Understanding North Korea: The First Step Towards Sharing the Gospel There

Introduction

Any strategy for evangelizing a society must be based on a deep understanding of that society—its history, culture, assumptions. With such understanding, one is able, through prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to develop strategies that are more likely to be effective in bringing the gospel to the people of that society.

I believe that the ideology of North Korea and the manner with which that ideology is conveyed to its citizens has raised enormous and poorly understood barriers to understanding the true nature of the gospel and its message of complete freedom for all men, the message of salvation from sin and fear through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

Counterfeiting Biblical Models or the Foreignness of the Gospel

One aspect of this is the deliberate effort by Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), to counterfeit many Biblical models. He was raised in a Christian home near Pyongyang during the Japanese occupation of Korea. His mother was a devout worker in her church in the village of Chilgol. He also spent time living in the home of a Methodist minister in Manchuria where, as a young man, he played the organ for Sunday School and worship services. Kim Il Sung had a good grasp of many aspects of the Bible.

As he developed the North Korean ideology of Juche, he drew on many Biblical and Christian concepts to create what amounts to a state religion. The name ‘Juche’ is translated as ‘self-reliance.’ This is not individual self-reliance as Westerners would conceive but collective, national self-reliance. In North Korea, one will hear references to ‘our kind of socialism’ and ‘by ourselves, we will do it’. The ideology of Juche is often referred to inside North Korea as ‘Kimilsungism’ (Kimilsung-jui). North Koreans will refer to Kim Il Sung as ‘our god’ (uri shin ida). Kim Il Sung began to establish Juche as the North Korean form of communism, separating it from international communism following the death of Stalin in 1953. In addition to developing his own personality cult (along Stalinist and Maoist lines), his son Kim Jong Il built on this during his father’s lifetime and then as successor following his death.

Some aspects of this mimicry of biblical and Christian concepts are such things as:

  • The Ten Principles (see Appendix 1) replacing the Ten Commandments
  • A trinity of father (Kim Il Sung), son (Kim Jong Il), and the national spirit embodied by the Korean Workers’ Party carrying out the purposes of Juche
  • The concept of a body and head; the people are the arms and feet while the leader is the head, expressed as the ‘brain’ or ‘headquarters’ of the revolution. The people are to make themselves bombs and bullets to defend him. Rather than our head, Jesus Christ, laying down his life for us, the members of the Juche body are to lay down their lives to protect the head.
  • Kim Il Sung as the father of the Korean nation, the people; in fact, he eliminated the centuries-old family registers (chok-bo) where all male children’s names are entered to maintain accurate genealogies. North Koreans no longer know to which clans they belong. There is only one family and Kim Il Sung is its father.
  • A ‘holy mother’, the ‘Anti-Japanese Heroine’ Kim Jong Suk, mother of Kim Jong Il, who (according to state doctrine) protected the General (Kim Il Sung, who later married her), the ‘Headquarters of the Revolution’, by throwing her body in the way of Japanese forces intent on killing him
  • Weekly study times that include self and mutual confession of sins against the Ten Principles
  • Hymns in honor of the leaders and the ideology

Many have commented that, because there are so many aspects of the ideology that appear similar to Christianity, it would be easy to show how these aspects are false and to replace them with the biblical truth. Unfortunately, it is not likely to work that way. What I believe is more likely is that the collapse of the ideology to which generations have made such a deep commitment will bring with it deep cynicism and a difficulty to believe anything.

Ultimately, despite surface similarities, the gospel is completely foreign to the worldview of North Korea in which all North Koreans are inculcated from birth to death. Simply preaching to such people will not communicate biblical truth, even if the preacher is able to point out all the similarities and explain the differences.

The North Korean Family

The ideology of North Korea has had a profound impact on the nature of the North Korean family. In fact, the family is seen as simply a cog in the machine of the overall structure of North Korean society, where all citizens are assigned roles by the Korean Workers Party. The Party controls where a person lives, where he or she works, and where they go to school. A person’s biological parents serve to bring more workers into the system through birth and then to be the means by which the Great Leader extends his loving care to the individual. Children are turned over to the state to rear from kindergarten on. Actually, many are voluntarily turned over at the age of two or three to nursery schools that begin the process of indoctrination, which continues through college and beyond. Fully one-third of all education in North Korea is devoted to the exploits and family of the Great Leader.

Collective Life and Mentality

The collective ideology of North Korean Communism assigns the majority of people to live in collective apartment complexes, villages, or farms where they participate in collective work assignments. All citizens belong to inminban, or ‘people’s groups’, that control the comings and goings of the people. In addition, the organizational structure of the society keeps individuals from making individual decisions about most everything. A common slogan in North Korea is, ‘What the Party decides, we do’ (dang-i kyulshim ha-myun, ori-neun hand-da).

The pervasive surveillance of all North Koreans, which starts with the inminban system and includes the several state security systems, has, over the generations, bred a system of deep suspicion and distrust. While people do make close friendships, there is always a risk that any friend will turn one in for actions or beliefs that do not conform. Even within families there is suspicion. Children have been instructed by school teachers to inform on parents. Those who do are rewarded. The consequences of not conforming can be severe, from beatings and bodily torture to incarceration in political labor camps to execution. To escape these consequences, an ubiquitous system of bribery and corruption has arisen. Those with power commonly use that power to acquire wealth and status as well as carry out numerous forms of physical and sexual abuse.

The DPRK claims to be ‘the workers paradise’. Labor is held up as the ultimate good, but not for the sake of caring for one’s self or one’s family; rather, to maintain the collective state and provide for the Leader—the Father of the People.

In Summary

North Korea has become a society based on fear and power, manipulation, and virtual slave labor. This is considered to be the norm by the vast majority of the populace. It is also a society where love is not understood and biblical structures of family, faith, and caring authority are unknown.

In addition to the above, there are other challenges related to the distinct cultural similarities and differences between North and South Korea. Many in South Korea see the commonality of language and culture and conclude that evangelizing the North will be easy. The reality is quite different. Even the languages of the North and the South have diverged in significant yet subtle ways that make communication difficult. It is easy for either northerner or southerner to assume that there has been good communication between the two, when in actual fact there is great misunderstanding and confusion. Another challenge is the great difference in the lifestyles between the affluent South Koreans and the North Koreans with nothing they can call their own. These challenges will not go away following political change or an opening up of North Korea.

To bring the love of Jesus Christ into such a society will be no easy task.

Appendix 1: The Ten Principles

The following is by Ben Torrey, from the March 2011 issue of Plus Inseng (Plus Inseng is a monthly magazine, originally and once again published under the name of Shinangye (Life of Faith) by the Central Full Gospel Church, Yoido, Seoul). Published in Korean translation.

The concept of the leader being the father of the people in North Korea is not one of simple respect or symbolism. It is much deeper, encompassing all aspects of life. When Kim Jong Il began to exercise power as long ago as 1974, he began the process of elevating respect for and obedience to his father to the level of a religion. At that time, he proclaimed the Ten Principles of Life (modeled on the Ten Commandments) exalting Kim Il Sung and his heirs to this high position. The Ten Principles are as follows:

  1. All societies must be governed by the Great Leader’s ideologies.
  2. The Great Leader must be revered and adored.
  3. The authority of the Great Leader is absolute.
  4. The ideology and principles of the Great Leader must be the guiding principles of the actions and thoughts of all.
  5. Execute the directives of the Great Leader without any questions.
  6. Unite and rally all people around the Great Leader.
  7. Learn from the Great Leader, his moral character and strategic planning for the future.
  8. Repay the Great Leader’s trust in and care for the people through the successful implementation of his vision.
  9. Establish stringent organizational rules that follow only the Great Leader’s directives.
  10. Continue the revolutionary struggles in accordance with the achievements of the Great Leader and by the succession of his family line forever.

(For further information on the Ten Principles, see: http://www2.law.columbia.edu/course_00S_L9436_001/North%20Korea%20materials/10%20principles%20of%20juche.html)

As the reader can see, these principles require absolute obedience and that all honor be given to the Great Leader and his successor, Kim Jong Il. These principles, along with other tenets of Kimilsungism, place the leader not only as the supreme ruler but as the supreme father for all the people.Appendix 2: Further Reading

The following are a number of books and resources that will be helpful in deepening an understanding of North Korea and its people.

Books

  • Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin (Thomas Dunne Books; St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2004)
    While the above is a large book (over 800 pages), it is an excellent and very readable introduction to North Korea, its history, and the life of the founding leader.
  • Juche: A Christian Study of North Korea’s State Religion  by Thomas J. Belke (Living Sacrifice Book Company, Bartlesville, OK, 1999)
  • Crisis in North Korea: The Failure of De-Stalinization, 1956 by Andrei Lankov (University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, and Center for Korean Studies, University of Hawaii, 2005)
    Anything by Russian Andrei Lankov is valuable for understanding North Korea. He spent time studying in Pyongyang as a Soviet scholar. He currently lives and teaches in South Korea. The above work covers the emergence of the Juche ideology.

Articles

The following articles and periodical provide a good understanding of the nature of Juche and the organizational structure of North Korean society:

  • ‘The Mission to North Korea’ by Ben Torrey (International Bulletin of Mission Research, Volume 32, No. 1,  pg. 20-22, January 2008)
  • ‘Reflections on North Korea: The Psychological Foundation of the North Korean Regime and Its Governing Philosophy’ by Hyun Sik Kim; translated by George Kap-Hun Kim and edited by Ben Torrey, pg. 22-26. See: http://www.internationalbulletin.org/issues/2008-01/2008-01-ibmr.pdf
  • Imjingang Magazine (Imjingang Press, Gamasan-ro 27 Gil, 808, Guro-gu, Seoul; phone: 010-5737-0097; email: [email protected])
    This is an excellent Korean Language periodical produced by North Korean defectors in South Korea and Japan publishing contemporary reporting on North Korea from inside the country and from China. Back issues from the initial publication in 2007 are well worth reading.

Web Links

The following web links relate to the surveillance and control system of North Korea:

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