A blog by Grant Montgomery, co-founder of Family Care Foundation, a 501c3 that provides emergency services and sustained development for families on 5 continents. This site highlights the plight of 300,000 North Koreans who have fled their country due to the brutal oppression of a Stalinist North Korean regime, as well as those still living in North Korea.
North Korea announced Friday that it has detained a U.S. citizen who it says entered the secretive country as a tourist and broke the law. The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency gave the American’s name as Jeffrey Edward Fowle, saying he arrived as a tourist on April 29.
The news brings the number of Americans believed to be held in the communist nation to three.
Citing unidentified diplomatic sources, the Japanese news agency Kyodo reported that Fowle was part of a tour group and that he was detained in mid-May after allegedly leaving a Bible in a hotel where he had been staying.
North Korea said in late April it was holding a different American man, who it claimed came the country seeking asylum. He tore his tourist visa and shouted that “he would seek asylum” and “came to the DPRK (North Korea) after choosing it as a shelter,” KCNA said. KCNA identified that man as Miller Matthew Todd, who it says was taken into custody on April 10.
North Korea is also holding Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary who was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in 2013 by a court that said he had carried out acts aimed at bringing down the regime of leader Kim Jong Un.
North Korea said Saturday it has sentenced a South Korean Baptist missionary to hard labor for life for allegedly spying and trying to set up underground churches, the latest in a string of missionaries to run into trouble in the rigidly controlled North.
North Korean state media said the missionary was tried Friday and admitted to anti-North Korean religious acts and “malignantly hurting the dignity” of the country’s supreme leadership, a reference to the ruling Kim family. The rival Koreas have different English spelling styles for Korean names, so the North called the missionary Kim Jong Uk, but Seoul has previously referred to him as Kim Jung Wook.
North Korea’s official news agency KCNA said in its report on the trial, “The accused admitted to all his crimes: he committed anti-DPRK religious acts, malignantly hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK overseas and tried to infiltrate into Pyongyang … for the purpose of setting up an underground church and gathering information about the internal affairs of the DPRK while luring its inhabitants into South Korea and spying on the DPRK.”
Kim had been based largely in Dandong, in China, since 2007, from where he helped North Korean defectors get to South Korea via Thailand, Laos and other countries. Kim was born in 1964, Joo said, making him 49 or 50.
In August 2012, a group of 12 North Korean women were caught by Chinese authorities while they were at Kim’s shelter and sent back to North Korea.
Christian missionaries have been drawn over the years to totalitarian North Korea, which tolerates only strictly sanctioned religious services. North Korean defectors have said that the distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution.
Responding to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, North Korean ambassador Se Pyong stated, “There are in the northeastern area of China so-called churches and priests exclusively engaged in hostile acts against the DPRK. They indoctrinate the illegal border crossers with anti-DPRK ideology and send them back to the DPRK with assignments of subversion, destruction, human trafficking and even terrorist acts.”
Rev. Eric Foley, who is the CEO of Seoul USA, a US/Korean NGO that operates a number of discipleship bases reaching North Koreans, says, “The significance of North Korea’s comments cannot be overstated. North Korea is choosing to publicly blame Christian missionaries for its human rights problems and internal difficulties.”
Foley notes that the situation facing North Korean missionaries in Northeast China is tight and getting tighter. But Foley adds that the challenge is not only from North Korea. “If North Korea is pointing to missionaries operating in China as a source of potential North Korean instability, and if it is alleging that China is the host, then missionaries can expect an increasing crackdown on churches and discipleship bases reaching North Koreans.”
It is not widely known, but a significant part of the first generation of Korean communist leaders – people born between 1900 and 1920 – came from devote Christian families.
Kim Il Sung himself (grandfather of present leader Kim Jong Un) was no exception: Both his parents came from families of early converts to Christianity.
Until the Korean War, Pyongyang was a major stronghold of Korean Christianity. In the colonial days, it was not known as the “Jerusalem of the East” for nothing: in the 1930s Christians constituted some 30 percent of the population of the city (at the same time, only 1 percent of all Koreans were Christians).
However, communist ideologues were very hostile to religion, which they saw as the “opium of the masses.” In the Soviet Union under Stalin, the church was not officially outlawed, but it was subjected to systematic harassment. In the late 1940s the North Korean government co-opted the small number of church ministers willing to collaborate – these people were called “progressive churchmen.” Kang Ryang Uk, a Protestant missionary and distant relative of Kim Il Sung, was the most prominent of these collaborators. The vast majority of believers, however, were subjected to discrimination. The result was a massive exodus of Christians to South Korea.
From around 1956-57, North Korean authorities began to close down all the few surviving churches and religious associations in the country. From then on, the North Korean media claimed that North Korea was the only country free of “religious superstition.”
Christianity became the object of near constant and virulent attacks in the North Korean media. While all communist states sponsored anti-religious activities and propaganda, in few countries of the Communist Bloc was this propaganda as vicious as in North Korea.
In propaganda publications churchmen were not merely reactionary, but national traitors. As every reader of North Korean magazines and books knew well, churches were all controlled by foreign missionaries, who were mercenary spies of the foreign imperialists, or sometimes sadistic killers who fantasized about butchering the Korean nation. One recurrent topic of North Korean propaganda was missionary involvement in “organ snatching.” Missionary doctors were alleged to steal kidneys, eyes and bone marrow (among other things) from those innocent Koreans who were stupid enough to come to a missionary hospital. Alternatively, naive Korean patients were subject to diabolical experiments, conducted by the same missionary doctors.
North Korea remains the world’s most restrictive nation in which to practice Christianity, according to the 2014 World Watch List released by Open Doors, a nonprofit organization helping persecuted Christians worldwide. The hermit kingdom is at the top of the rankings for the 12th consecutive year.
The list is compiled of countries where Christians face the most pressure and violence. In an interview with Fox News, Dr. David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, said in North Korea, “it’s very dangerous to identify yourself as a Christian.”
“In some countries there are some freedoms and violence against Christians is noted in news media … in North Korea the control is total,” said Curry. “Reports that have been getting out that have been identified and confirmed by the U.N. about what is happening to Christians, the kinds of torture that are happening to them … is absolutely inhumane.”
Curry said Kim’s regime might feel threatened by people in North Korea practicing Christianity.
“There’s a weird theocracy that’s been developed over three generations … that’s is especially fearful of any sort of spirituality or personal faith that would run contrary to the fact Kim Jong-Un [and his predecessors] … consider themselves Gods,” said Curry.
One of the first things Eric Foley, the co-founder of Seoul USA, learned about the North Korean underground church is that it is not a group to be pitied. About 10 years ago Foley asked a member of the underground church how he could pray for them. He recalls the North Korean’s response, “You, pray for us? We pray for you … because South Korean and American churches believe challenges in the Christian faith are solved by money, freedom, and politics. It’s only when all you have is God do you realize God is all you need.”
Unlike the Chinese underground church, North Korean Christians can’t risk gathering together because spies are everywhere. Instead, they worship in their own household or in the common areas, like while walking down the road out of earshot.
Foley estimates about 100,000 Christians live in North Korea, with about a third of them in concentration camps. Members of the church have told Foley they see concentration camps as just another mission field — North Korean officials have had to separate Christians from other prisoners because they keep sharing the gospel.
As North Korea fell under Communist rule after World War II, Christians realized they would soon face intense persecution. Some escaped to South Korea, where they could worship freely, but those who stayed chose four foundational pillars of Christianity they could pass on to future generations.
Physical copies of the Bible are rare for poor households, as government officials regularly check their homes. If officials find a Bible, the government will send the family to concentration camps or kill them. Seoul USA has been able to send Bibles over to North Korea using balloons — 50,000 Bibles dropped into the country this past year. The group also produces short-wave radio programs with North Korean defectors reading the Bible, as about 20 percent of North Koreans illegally own radios.
The government deems Christianity a threat because North Korea’s Juche ideology, which mixes Marxism with worship of the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and his family, is partially copied from Christianity. Kim, who attended church until eighth grade, took Christian concepts like the trinity, church services, and hymns and made it all about himself. If people found out about Christ, they’d see Kim and his lineage as the frauds they are.
With a zero-tolerance policy for Christianity, Christians are careful who they tell about their faith. They don’t reveal their belief to their spouses until years after marriage, and they can’t tell their children until they turn 15, as teachers are trained to extract such information from students.
Foley has also met defectors who “know Bible stories told differently or some Christian songs. North Korean Christians are very careful to pass on the treasure and for their family members to guard it and only over time realize what it is.” Seoul USA sees its role as discipling the church in North Korea by providing resources like the radio and Bibles, as well as starting Underground University to train North Korean defectors to become missionaries to their own people.