Is Christian evangelicals’ money helping to prop up North Korea’s regime?

Because official diplomacy has failed, private initiatives may be necessary to instill positive changes inside the repressive country.

Under the system of the authoritarian Great Leader, which functions more like a cult ideology than a presidency, the worship of another God is not condoned. There have been several arrests of Christian missionaries, including Jeffrey Fowle, who, in 2014, was detained for five months after leaving a Bible in a public bathroom, and Kenneth Bae, who, in 2013, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, though he was released the following year. But they were grass-roots missionaries who entered North Korea on tourist visas — they did things that were not allowed by the regime and got punished accordingly.

 

Last Saturday, an American was arrested at the airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. Tony Kim, a 50-something instructor at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), is the third American currently held by the regime. North Korea has not yet made any statement, while PUST was quick to issue an official memo stating that the reasons for the arrest were unrelated to the university.

Tony Kim’s arrest brings up many uncomfortable questions about evangelical ventures in North Korea. Because official diplomacy has failed, private initiatives may be necessary to instill positive changes inside the repressive country. However, at what cost are these types of operations functioning within North Korea?

In 2011, I lived for six months at PUST, a boarding university, guarded around the clock by the military. PUST, which opened in 2010, was founded by a Korean American evangelical named James Kim and is funded almost entirely with individual donations from international churches. It seems an odd premise, since religion is forbidden in North Korea and proselytizing is a crime. I taught English there, but my real objective was to be embedded within the system to investigate the deeper layer of North Korea as a writer. The other 30 or so teachers were evangelicals from around the world who called themselves “Christian educators.” PUST students (500 in total, most of whom are male) are handpicked by the North Korean regime from elite society. Essentially, funds sent by Christians around the world are helping to educate North Korea’s future leaders.

Under the system of the authoritarian Great Leader, which functions more like a cult ideology than a presidency, the worship of another God is not condoned. There have been several arrests of Christian missionaries, including Jeffrey Fowle, who, in 2014, was detained for five months after leaving a Bible in a public bathroom, and Kenneth Bae, who, in 2013, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, though he was released the following year. But they were grass-roots missionaries who entered North Korea on tourist visas — they did things that were not allowed by the regime and got punished accordingly.

PUST, however, is unique. The North Korean regime is well aware of the organization’s religious background; James Kim is an active evangelical in the region. He also founded Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST), a Christian university, in China on the border of North Korea, where Tony Kim taught until he came to PUST. An unofficial deal was struck between PUST and the regime that allowed the evangelicals to build the school in Pyongyang, fund it and teach the students as long as they do not discuss Christianity in public. The foreign faculty, many of whom are deployed there after extensive training at YUST, can observe their religious rites within the privacy of their dormitory, but they are forbidden from pursuing missionary efforts outside it.

PUST offers a mutually beneficial arrangement for both North Korea and the evangelicals. The regime gets free education for its youth and a modern facility, which can be used for propaganda, while the evangelicals get a footing in the remote nation. Missions in foreign territories often work with a long-term goal of conversion, where the spreading of the religion is conducted subtly through seemingly unconditional kindness, with the hopes of those beneficiaries eventually turning to the religion out of gratitude.

Read More