North Korea

Doug Bock Clark writes beautifully on a sorrowful topic in North Korean life

Doug Bock Clark writes beautifully on a sorrowful topic in North Korean life

Doug Bock Clark has written an amazing report for GQ that is essential reading for those who care about North Korea refugees and how Christianity has driven one man to help them.

Clark reports on the Underground Railroad that helps people escape from North Korea to China and from there to multiple Southeast Asian countries.

Clark has published two previous longform reports with GQ: an account of Kim Jong-nam’s being murdered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and a detail-rich record of how Otto Warmbier so easily slipped from student visitor to a dead victim of North Korean brutality.

Now he begins with the story of a young mother named Faith who makes a slow and costly journey from Pyongyang to Phnom Penh.

The following passage is long, but essential, if GetReligion readers want to understand why this is a must-read feature.

Much of Faith’s journey is arranged by Stephen Kim, the believer at the heart of this amazing story:

For safety, Kim doesn’t want too much known about his past, but there are two facts that he feels are important in order to understand him. First, his father grew up in what became North Korea before he moved to modern-day South Korea to run a wholesale vegetable business. Sometime after that, the Korean Peninsula was split into two nations and the Korean War broke out. Thus, while Kim grew up in the South, he thought of North Koreans as long-lost family. Second, Kim’s father was Christian, and though he and his family eventually stopped attending church, Kim never forgot Jesus.

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From North Korea with love: Will pope respond? At the moment, media haven't a clue

From North Korea with love: Will pope respond? At the moment, media haven't a clue

In a typical news cycle, the pope and North Korea aren’t in the same paragraph, much less the same sentence. Yet, news was out yesterday about an invitation to Pope Francis to consider visiting the Hermit Kingdom.

Questions abound. How many Catholics still exist there? Would the pope merely hobnob with the powers-that-be or actually deliver a sermon to the masses? Would his visit come with certain conditions insisted upon by the Vatican?

Also, considering the horrific religious persecution in that country, what North Korean citizen in his or her right mind would wish to publicly show allegiance to a pope? This Nixon-goes-to-China possibility comes with some W’s: We know “who” and “where” and can guess “how,” but we don’t know “why” or “when.”

Here’s what BBC said:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has invited Pope Francis to visit the country, South Korea's presidential office has announced.

The invitation to visit Pyongyang will be delivered by South Korean president Moon Jae-in who will be in the Vatican next week as part of a trip to Europe.

No pope has ever visited North Korea, though the late Pope John Paul II was once invited.

North Korea and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations.

The aforementioned papal invite was extended in 2000, the article says.

According to news wire the Associated Press, the Vatican insisted at the time that a visit from the pope would only happen if Catholic priests were accepted in North Korea.

After a description of the complete lack of religious freedom in the country:

According to news site NK News, North Korea does maintain a Catholic church in Pyongyang - the Jangchung Catholic Church — though it is not officially affiliated with the Vatican.

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Trump and Kim discussed religious persecution? Scant media accounts leave us guessing

Trump and Kim discussed religious persecution? Scant media accounts leave us guessing

It sure has been interesting seeing President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un operating within a few feet of each other this week.

It was tough for media to glean much from the meeting of the two men, although the prevalent press opinion seems to be that Trump got the lesser part of the deal. In describing the North Korean leader, most reporters linked this phrase -- “systematic murder (including infanticide), torture, persecution of Christians, rape, forced abortions, starvation and overwork leading to countless deaths” -- to him, quoting the International Bar Association.

"Persecution" of Christians and other religious minorities?

Did any news reports go any further than that with the religion angle? The New York Times’ headline says: Atrocities Under Kim Jong-un: Indoctrination, Prison Gulags, Executions. Which meant, specifically:

North Korea considers the spread of most religions dangerous, but Christianity is considered a “particularly serious threat” because it “provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the State,” according to the United Nations report.

Christians are barred from practicing their religion, and those caught doing so are “subject to severe punishments,” the report found. North Korean leaders also conflate Christians with those detained in prison camps, those who try to flee and “others considered to introduce subversive influences,” the report stated.

In interviews with The New York Times in 2012, four North Koreans said that they had been warned that the gulag awaited those who spoke to journalists or Christian missionaries. “If the government finds out I am reading the Bible, I’m dead,” one woman said.

In its 2018 World Watch List, the Christian group Open Doors ranked North Korea the worst nation in the world for Christians, and in a statement last week, the group called on Christians to take part in 24 hours of prayer and fasting on Monday ahead of the meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim.

That was the most description I could find about an estimated 50,000 Christians imprisoned in North Korea’s gulags.

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AP story on secret North Korean missionaries should be of interest to all

AP story on secret North Korean missionaries should be of interest to all

It seems like just another story about missionaries to North Korea. Then you realize that this Associated Press story is about North Koreans who somehow escape their country to take refuge in China, then return to their native land to secretly convert other North Koreans to Christianity. That's a new angle.

These stories are not easy to get. First, you have to have contacts in an obscure corner of northeast China who will talk with you. You also need decent translators who understand religious terms.

Then you need to connect the dots between the North Korean government and a group of determined Christians just across the Chinese border. So as you read this, look for signs of research, the sources for facts and insights.

Also, notice the life-and-death stakes. This is dangerous territory. The further you read on, the better the plot gets.

SOUTHERN JILIN PROVINCE, China (AP) -- To the North Koreans gathered beneath a crucifix in an apartment in this northeastern Chinese border region, she is known as “mom.” She feeds them, gives them a place to stay and, on occasion, money.
In return, the 69-year-old Korean-Chinese woman asks them to study the Bible, pray and sing hymns. She also has a more ambitious, and potentially dangerous, goal: She wants the most trusted of her converts to return to North Korea and spread Christianity there.
Along the North Korean border, dozens of such missionaries are engaged in work that puts them and their North Korean converts in danger. Most are South Koreans, but others, like the woman, are ethnic Koreans whose families have lived in China for generations. In recent years, 10 such front-line missionaries and pastors have died mysteriously, according to the Rev. Kim Kyou Ho, head of the Seoul-based Chosen People Network, a Christian group that runs a memorial hall in the South Korean capital for the victims. North Korea is suspected in all those deaths.

We’re then told why this secret missionizing might be of interest to the greater world at large.

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Juche: The religion reporter's way into the North Korea-U.S. nuclear summit story

Juche: The religion reporter's way into the North Korea-U.S. nuclear summit story

OK, so I’m booking political fantasy bets on whether President Donald Trump will actually have a monumental sit down with North Korea’s equally uniquely coiffed supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

Not because I’m a gambling man, mind you, but because I’m a journalist in need of a lede graph to get rolling here, and that’s what came to mind. Forgive me, but that’s how I work this craft.

Now let’s get serious.

Despite the lower-level North Korea-United States talks in Helsinki this week, a Kim-Trump nuclear summit still feels like a long shot to me.

But if they do actually meet what might religion scribes contribute to the story beyond the standard pieces noting how Korean-American Christian missionaries and other idealistic Westerners occasionally get arrested in North Korea.

Well, you could write about how the officially atheist state actually has what some scholars identify as, speaking from a sociological point of view, a homegrown quasi-religion.

I’m speaking about Juche, North Korea’s official governing philosophy.

It's not that Juche hasn't been writing about before. It has, but only rarely. For some reason, editors (and I must cede, the public, too) seem to care more about those potentially deadly nuclear threats that both sides toss about every so often.

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'This is not a drill': The Washington Post pays attention after nuclear threat interrupts the Mass

'This is not a drill': The Washington Post pays attention after nuclear threat interrupts the Mass

Please allow me to flash back, for a moment, to a major national and international story from a week or so ago. I am referring to that stunning false alarm in Hawaii about an incoming ballistic missile.

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War era (I spent part of my childhood across town from an Air Force base full of B-52 bombers and their nuclear payloads), it is hard to image any message more terrifying than, "This is not a drill."

Lots of journalists and commentators asked a logical question: If you saw this message flash across your smartphone screen, what would you do?

I wondered, at the time, if many journalists considered pursuing religion-angle stories linked to that question. This is, after all, kind of the secular flip side of that question the Rev. Billy Graham and other evangelists have been asking for ages: If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?

However, The Washington Post picked up -- in a piece mixing aggregation with some new reporting -- a fascinating piece out of Hawaii that looked at this question from a Catholic point of view, focusing on some very interesting liturgical questions.

Journalists: Here is the crucial point to remember. While skeptics may scoff, for believers in liturgical churches, nothing that is happening in the world, at any given moment in time, is more important than the mysteries that are taking place on an altar during Mass (or in Eastern churches, the Divine Liturgy). Thus, here is the top of that Post piece, which opens with a priest distributing Holy Communion in a Mass at a Diocese of Honolulu chapel:

Suddenly, a deacon interrupted him and held up a cellphone showing the incoming missile alert that went out shortly after 8 a.m. It urged people to seek immediate shelter. ...
Despite the possibility of impending doom, the Rev. Mark Gantley, who was leading the Mass, didn’t mention the alert to worshipers or stop the service. But he did forgo the closing song.

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'Relig-Un' puns aside, deity downgrade for North Korea's Kim is a big story and UK media notice

'Relig-Un' puns aside, deity downgrade for North Korea's Kim is a big story and UK media notice

It's the kind of news story tailor-made for the puns and pokes of Britain's tabloid press, and The Sun, the daily redoubt of topless 'Page 3' girls, doesn't fail to deliver.

The headline says it all: "LOSING MY RELIG-UN Paranoid Kim Jong-un executing record numbers of North Koreans who no longer see him as a living GOD" [sic].

This is one of those cases in which the headline is pretty much the same as the lede, so here that is again in case you missed it:

DELUDED despot Kim Jong-un is executing growing numbers of North Koreans who no longer worship him as a living GOD.
His ruthless regime is persecuting thousands who dare to practise “other religions” within its borders, according to a shock new US government study.

It's not the poetry of a Hearstian scribe in the good old days, but it'll suffice. The "shock new US government study" is a nice touch, although someone should tell the paper that America is the U.S., and not a celebrity-gossip magazine. "Deluded despot" certainly fits the bill, however.

This is not our usual media-bash since even The Sun does "get it" here: there appears to be evidence that the literal cult-of-personality surrounding the Kim family, where the current ruler's father and grandfather were quite literally worshipped by the population or else, is showing some cracks.

A more serious London newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, published a story from which The Sun and rival tabloid the Daily Mail, both appear to have cribbed. As the Telegraph reported, citing the U.S. State Department report:

"An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions", it adds.
Those claims were backed up by a North Korean defector who is now a member of the Seoul-based Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea.

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Covering Robert Jeffress and Kim Jong Un: Some media shone, while others flailed

Covering Robert Jeffress and Kim Jong Un: Some media shone, while others flailed

It certainly made for a lot of waves on the internet: The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, describing how America's chief executive has authority from God to kill off North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

I’m still waiting for Pope Francis to come up with a statement to refute that one. But first things first: On Tuesday, Jeffress’ remarks were released to the Christian Broadcasting Network, an odd alliance if there ever was one. CBN is very oriented toward the Pentecostal-charismatic side of things and Jeffress most definitely is not, as an old-guard leader on the Southern Baptist right.

But politics always makes for strange bedfellows and with its superior contacts within the Trump administration, CBN has found itself in the unusual role of breaking national stories lately. David Brody’s three-paragraph story was part news, part editorial:

Sometimes you've got to stop evil. It's biblical. In North Korea, it's pretty clear that their dictator is downright evil. So tonight, Pastor Robert Jeffress, a longtime evangelical backer of Donald Trump, just released a statement saying the president has the moral authority to take out Kim Jong Un. This comes after Trump said today that if North Korea continues to threaten the U.S. then they will “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
“When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary -- including war -- to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un. I’m heartened to see that our president -- contrary to what we’ve seen with past administrations who have taken, at best, a sheepish stance toward dictators and oppressors -- will not tolerate any threat against the American people. When President Trump draws a red line, he will not erase it, move it, or back away from it. Thank God for a President who is serious about protecting our country.”
Folks, get ready. I've warned for a long time that North Korea was the biggest problem all along. Memo to North Korea: with Trump as president, you really don't want to mess with America. This could get real ugly real soon. Trump won't tolerate this for too much longer.

Later, CBN did follow up with something more nuanced from other evangelicals. 

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Hey, New York Times: Maybe there's more to that Christian-backed school in North Korea

Hey, New York Times: Maybe there's more to that Christian-backed school in North Korea

If there's a nation on this planet harder to understand than the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK, I don't know it -- and you probably don't, either.

More commonly known as North Korea, it's been a family-led Communist dynasty for longer than any other. It's secretive, wracked by poverty and the government keeps trying to launch a missile that is capable of hitting Japan, or Guam or even Hawaii.

There have been (and are) all sorts of religion-angle "ghosts" in news surrounding the DPRK. Our our own Ira Rifkin last year noted the missing elements when The New York Times examined the country's "Juche" philosophy.

Now, the Times's correspondent who skipped the spiritual "ghosts" in the Juche piece has, er, passed over some key faith-related questions in another story. Choe Sang-Hun tells us about a Christian-led university in the officially atheist DPRK, with only a passing glance at the religion angle. Read this multi-paragraph introduction to see what I mean:

Set on 250 sprawling acres in North Korea’s capital, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology abides by the cult of the Kim family.
Atop its main building, large red characters praise “General Kim Jong-un,” the country’s provocative young leader. At the front of lecture halls hang smiling portraits of his father and grandfather, who led the nation before him.
Yet the school is different in one striking way. In a country that bans religion, it is run by evangelical Christians.

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