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A Vigil Against Faith in N. Korea

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

“The very first question that they ask you is, ‘Have you been to a church?’ ” Stephen said. He said most defectors are savvy enough not to admit it -- or if they do, to say they went only for food. In that case, said Stephen, the returnees may spend time in detention or be roughed up, but in most cases they are eventually set free.

The North Korean regime is clearly worried about the corrosive effect of religion on its own ideology. A 2002 report by the ruling Workers’ Party refers to Bibles along with “lewd and indecent material ... that the imperialists are sending to infiltrate our borders.”

Missionaries working along the border have tried creative means to get Bibles into North Korea: hiding them in sacks of rice or even floating them over the border with balloons. But today, more Bibles may be carried in by traders who sell them with other contraband such as DVDs of Hollywood movies and recordings of South Korean soap operas and pop music.

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Christianity is particularly threatening if only because it has been extensively plagiarized by North Korea’s propaganda writers. For example, doctrine has it that Kim Jong Il’s birth was heralded by a bright star in the sky, as in the story of Jesus’ birth.

Before the 1950-53 Korean War, Christians were a powerful political force in North Korea and potentially a challenge to the ascent of Kim Il Sung. By some accounts, the population of Pyongyang was as much as 30% Christian, giving the city the nickname “Jerusalem of the East.”

In pre-communist times, North Koreans also practiced Buddhism, Confucianism and shamanism, among other Eastern religions. Although those practices too have been repressed, they are less problematic for the regime because proselytizing is rare.

Officially, North Korea guarantees freedom of religion under Article 68 of its constitution. But the government has said in official filings with the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that the number of practitioners amounts to a mere one-fifth of 1% of the population.

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“There are still ... people who practice Buddhism and Christianity, but they are elderly and the number is small,” said Pak Gyong Nam, a Pyongyang tour guide.

There are three churches in the country today, all in Pyongyang and serving mostly foreign diplomats and relief workers. North Korean defectors say that churches away from the capital were either destroyed or the buildings put to other uses, sometimes as movie theaters. To the extent that North Koreans know about religion at all, it is mostly through propaganda films that portray greedy, conniving missionaries trying to trick North Koreans.

Growing up in North Korea, Choi Hwa said she didn’t know much about religion. It was like other personal matters to be discussed in hushed tones and through innuendo. Her grandmother taught her to sing “Silent Night” but warned her not to sing it outside the house.

A classmate once whispered that her father owned a Bible, she recalled. “Show me,” the incredulous Choi demanded.

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“My father won’t let me see it,” the girl replied.

The starkest lesson about the risk of practicing religion was the execution she and her friends witnessed in 1998.

Choi had seen other public killings before -- they were frequent in Musan in those years, according to many accounts -- but this one stayed with her.

The accused, a woman in her 20s, and her father, about 60, apparently had had their legs broken and had to be dragged out like dolls before they were tied to poles and shot. Choi said the pair had been found out when the daughter accidentally dropped a Bible with laundry she was washing by the river.

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The soft-spoken Choi, who wore dangling earrings inscribed with the word “love,” said the executions stopped in 2000 because of scrutiny from the international community.

“There were United Nations people who came in with fancy boots, clothing and cameras,” Choi said, recalling that it was the first time she had seen a Caucasian. “The children were fascinated and followed them as they went around asking questions. All we knew is there were no more executions after that.”

Human rights advocates suspect, however, that public execution is making a comeback. In March, a videotape was smuggled out of the North showing the execution of three people in the border town of Hoeryong. They had been accused of human trafficking.

There are unconfirmed reports of 12 executions Oct. 25 in Onsong, another town just inside the border.

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Kim Sang Hun, a human rights investigator in Seoul, said it was difficult to tell which cases stemmed from religious practice because North Korean officials often charge believers with other crimes such as trafficking, spying or anti-state activities.

“They are sensitive to their image abroad,” Kim said. “But their underlying nature has not changed.”


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