that infiltrates imperialist ideology” and the church is used by the “reactionary class to paralyze class consciousness and to propagate ideology.”
In 1970s, Kim Il-sung announced that the problem of religion had been solved in North Korea because the North Korean people only believed in the Workers’ Party. As inter-Korean talks began in the 1970s, North Korea pushed forward with their strategy of unification under communism with the goal of building a united front and resumed the activities of the nominal religious groups in North Korea. As religious groups in South Korea started to participate in the democratization movement in the 1980’s, North Korea also began to make a parade of the existence of Christianity in the country. In the midst of a crisis, Bongsu Church and Changchung Cathedral were built in Pyongyang in 1988 and exchanges with religious groups in South Korea were expanded. When Pastor Moon Ik-hwan and Father Moon Kyu-hyun began the anti-dictatorship movement North Korea deleted any texts which said that Christianity is an agent for infiltrating imperialism and instead began using more objective statements such as the church is “a place where many religious ceremonies are performed.” Even if it is only for propaganda reasons, one could ask the question ‘Why were churches only allowed to be built in Pyongyang?’ I think the best way to answer this question is to tell you about an experience I had in the early 1990’s in North Korea.
Can communists become religious?
The late 1980’s was a period when North Korea was gaining strength through the South Korean democratization movement and there were active exchanges with South Korean religious groups. It was also when socialist states were in a state of crisis. As the center of communism, the Soviet Union, collapsed in 1991, Kim Il-sung was suddenly faced with diplomatic isolation and thus began to look for a way to have relations with the Western world.
It was then that Kim Il-sung was watching the news and saw the enthusiastic welcoming ceremonies that the Pope received whenever he visited countries all over the world. He then got the idea that welcoming the Pope to North Korea would be a good strategy to become closer to Western countries. He then ordered Kim Young-nam, the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time to create a plan to bring the Pope to North Korea.
A task force was then formed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and religious experts from outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs such as the Korean Christian Religion Federation and Korean Catholic Association under the United Front Department were brought into the task force. Tasks were divided into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs handling diplomatic protocol while the United Front Department dealing with religious ceremonies. I was also part of the task force at the time.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs told all of its embassies around the world to collect any information and send VHS tapes of ceremonies welcoming the Pope. However, after a few days I realised that the staff in the United Front Department would come to work every morning and do nothing all day but talk or read books. This would have never been allowed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As we became closer with the United Front staff, I carefully asked them why they weren’t doing any work or preparing for the Pope’s visit. They replied saying “General Kim Jong-un has already decided that the Pope’s visit to North Korea is not going to happen so we can’t progress any further- but seeing as the Suryeong has decided he wants to go ahead maybe the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can give it a shot?” North Korea’s ruling authority had already been handed over to Kim Jong-il at this point, and so it didn’t matter how much Kim Il-sung would give orders, it had to be approved by Kim Jong-il. Even to me, it was very clear that if the Pope visited North Korea our diplomatic isolation would be solved.
However, the staff in the United Front Department argued that if the Pope visited North Korea, they alongside the State Security Department would have to deal with the aftermath, and it wouldn’t be an easy task. At first I could not, for the life of me, understand what they were saying and asked them what they were saying. That’s when they asked me- ‘Are there really Christians in North Korea?’
From a young age, I had always been taught that religion was bad. I had grown up watching North Korean films such as ‘The Family of Choe Hak Sin’ and ‘Seonghwangdang’ and received anti-religious education that I couldn’t believe they were even asking me the question of whether there were any religious people in North Korea. But the bigger shock came with what they told me afterwards.
As the ones in charge of the Workers’ Party’s policies on religion and the implementation of such policies, they were well aware of the actual state of religion in the country and its threat to the regime.
In 1988, the Workers’ Party started building Bongsu church and Changchung Cathedral. As religious groups in South Korea started becoming anti-governmental in the 1980’s during the South Korean democratization movement, North Korea built the churches with the objective of winning religious groups over to their side. However, in order for these churches to operate properly they needed fake members. The party was able to post pastors but they had to choose members of the church from members of the ‘Core Class’ living around the church. When the church was first built, until the late 1980’s buses using gasoline or diesel did not operate on Sundays. So in order to keep the church running smoothly the party had to pick women who lived near the church, who were from the core class. Essentially they looked for some communists who could pretend to be church members. And so while they were able to gather them together, it was really difficult to force them to come every single Sunday and make them participate in religious ceremonies. As a result, an attendance roll was made, and the ones who missed any services would be criticized during the Self-criticism sessions and have to take part in special lectures. During the lectures they would be told that religious activities such as attending church and singing hymns were not simple activities but a noble crusade for unification which would show the superiority of socialism and was a way to win over South Korean religious leaders away from America. But it was still difficult to persuade the women to attend church instead of resting at home on Sunday mornings. Many would make excuses such as being sick or having family emergencies. However as time went on, a change in heart could be seen. Even with less control there were less women missing church, they would start to attend church voluntarily until one day an attendance roll was no longer needed.
As they came to church on Sundays, they would sing hymns and listen to the pastor’s sermon and found that their hearts would become lighter, it was a good social gathering, and there were many good elements to attending church. While they pretended to just attend the worship services, as they learned hymns, they started to really believe. And so the women who had missed services with any opportunity they could, started coming to church even before the service had started and would come on days even when they were very sick with high fevers.
It was difficult to check whether they had really become Christians in an environment where people were shot or punished for propagating. However, the Party saw that their voluntary attendance was a result of genuine faith. As a result, the Party installed telescopes in the apartments nearby Bongsu church and surveilled the areas near the church to see if people would secretly gather. In other words it was to catch any secret believers. What they found was truly shocking.
When the sound of hymns could be heard from the church some young men would come out, write something on some papers and run away. When the State Security Department arrested them they found that they were university students majoring in music composition. Until the end of the 1980’s even music students were not taught about music from other countries. So when a music student heard beautiful music coming out of the windows of the church, he told his friends and as they could not go into the church they would write notes in their composition books. The State Security Department let them off with a warning.
The next group that was caught was a group of people walking around the church every Sunday around the service time. As they kept coming at the same time they were arrested and interrogated only to discover that they were former believers. Even though Kim Il-sung had announced that there was no more religion in North Korea in the 1970’s, they had in fact never stopped believing. They were simply afraid of the Party’s anti-religion policies and pretended to no longer believe. That’s when the Party decided that they could no longer build any churches or cathedrals.
As the people in the United Front Department told me these stories they said that “While the Suryeong (Kim Il-sung) has ordered us to bring the Pope to North Korea, the United Front Department already tried in the 1980’s, and General Kim Jong-il who had seen the results knew that inviting the Pope could be a huge threat to the socialist system.” Eventually Kim Il-sung had ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to invite the Pope, but the United Front Department, which was under Kim Jong-il had already concluded that it was not possible.
In the past when North Korea had said there was religious freedom in the country, the Vatican then asked North Korea to bring a living Christian to prove it. So the Workers’ Party’s Korean Catholic Association began to search the records of the People’s Security Department and finally found an old lady who had been a devout Christian until the Korean War. At first, when she was asked if she believed in God, she strongly denied it saying why would she believe in God when she believed in the Suryeong and the Workers’ Party? That’s when she was told that she would not be in trouble if she told the truth and that they were looking for somebody who truly believed in God and was a devout Christian. She then replied that once you open your heart up to God, he never leaves. So they asked her how did you meet God? Which is when she took them to the back of her house. The personnel who had gone to see the old lady felt a tingling sensation and understood that this was truly a place to meet God. They then told the old lady that she would have to go to the Vatican to represent the party and as a revolutionary, which is when she looked up to the sky and said “God, I have been praying to you my entire life and you are finally calling on your lamb.” Even though the personnel had said, it is not a call from God but a call from the regime, but she continued to believe that it was a call from God. She asked the personnel not to tell her son that she was a Christian, as even he did not know that she went to the back of the house at night to pray. She knew that the regime oppressed religious people and if her son knew she was a Christian then he may be under attack.
Eventually the old lady was taken to the Vatican and paid her respect to the Pope and it was clear to everybody that she was a true Christian. That is also when the Party realized that faith could not ever be taken away with threats, fear or even death. All the plans to build churches in Wonsan and Gangye were cancelled. Even if churches were built in other provinces as a way of showing the outside world, the Christians who had been secretly hiding their would think it was God’s work and it would make their faith even stronger.
The United Front Department was concerned that if they invited the Pope, while it might help with diplomatic isolation, secret religious activities would grow and that the faith of secret believers would become stronger. I then understood why the United Front Department was not eager to work on inviting the Pope. The task force was dismissed within two months, not long after we had started. And this is how Kim Il-sung’s invitation to the Pope failed.