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A Vigil Against Faith in N. Korea

Believers allege brutal repression in the 1990s. Christianity may be crossing the border.

November 15, 2005|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — 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.

Choi Hwa knew this was dangerous stuff. Back when she was an impressionable 12-year-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. But Choi knew as well that the pangs in her stomach meant she might soon succumb to the starvation that had killed dozens of neighbors.

The girl followed her stomach. Through it, she found her way to faith.

It would be an overstatement to say there is a sizable religious revival in North Korea. With the possible exception of communist-era Albania, no communist country had managed to so thoroughly eradicate organized religion. But there is little doubt that it is seeping back in through porous borders and challenging the idiosyncratic doctrine of juche that reveres founder Kim Il Sung and his son, current leader Kim Jong Il, as gods.

"Once you read the Bible, you stop believing in Kim Il Sung," said Choi, who is now 19 and living in Seoul, the South Korean capital. (Like many defectors, she is living under an assumed name to protect relatives in North Korea.)

Choi recalled the daily recitations of "Thank you, Father Kim Il Sung" required of children. But after studying with missionaries, she realized the extent to which "Kim Il Sung just replaced God's name with his own," she said.

"Juche as a worldview has lost much of its heavenly mandate because of the famine and the collapse of the economy," said David Hawk, a leading human rights investigator who recently completed an extensive study of North Korea for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent agency funded by Congress.

In the study, to be released today, the commission found that the practice of religion is increasing inside North Korea, prompting a reaction from the regime.

"Some North Koreans are testing prohibitions against religious activity," Michael Cromartie, chairman of the commission, said in a statement. At the same time, "there is renewed government interest in ensuring that North Koreans coming back from China are not 'infected'

The commission, which has timed the release of its report with President Bush's visit to South Korea this week to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, hopes that issues of religious freedom and human rights are added to the agenda for the ongoing talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

"As the international community deals with North Korea's nuclear aspirations, human rights objectives should not be put aside," Cromartie said.

Realizing that impoverished North Koreans may be open to other belief systems, missionaries from as far away as the United States and Australia are plying their trade on the Chinese side of the border.

In villages along the Tumen River, tiny churches are tucked next to farmhouses, some inconspicuous and others beckoning with red neon crosses that glow in the night sky. Some operate especially quietly to avoid encountering trouble from Chinese authorities, who have banned aid to North Koreans and missionary work.

"The North Koreans don't have any other place to go, so they come here," said Kim Young Geol, an ethnic Korean who runs a makeshift church from a house that looks out onto the mountains over the border. "They need rice, clothes, medicine, and there is nobody else to support them."

It is impossible to tell how many of the North Koreans whose hunger leads them to church end up true believers. Most eventually do return to North Korea, either because they are arrested and deported by the Chinese or wish to take money back to their families.

Forty defectors were interviewed for the religious freedom group's report, many of whom told of ghastly public executions of religious devotees in the mid-1990s.

In a 1996 case, a tattered Bible and a notebook containing a list of names were discovered wedged between two bricks in the basement of a house that was about to be demolished to make way for a road expansion.

Five middle-aged men who were accused of running an illegal church were brought to an army compound. They were forced to lie on the ground and were crushed by a steamroller, said a 30-year-old North Korean defector, who added that he witnessed the incident while he was in the army.

"At the time, I thought they got what they deserved," said the defector, who related his story to The Times. Now a theology student in South Korea, he asked to be identified only by his English first name, Stephen.

There is ample evidence that religious persecution remains widespread, particularly against people repatriated from China.

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