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Asia Secretary Sandy Sneddon writes about his recent visit to North Korea

“Why are you going there?” How do you get there?” “I didn’t think they’d let church people in.” “I didn’t think there were any Christians there.” These were the kind of responses I heard when I told people I was visiting North Korea, or to give the official name the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

I was in a 12 person delegation organised by the World Council of Churches (WCC) that was invited by the Korean Christian Federation (KCF). WCC has been involved in advocacy for peace, reconciliation and reunification on the Korean peninsula since 1984, a process that was given fresh impetus at the WCC’s 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea in 2013. This was the first ever ecumenical meeting with representatives from North and South Korea, Korean Diaspora and internationals to take place on the Korean peninsula.

In September our partner churches in South Korea, the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK) and Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) held their centennial General Assemblies and held  a Northeast Asia International Peace Forum. The Forum culminated in a prayer service at the Reunification Observatory at Odu Mountain outside Seoul that overlooks the rivers between South and North Korea. We wrote our prayers for peace on ribbons and tied them to a cord as we looked north across the border.

Prayer ribbons at the Reunification Observatory, Odu Mountain, South Korea

Prayer ribbons at the Reunification Observatory, Odu Mountain, South Korea

2015 year marks the 70th anniversary of World War 2 and also the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule. Without consulting the Korean people President Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin agreed to temporarily occupy the country as a trusteeship with the zone of control along the 38th Parallel. The hope was to establish a Korean provisional government which would become “free and independent in due course.” Seven decades on the division remains cemented by the Armistice which ended the 1950-53 Korean War, a conflict that cost up to 5.5 million lives and devastated the peninsula.

New tower blocks, Pyongyang

New tower blocks, Pyongyang

Our hosts arranged visits to a number of places of historical and social significance in and near Pyongyang. We saw monuments dedicated to events and achievements and that celebrated the ruling Kim dynasty starting with Kim Il Sung’s family home at Mangyongdae just outside Pyongyang. The Tower the Juche Idea was built in 1982 to mark the 70th birthday of Kim Il Sung who developed Juche as a doctrine which emphasises man’s control of his destiny, political independence, economic self-sustenance, and self-reliance in defence. The Arch of Triumph is slightly bigger than its Parisian namesake and was also built in 1982 to honour President Kim Il-sung’s role in the military resistance for Korean independence. The Monument to the Three-Point Charter for National Reunification commemorates Korean reunification proposals put forward by Kim Il-sung in 1980. These seek reunification without outside interference through a federal structure retaining each side’s leadership and systems in a successor state the Democratic Federal Republic of Korea. In 2000, both North and South Korea signed the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration in which both sides made promises to seek out a peaceful reunification.

Monument to the Three Charters for Reunification, Pyongyang

Monument to the Three Charters for Reunification, Pyongyang

It was harrowing to see the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities which commemorates over 35,000 people killed by US-led forces at the end of 1950.

Other visits included a nursery and kindergarten where 100 orphans have first rate facilities that would be the envy of any country. Some five year-olds performed patriotic songs for our group. The home for 80 elderly people next door was similarly well equipped. The KCF bakery runs at only 20% capacity due to US sanctions that make it difficult to buy ingredients.

Kindergarten children singing patriotic songs

Kindergarten children singing patriotic songs

We visited the Joint Security Area around Panmunjom, part of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which forms the 250 KM land border along the 38th Parallel. Despite the name the DMZ is the most militarised strip of land on the planet. The WCC visit included a meeting with Kim Yong Dae, Vice President of the Supreme People’s Assembly and we had a whole day meeting with KCF of the Steering Group of the Ecumenical Forum on Korea.

People's Army soldiers at the demarcation line, Joint Security Area, Panmunjom

People’s Army soldiers at the demarcation line, Joint Security Area, Panmunjom

We were even entertained at a dolphinarium, a circus acrobatic show and a football match. The game was between a works team from the South playing against a Pyongyang factory team and was played in the largest stadium in the world, the 150,000 capacity Rungrado 1 May Stadium.

On the Sunday the WCC delegation attended worship at Bongsu Church, one of only two protestant church buildings and the first to be built in DPRK since the Korean War. This is the church, rebuilt in 2011 with funds from South Korea, where delegations are taken. There was a lot in the service about reunification, DPRK’s calls for dialogue and recent achievements under the leadership of Kim Jong-un. We also visited Chilgol Church, rebuilt in 1992 and again in 2014. It is on the site of the original a Presbyterian church built in 1889. Kim Il-sung’s maternal grandfather was an elder and his mother, Kang Ban Sok was an active member. We also visited a house church of 11 people. Mr Cho Un Pong established the house church in 1992 and continues to be the leader. KCF say there are some 500 house churches across DPRK. The existence of a church in DPRK probably owes a lot to Kim Il-sung’s Christian relatives. The current Chairman of KCF, Kang Myong Chol is from the same family as Kim Il-sung’s mother. Claims by some groups that North Koreans cannot attend church are untrue on the evidence I saw though there are restrictions on the activities of Christians and adherents of other faiths.

Choir at Bongsu Church welcoming the WCC delegation

Choir at Bongsu Church welcoming the WCC delegation

In the Pyongyang Appeal issued during the visit WCC asks member churches, church-related organisations and people of good will to engage in solidarity, advocacy and action to end provocative joint US-South Korean military exercises near the peninsula; lift economic sanctions against DPRK; Engage in respectful dialogue between the two Koreas, with the objectives of mutual recognition, peaceful co-existence, reunification and reconciliation; Promote exchanges and encounters between North and South Koreans, and mutual visits by members of the international Christian community and Christians in the DPRK, in particular young people from both North and South Korea; Strengthening the relationship between the KCF and the NCCK with the churches of South Korea, and with the Korean Christian diaspora around the world.

The NCCK has faced criticism from the authorities in South Korea for participating in the visit and agreeing to the Pyongyang Appeal, which was initially misreported in the South Korean press. This illustrates that the Gospel imperative for peace is still radical and challenging to many who gain from the status quo of conflict and division.

I look forward to the Church of Scotland playing an active part and fulfilling the commitments of the Pyongyang Appeal