I find the nation of North Korea almost endlessly fascinating. There seems to be no way that anyone born and raised in a free nation can understand the level of control and paranoia that exists inside “The Hermit Kingdom.” And very few of us will ever be allowed to visit.
Suki Kim was allowed to visit…and even to live in North Korea. She was hired to teach English at a university in Pyongyang. While teaching, she was also collecting material for a book. That book, “Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite,” was published last year.
It is a fascinating read. Kim does not claim to be a Christian, though those who hired her to teach at the university believed that she was. One of the more fascinating parts, to me, was her report on being taken to “church” in North Korea, a stage-managed experienced designed to convince the foreigners that there were both openly-practicing Christians and religious freedom in North Korea. Here is how she tells the story:
Although we were late because we had been stopped, the entire church had been expecting us and had waited to begin the service.
Inside, about a hundred parishioners and a choir sat in almost perfect silence on the pews. They were mostly women between the ages of thirty and fifty. As we entered they turned toward us and smiled in unison. They looked reasonably well off, although not as affluent as our students, and for a moment I wondered why those people were not at the voting booth. We were directed to front-row seats and given brand-new Bibles and hymn books in Korean and English. Each of us was also given a set of headphones and a device so we could listen to the service with the aid of simultaneous translation. When you turned it on a perky voice said, “Welcome to our church,” as though it were an English conversation lesson. Next to the pastor was a projector screen on which we could see ourselves. I looked around to see who was filming us, but it was impossible to tell. Soon a woman in a shiny hanbok went up to the altar to recite a prayer—really more of a beseeching soliloquy about unification, the sorrow of the Korean people, and the evils of those who had separated us. It sounded as though she had performed it many times before.
The sermon was much the same. The pastor talked about the evils of the South Korean regime, which, backed by the American imperialists, kept Korea divided. This crime would be punished, he insisted, quoting Romans 6:23—“For the wages of sin is death…”—to underscore his point. At some point we all had to go to the front and sing to our North Korean Christian brothers and sisters, who put on happy and excited faces as if on cue. We were encouraged to take photos throughout.
I kept looking at the faces of the pastor and parishioners, which revealed nothing. It was all theater, and I was part of it. They were pretending to be Christians, and we were pretending to believe them.
It was a relief to listen to the choir, which sang so fervently and beautifully that I wondered if they had been selected for their singing talent. This was not such a terrible duty, I thought. They could come here and daydream for an hour and sing. Their friends might even envy them such a cushy assignment.
Soon we were ushered out and encouraged to take a Bible and a hymnbook with us as souvenirs. The parishioners smiled and waved and sang, “Let’s meet again,” and the pastor stood outside and posed for pictures with all of us. And we got on the bus, all the parishioners still waving at us, and then we could see them walking away all at once, quickly disappearing into Pyongyang’s streets as though they had dispensed with their morning duty.
Todd Nettleton has served the persecuted church and VOM more than 17 years. He has been interviewed more than 2000 times by various media outlets. He's the author of Restricted Nations: North Korea, and served on the writing team for FOXE, Extreme Devotion, Hearts of Fire and other VOM books. You can read his post about another North Korea book here.
Disclosure: VOM is part of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on the links in this post and purchase the book from Amazon, VOM will receive a very small percentage of your purchase as a referral fee.