The below is an interview with South Korean priest Father Lee Eun-hyung on the situation of Christians in communist North Korea and on his work for the suffering population there conducted by Anselm Blumberg of Aid to the Church in Need. An exclusive take on the ever-deteriorating situation of Christians in the Hermit Kingdom, the below is a cry for the international community to continue to strive to alleviate the continued repression of the North Korean people in all facets of life. Known to be detained,, subjected to forced labor, and tortured in North Korea’s infamous gulags, the nation’s Christians suffer immense abuse at the hands of Jong-Un’s communist regime.
06/05/2013 North Korea (Aid to the Church in Need)
Q) Father Lee, you have visited Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, three times. What did you experience there?
A) In 2005, 2008 and 2011 I flew to Pyongyang via China. There I spoke to representatives of the “Catholic Association Joseon”, which is officially recognised by the North Korean authorities. Thanks to this association we were able to supply humanitarian aid to North Korea and set up a religious exchange. On each visit I celebrated Holy Mass in the Catholic church of “Jangchung”, named after the city district where it is located. North Korean believers attended. Nevertheless the North Korean authorities told me it was strictly forbidden for me and those working with me to contact the country’s citizens personally. It was therefore impossible to get an insight into how they live and think. It’s very difficult to tell whether those who attended the service were really Catholics. The “Jangchung” Catholic church is led by a layperson. Allegedly he conducts a Liturgy of the Word with the community every Sunday. As far as I know there are no Catholic priests living in North Korea at present.
Q) How many Christians are there living in North Korea today?
A) It’s difficult to say how many believers there are in North Korea. After all, North Korea is the most secretive country in the world. I think the figures given for religious adherents in North Korea in the numerous sets of statistics are not precise. The North Korean authorities told us that there are 3,000 Catholics in the country. But we don’t know whether this figure is correct, or how it was arrived at. In the period before the country was divided in 1945 there were very many Christians in North Korea. Evangelical missionaries called Pyongyang at that time the “Jerusalem of the East”. A very lively missionary work went out from here. The mother of the dictator Kim Il-sung (1948-1994), for example, came from a very pious Protestant family. There are old documents which show that there were about 50,000 Catholics living in the north before the division of the country. We suspect that after the long period of persecution there are still about 10,000 people who will remember in their hearts their Catholic faith. But these supposed Catholics in North Korea practise their faith in secret. I find it difficult to believe that there is an organised underground Church in North Korea. There are rumours that there is an underground Church on the border to China.
Q) Apart from in the capital Pyongyang are there other church buildings in North Korea?
A) I haven’t yet had the opportunity to find this out. To date the “Jangchung” church is the only one which the North Korean authorities have officially recognised as a Catholic church. Before Korea was divided there existed numerous Catholic places of worship in North Korea. Many of them were probably destroyed during the Korean War (1950-1953). We suspect that the North Korean authorities then put the church buildings which had been spared in the War to different uses.
Q) What kind of relief do the North Koreans need most urgently and how has the South Korean Catholic Church reacted to this need?
A) Apart from the great problem of food, North Korea suffers from a major lack of heating material. Many North Koreans therefore clear the wooded mountains and burn the trees for heating purposes. This means that the mountains of North Korea are becoming increasingly bare. This in turn gives rise to various natural disasters such as flooding and landslides. The effect of this on agriculture is devastating and just makes the food problem even worse.
So that people don’t have to sit in the cold, we launched winter actions in 2007 in which we have to date brought 300,000 coal briquettes in trucks to near Kaesong, in other words a few kilometres behind the military demarcation line. I have already accompanied such transport operations ten times. The relief supplies were delivered in collaboration with the association “Action for a warm Korean Peninsula – Centre for the Distribution of Coal out of Love.”
Q) When you were delivering the coal did you also come into contact with the North Korean population?
A) In principle personal contact with the residents of North Korea was strictly forbidden. But after we had unloaded the briquettes at the edge of Kaesong, locals approached to work with us. In this way we repeatedly met members of the population. Our voluntary workers and the North Koreans were still very distant during their initial conversations. But after a while they found common ground. Then they spoke mostly about their children. The encounters become more intense, friendlier and more natural.
Q) What did you feel as a South Korean when you first travelled to the hermetically sealed country in the north?
A) When I passed the demarcation line by truck it was like travelling in a time machine. I felt like I’d gone back 40 or 50 years. The villages before Kaesong and the people who lived there, everything looked just like it did in former times.
Q) Your Reconciliation Committee pays special attention to the refugees from North Korea and helps them find their feet in South Korean society. What do the Christians among the refugees report about the possibility of living out their faith in this communist country?
A) It’s very rare to come across Christians among the refugees from North Korea, but I have known it. They were baptised before the country was divided. They were still able to remember their baptism even though it was 60 years in the past. Some of them still remembered their catechumenate and the prayers they said to prepare for baptism. They practised their faith in secret. Some refugees reported about old women who sat down together, counted bean after bean while they murmured something softly. In retrospect it occurred to them that they were perhaps praying the rosary together.
Q) What religious aid does your Committee give to refugees from North Korea?
A) We endeavour to give a religious education to those who show zeal and an interest in religion. The “Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People” regards refugees from North Korea as a precious asset for future unity. We are thinking one step ahead, namely that they will one day act as a gift from God for evangelisation in North Korea.