Reverend Stuart Vogel, Secretary of the Asian Council at the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, offers his perspective on Christianity in North Korea.
At some point someone is going to have to tackle the straight, hard questions about Christians in North Korea. It might as well be me, and these are just my own views “shooting from the hip”. The proviso always is that we can not know for sure because of the lack of hard facts. But here we go.
Question 1: Are Christians persecuted in North Korea?
Answer: Christians who choose to worship in one of the two “open” churches in Pyongyang probably exist alongside everyone else without overt oppression. There is however persistent and consistent evidence from diverse sources that Christians who choose to worship in other ways and places are subject to what would normally be defined as repression. The DPRK Government’s response which is, in essence, “there is no oppression in North Korea because we say there isn’t”, is entirely unsatisfactory.
Question 2: But doesn’t the constitution of the DPRK guarantee freedom of religion?
Answer: Yes, but it depends on how you interpret this phrase. It may mean that there is only freedom to worship at a set time and place under Government approved leadership. However, there appears to be no freedom at all to teach young people under 18 years of age any religious teaching for example. This could be taken to be an essential part of “freedom of religion”.
Question 3: Aren’t the people who go to the “Open Churches” simply Government plants and not Christian at all?
Answer: This would be a big call and unfair. We in the West have no right to make a judgment on how Christians react in situations like this. A study of the “open” and “underground” churches and the nature of Government influence on churches in China and former Soviet Union will show the complexity of this situation. It is the wrong question. We can say that Christians who participate in “open” churches can not be Party members and therefore will often be barred from promotion.
Question 4: What should other Christians, especially those in Western countries, do?
Answer: (i) pray; (ii) keep in touch with Christians in the North in every “above board” way possible, such as through Christian aid agencies and relations where possible with the official Christian body in the DPRK, the Korean Christian Federation; (iii) examine the tensions in our own history of Church/State relations in the West, such as the issues that arise in World War II, and the attempts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bishop George Bell to mediate peace – and the reactions they got from their respective Governments. Patriotism is a tough virtue to nail down – if it is a virtue at all.