Keys to Understanding NORTH KOREA
IDEOLOGY TRUMPS ALL: Understanding North Korea means understanding its leadership and personality cult. In its early years, from independence in 1945, the country followed the communist path and faced an early war against UN troops in the Korea War 1950-53. Soon after that, it became clear that North Korea would be a communist country, not led by a collective leadership, but rather by one person, Kim Il-sung and after his death in 1994, by his son Kim Jong-il, who was succeeded after his death in 2011 by his son Kim Jong-un. The country has two ideologies as its basis. One is called Juche which basically says that man is self-reliant. The other is “Kimilsungism”, the worship of the leaders. They are the all-powerful entities who lead and guide North Korea. Everyone has to attend at least weekly meetings and memorise more than 100 pages of ideological learning materials, including documents that praise the morals and majesty of the Kims, and various poems and songs praising them. Approximately, 100,000 Juche “research centres” – mostly comprising of one room – reportedly exist throughout the country.
CONTINUITY IN THE SUCCESSION OF KIM JONG-UN: The recent succession of Kim Jong-un fits into this picture. He has demonstrated a different leadership style from his father, trying to resemble his grandfather more, by being more communicative in public and presenting himself as more benevolent. However, this does not mean that ideology will become less important or leadership decentralised. Kim Jong-un was proclaimed the “Great Successor” and announced as “Supreme Leader” and “Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces”. More importantly, he holds central positions in all important powerhouses: party, state and army by holding positions as First Secretary of Korea’s Workers Party. Hopes that Kim Jong-Un would chose a path of reform diminished in the course of 2012 and 2013 after economic reforms were not pursued, two rocket and one nuclear tests were held and war rhetoric reached an all-time high after the UN imposed sanctions and South Korea and the US held military exercises together.
SOCIAL CLASSIFICATION BEING INTEGRAL TO EVERY DAY LIFE: Influenced by Confucianism – a Chinese ethical and philosophical system – , North Korea developed a social classification system which includes every citizen and keeps records of this in the Resident Registration File. This system, called “Songbun”, divides society into three classes: the core, the wavering and the hostile class, counting for 28 per cent, 45 per cent and 27 per cent respectively. These classes are further divided into 51 sub-classes. There are frequent investigations into people’s Songbun, the most recent in 2010. In addition, sub-classes are changing and reportedly, it is nearly impossible to improve one’s Songbun.
A recent report from abroad about Songbun is entitled “Marked for life” - this title is not exaggerated. Songbun is used for promotions as well as the food distribution system. People of higher Songbun eat adequately, if not well, especially in Pyongyang. When facing trial, people with lower Songbun will get harsher punishments than others. “Rule of law” is thus an unknown concept. Songbun is also important for marrying. It is aggravated by the principle of guilt by association: the grandfather’s descent or deeds count as much as the deeds of a distant cousin, enabling the regime to justify even of the highest ranks.
DEVASTATING ECONOMIC SITUATION: North Korea faces a high potential for natural disasters as torrential rains, typhoons, flooding and storm surges, occur annually. Soil erosion and sedimentation, landslides, droughts and dust and sand storms pose serious threats to life and livelihood in the country. A recent UN report showed that around 16 million people suffer from chronic food insecurity (to various degrees), high malnutrition rates and deep-rooted economic problems. Young children, pregnant and lactating women and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. The country needs international aid, which causes new problems as the regime restricts access to the citizens in need.
CORRUPTION: Another problem is that the Army sells aid instead of distributing it. This is one example of the huge problem of corruption. According to Transparency International, North Korea is the most corrupt country in the world (a position shared with Afghanistan and Somalia). The badly failed “money exchange measures” of November 2009 had annihilating consequences as nobody could afford the goods that were available for sale on the market. This forced a lot of people to relocate. Prices on the markets still seem to skyrocket from week to week.
INFORMATION FROM ABROAD DRIPPING IN: There is a growing stream of information from abroad, in varying formats. This includes tunable radios, DVDs with foreign movies or South Korean TV shows, but also news about the world. The regime still tries to control the knowledge of its people, but this is increasingly more and more difficult. The internet is in fact not accessible in the country, but there are around 1 million people who own mobile phones. These do not have access to international networks, but can reach Chinese network stations in a strip of 20 km to the border. Also many people in the border towns have Chinese cell phones. Though this is heavily monitored, connections cannot be prevented. Hence, a 2010 survey among defectors and “travellers” found that 27 per cent of North Koreans had listened to foreign radio in the country. It also said 24 per cent had watched television programmes from China and South Korea that can be received near the border.
North Korea is singular in the true meaning of the word. It is perceived as one of the few remaining communist states in the world, but in fact it is far more than this: the God-like worship of the rulers leaves no room for any other religion. Every reverence not concentrated on the Kim dynasty will be seen as dangerous and state-threatening. The country’s political system is based upon two ideologies. One is called Juche, basically saying that man is self-reliant. The other is “Kimilsungism”, the worship of the leaders. They are the all-powerful entities who lead and guide North Korea. Everyone has to attend at least weekly meetings and memorize more than 100 pages of ideological learning materials, including documents that tribute the morals and majesty of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un, and various poems and songs praising them.
The persecution dynamic describing this unique situation is ‘Communist oppression’. But as Communism imperfectly describes the regime, a second even stronger dynamic is ‘Dictatorial paranoia’. The rulers will do whatever they deem necessary to stay in power. The recent succession by Kim Jong-Un fits into this picture. He has shown a different style than his father, trying to resemble his grandfather more, being more communicative in public and presenting himself as more benevolent. But this does not mean that ideology will become less important or leadership decentralized. Kim Jong-Un was proclaimed the “Great Successor” and announced as “Supreme Leader” and “Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces”. More importantly, he holds central positions in all important powerhouses: party, state and army by holding positions as First Secretary of Korea’s Workers Party.
With a well-known communist belief, religion is seen as “the opium of the people” and a means for the bourgeoisie to rule the masses. Therefore, North Korea’s rulers consider it has to be eradicated. Christianity, in particular, is perceived as dangerous as it is assumed it has ties with the West and thus will hinder the development of a “truly socialist” nation. Accordingly, the regime counts the adherents of the different religions officially as being 10.000 Protestants, 10.000 Buddhists, 4.000 Catholics and 40.000 followers of an indigenous religion called “Chondogyo”.
In a 2002 report to the UN, the country mentioned the existence of several church buildings in the capital Pyongyang as well as around 500 “family worship centers” all over the country. The official Chosun Christian League confirms those numbers, but most likely these are mere Potemkin villages. Supporting this conclusion, defectors from North Korea testify that they never heard of them.
In any case, the so-called “underground churches” exceed this numbers by far. Estimations vary up to the number of several hundred thousands of Christian believers, but what all experts agree upon is that all of these believers face very difficult circumstances. Open Doors estimates the number of believers ranging between 200.000 and 400.000.
All defectors consistently testified that one would certainly be persecuted for practicing religion on a personal level. The fundamental reason for North Korea’s difficulty in guaranteeing freedom of religion in accordance with its socialist Constitution stems from its belief that religions are a means of foreign encroachment and would inflict harm on North Korea’s social disciplines.
Consequently, in the social stratification system called “Songbun”, all Christians are classified as “hostile” and even considered as own subclasses, namely 37 for Protestant Christians and 39 for Catholic Christians. Not only the believers themselves will be punished in case of discovery, but possibly also their families up to the third generation.
Refugees and defectors stated that they witnessed or heard of arrests and possible executions of underground Christian church members in prior years. Due to the country’s inaccessibility and the inability of foreigners to gain timely information, the continuation of arrests and executions during the year remained difficult to verify, as the US State Department stated in its Annual Report 2012. The same report says that defector reports indicated that the government increased its investigation, repression, and persecution of unauthorized religious groups in recent years, but access to information on current conditions was limited.
Anyone discovered engaging in clandestine religious activity will possibly be subject to discrimination, arrest, arbitrary detention, disappearance, torture, and public execution. Refugees repatriated from China are reported to be particularly vulnerable as the risk of arrest is high. Most times, they will get a comparably light sentence like several months in a labor camp, though, as long as they did not participate in Christian activities in North Korea.
A large number of religious believers are incarcerated in North Korea’s infamous penal labor camps (kwan-li-so), though the exact number is difficult to verify as stated in the most recent US Commission for International Religious Freedom report. The estimation of numbers widely relies on accounts of defectors which sometimes date back far, hence, leaving a time gap.
According to recent reports about the labor camp systems, estimations about political prison camps comprise about 150.000 to 200.000 inmates, not including all those imprisoned in the other prison types of the country. For prison No. 15 – better known as political prison camp Yodok – alone, experts by defectors’ explanations estimate there could be up to 6.000 Christians incarcerated.
The Kim regime’s elimination of religious individuals from North Korean society was a detailed process that focused on ideological indoctrination to eliminate, or “convert” Christians to an atheistic belief in socialist ideology, imprison or banish them to remote areas if this conversion did not take hold, and execute religious leaders or those who attempted to convert others to their religion.
North Korean police officials hunt down and vigorously prosecute North Koreans who convert to Protestant Christianity while in China or those who attempt to bring Christian literature, primarily Bible verses, back with them to North Korea. Every defector caught and repatriated to the country will have to answer a lot of questions. According to all reports, these include: “Did you meet any Christians in China?” and “Have you visited a church in China?” The consistent high pressure despite the transition to the new leader is also witnessed by the fact that the number of defectors from North Korea fell sharply in the reporting period, around 50 percent. Reportedly, the regime enhanced its border security, also by using modern technics.
Kim Jong-Un has reportedly dispatched over a hundred spies to China to expose (Christian) networks engaged in helping refugees. The situation in the border area is very tense. In September 2011, a South Korean missionary was assassinated in Dandong/China by North Korean agents. Another missionary escaped narrowly. In the reporting period, three South Koreans were allegedly killed by North Korean secret agents. One was stabbed with poisonous needles and two died in suspicious traffic accidents.
As Kim Jong-Un still has to prove that he is able to lead the country like his ancestors did, most likely the country will not see any major changes. Christians, if discovered, will remain targets of the regimes’ wrath.
Typhoon-hit country accepts aid from the South: In August 2012, North Korea was hit by typhoon Bolaven, leaving at least 176 dead and displacing more than 200,000 people according to Korean Red Cross estimates. It is hoped that the tense relationship between both North and South Korea might improve in the future. As for the church, there is unlikely to be any relief. Given former experiences, it remains uncertain as to whether the aid really reaches the neediest.
Effects of the leadership transition: Following the recent transition in leadership, there is some hope for a change in leadership style and policy. One recent example is speculation based on the fact that Kim Jong-un appeared publically with a young lady, allegedly his wife whom he married in secret some time ago. Sadly, the perception of Ken Gause, a long-term observer of North Korea is the most likely one. To quote him:
“What does this all mean for the average North Korean? Sadly, the answer is prob¬ably not much. The regime has given no indication that it intends to embrace new, more humane policies towards the population. If anything, as the succession plays itself out, the regime will become even more vigilant against any anti-Kim sentiment and crackdowns along the border with China and efforts to root out the “ill effects” of the markets will become commonplace as the leadership moves toward its destiny of becoming a “strong and prosperous nation.” According to one source, this is evidenced by the increase in the number of surveillance cameras along the border with China. Kim Jong-un has also allegedly given orders for harsher punishment (including execution) for defectors caught along the Sino-North Korean Border. In his ongoing effort to consolidate political control following the death of Kim Jong-il, it appears that Kim Jong-un is employing the regime’s surveillance organs to tighten control over residents.”
In March 2013, the appointment of Park Pong-chu as Prime Minister raised hopes for economic reforms, as he instituted some minor reforms during his last term from 2003 to 2007. If these hopes really will lead to an improvement of the devastating economic situation of millions of citizens, remains to be seen.
Mere rhetoric or clear and present danger? The nuclear test on February 12, 2013, the one-sided termination of all non-aggression pacts with the South in March as well as all subsequent actions of the country`s leadership leave interpretation for the question if this is mere rhetoric or a new quality in danger for war. As one observer from Stratfor points out, all these threats and acts fit into the threefold strategy of North Korea to act ferocious, weak (in terms of economic and military power) and crazy. Be that as it may, the Christian minority will continue to be under the heaviest pressure imaginable.
Recent reports show that the regime beefed up its border protection system with China, electronically, but also by sending more spies to the Chinese border region. This development endangers Christian refugees as well as aid workers enormously.
- At the end of the eighteenth century Korean converts from China brought Christianity back to their country. When the first missionaries settled themselves permanently in North Korea in 1886 they found a small community of Christians already there and a year later the first Bible was published in Korean. The annexation of Korea by Japan in 1905 (officially in 1910) coincided with a great growth of Christians in Korea and Christianity supported the feeling of Korean nationalism. In 1907 the Great Pyongyang Revival began and the capital became known as the ‘Jerusalem of the East’. Churches sprouted up everywhere, there were numerous revival meetings and missionaries created educational institutions throughout the country.
- Under Japanese rule the Church was increasingly persecuted and Christians and other civilians were forced to bow for the altars of the emperor.
- After the Japanese defeat in WWLII, Kim Il-Sung came to power and imposed a communist (atheistic) regime. During the Korean War (1950-53) many Christians tried to flee. After the war, tens of thousands of Christians were killed, imprisoned or banished to remote areas. The rest of the Church went underground. Before the Korean War there were 500,000 believers in North Korea. Ten years later, there was no visible presence of them anymore.
- Since 2001, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom put the country as a country of particular concern, also in its latest report in 2012
- ARDA reports that traditionally Buddhism and Confucianism have the most followers, but the regime has been widely successful in its attempts to eradicate all religions. Open Doors does not agree with this statement
- The estimation on the number of Christians varies from around 30,000 to “several hundred thousand”. Naturally, it is difficult to verify any figures due to the highly restrictive environment
- Based on information from inside the country, Open Doors estimates are higher, ranging between 200,000 and 400,000. Whichever figure used, all accounts show that the domestic church is slowly but steadily growing
- In the capital Pyongyang, there is one official Catholic church, two Protestant churches and, since 2006, a Russian-Orthodox church. Defectors testify that these churches serve as showpieces
- There has been a religious studies program at Kim Il Sung University since 1998. The graduates are working for officially recognised religious federations, the foreign trade sector or with border guards to identify clandestine religious activity. Many are recruited as spies in order to denounce Christian activities in the country.
Andre nettsteder med nyttig informasjon om Nord-Korea:
• A Prison Witout Bars, en grundig rapport fra det amerikanske utenriksdepartement, april 2008.
• Rapport fra juni 2007, utarbeidet av Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
• Rapport om Nord-Korea rettet til FN's Sikkerhetsråd, publisert høsten 2006 av Kjell Magne Bondevik, Václav Havel og Elie Wiesel.
• Life Funds for North Korean Refugees. En organisasjon som hjelper nordkoreanske flyktninger. Nyttig nettsted.
• North Korea Freedom Coalition er en sammenslutning av en rekke organisasjoner i flere land. De samarbeider om å sette menneskerettigheter og frihet for nord-koreanere på den internasjonale dagsorden. Nettstedet inneholder mange nyttige ressurser.
• US Committee for Humans Rights in North Korea jobber på ulike politiske nivåer for å bedre menneskerettighetene i Nord-Korea. Nettsted med mange nyttige ressurser.
• Beskrivelse av Juche-ideologien, som Nord-Koreas ledere ønsker å styre etter.
• År 97 etter Kim Il Sung - En interessant reisebeskrivelse i den norske ukeavisen Ny Tid.Wikipedia (norsk)International Religious Freedom Report 2010