Recently Pastor Eric Foley, President of Seoul-USA and a key coordinator for VOM’s work to support the church in North Korea, recommended a couple of books to help me better understand life in North Korea. I finished the first book this week, and was blown away by the story of a top-level North Korean who lost faith in the Kim family and chose to flee his nation.
The book is “DEAR LEADER: Poet, Spy, Escapee—A Look Inside North Korea” by Jang Jin-Sung. Mr. Jang was a part of “The Admitted,” a tiny circle of elite North Koreans whose presence Kim Jong-Il personally requested and who have spent more than twenty minutes with him behind closed doors.
There is much in its pages that is eye-opening about life in North Korea, but in particular I want to share a section about religion inside the country, and especially the “Christians” we see in pictures and on TV whenever a big-name church leader is welcomed into the country.
As a former member of the UFD (United Front Department, which oversees inter-Korean espionage, policy-making and diplomacy), I thought I knew all about religion. Even in North Korea, there is such a thing. More specifically, North Korea has a number of religious institutions that are controlled by the United Front Department. But in practice, North Korea is a one-religion state, where only the worship of the Kim cult is allowed. The UFD’s religious institutions exist in order that North Korea may claim that it is a pluralistic society, and thereby appear to comply with the values of those who wish to give it aid or engage with the North through Track II or “informal” channels.
All of North Korea’s religious institutions are staffed by UFD “Track II Diplomacy” operatives and include the Chosun Buddhist Association, the Chosun Christian Association, The Chosun Catholic Association, and the Chosun Catholic Central Committee. I was aware that, in dealing with the outside world, the UFD used the names of the different religious institutions. Internally, it was illegal to use these, so they were referred to by numbers. Although a cadre might be a monk or priest as far as the outside world was concerned, in the UFD they were all faithful worshippers of the Kim cult.
If you are in Pyongyang and go to Jangchun-dong in Dongdae-won Area, or Palgol-dong in the Mangyongdae area, you will see buildings with crosses on their roofs. The priests who worship in these buildings sing authentic Christian hymns, in the same way that people outside North Korea do in ordinary churches. But the congregations are composed exclusively of UFD operatives and their family members, who are obliged to attend out of duty to the party. No ordinary North Korean could even begin to consider worshipping in these buildings, as they are in operational zones where entry is restricted to UFD personnel and foreigners.
But, in 2000, the following incident occurred. Once, in order to welcome an international religious organization to North Korea, the UFD conspicuously opened the doors of the Jangchun church in Pyongyang to the public. An old man in his eighties walked in carrying a Bible that he had kept hidden all his life. He said that he had believed in Jesus before the Korean war, but after losing his family to an American bombardment, he had converted and become instead a fervent believer in the Supreme Leader, Kim Il-sung. He even explained that at his age, old memories became important, and he had come to the church because he’d been delighted to hear hymns from his childhood. Theold man was reported by the UFD operative in priestly garb and arrested on the spot by secret police.
That cadre was subsequently awarded a First Class medal, reserved for the most loyal to Kim, for the achievement of exposing a religious element who had succeeded in keeping his subversive beliefs secret until now. I was there sitting in the audience, applauding as the cadre received his medal. The old man was sent to a prison camp, and the very same Bible is used to this day by the UFD as a prop to baost about the history of North Korea’s religious tolerance.
These religious activities only helped UFD cadres enjoy more luxuries not available to ordinary North Koreans. North Korea is technically still at war with the United States, so internally, all humanitarian aid from outside is referred to as “spoils of war.” Because the North Koran system associates itself with the ideology of “Juche,” it prohibits the word “aid,” as this is regarded as a threat to “self-reliance.” As a result, gifts received every month by employees of the UFD included “spoils of war” donated by various South Korean and international religious organizations as humanitarian aid.
In spite of the fake Christians you may have seen in TV news reports or photos, VOM knows there are also real, genuine followers of Christ in the “Hermit Kingdom.” And we know they are paying a high price: of an estimated 100,000 Christians in North Korea, it is believed that 30,000 are currently held in the political-prisoner camps of the regime.
It is in honor of these brothers and sisters that VOM launched the Letter of Confession last month: an effort to get one million Christians to “confess” that they know what is happening to our spiritual family in North Korea, and further that they are praying for that nation. If you haven’t yet signed a letter of confession, do so today. And if you have already signed, make sure to share this effort with your Christian friends, your pastor and the members of your Sunday School class or small-group Bible study. You may also choose to give online to support VOM's ministry work to support the North Korean church.
I strongly encourage you to read “Dear Leader.” It will help you to better understand the North Korean regime, and pray more effectively for that nation.
Todd Nettleton has served with The Voice of the Martyrs for 16 years. He’s travelled to more than 20 restricted and hostile nations and interviewed hundreds of believers who’ve faced persecution for their Christian witness. As VOM’s principle media spokesperson, Todd has done more than 2,000 interviews with media outlets ranging from Moody Radio to the BBC and The Los Angeles Times. He is the principle author of Restricted Nations: North Korea and was part of the writing team for four other VOM books.
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