The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

South Korean missionaries spread political message in the North

International Herald Tribune, November 1, 2007
By Choe Sang-Hun
Thursday, November 1, 2007

SEOUL: For years, under the leadership of Choi Kwang, a hard-driving missionary from South Korea, North Koreans seeking refuge in China were taken to apartments where they were put through a rigorous training course in Christianity that began daily at 6 a.m. and continued until 10 p.m. The trainees repeated out loud the words of an eight-hour-long tape recording of the New Testament.

Before taking breaks for meals, Choi and the North Koreans would embrace and pray: "Let's spill Jesus's blood in North Korea! Let's become martyrs for North Korea!"

By 2001, when his underground proselytizing network was broken up by the Chinese police, Choi had turned about 70 North Koreans who had come to him in search of food and shelter into missionaries. At least five of them are believed to have been executed in North Korea. At least six others are thought to be in North Korean prison camps.

"When we had our first martyrs, my body and heart were racked with pain and I could not walk, sit or lie down," Choi, who is 51, said in an interview. "But, as I prayed, God told me that North Korea is a land that cannot be evangelized without martyrs."

South Korean Christians, who send more missionaries abroad than any other country except the United States, recruit converts in some of the world's most challenging places. Their zeal drew international attention over the summer when 23 South Korean volunteer aid workers, members of a Christian church, were captured in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Two were killed, and after weeks of captivity, the rest were released after South Korea promised to bar its Christian missionaries from Afghanistan.

But long before that, evangelical Christians in South Korea had focused on North Korea, which guards itself against Christianity with as much fervor as any Muslim country. Their crusade often smacks of a political campaign.

"In our Christian world view, Kim Jong Il is the anti-Christ and his government an evil regime," said Kim Sang Chul, head of Save North Korea, one of several Christian groups in South Korea that call for the toppling of the North Korean leadership. "In our Christian world view, peace with North Korea is nonsense."

Although North Korea's Constitution, on paper, provides for freedom of religion, in reality religious expression is tightly restricted. Schoolchildren are taught that religion is the "opium of the people" and that missionaries are "a tool of imperialism." North Koreans who have met with missionaries have been sent to prison camps, according to human rights groups.

Major Christian groups in South Korea have raised millions of dollars to deliver food, medicine and clothing to the North and to build or renovate hospitals, schools and churches there. These groups believe that good will builds trust and helps North Korea open up, a strategy favored by President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea.

But many politically conservative Christians in South Korea reject this approach. Instead they dispatch missionaries to northeastern China, where they evangelize among North Korean refugees. They also operate smuggling networks to smuggle North Koreans out, and spread the Gospel into the North via balloons and radio broadcasts.

"You cannot expect North Korea to change from the top," said Yu Suk Ryul, chairman of Cornerstone Ministries International. "The best way to change North Korea from the bottom is to spread the Gospel."

Cornerstone supports underground churches in North Korea by way of ethnic Korean-Chinese traders, who supply Christians there with "mini-Bibles" translated into a North Korean dialect, as well as financial assistance and other goods. The group says that it supports more than 1,000 underground cells in North Korea, and that the number is "growing fast," Yu said.

Cornerstone also releases plastic bags filled with Christian messages and sweets at sea, with the intent that they wash ashore in the North.

The evangelists' tactics are aimed at undermining two pillars of North Korea's Communist government: the isolation of its people and the near-deification of Kim and his late father, Kim Il Sung.

"North Korea is like one big church. Its God is Kim Il Sung, and its Jesus Kim Jong Il," said Lee Min Bok, a North Korean defector-turned-missionary. "When North Koreans study the Bible, they see a lot of similarities between the two systems."

While most of the world counts the years from the birth of Christ, North Korea counts them from the birth of Kim Il Sung; 2007, in the North Korean calendar, is the year 96. Every town in the North has a Kim Il Sung statue at its center. Every home keeps a Kim portrait, and every factory and collective farm runs a "Kim Il Sung ideology center."

One of Lee's main weapons against what he calls "Kim Jong Il idol worship" is balloons. He uses them to carry thousands of leaflets bearing news from the outside world and biting criticism of the North Korean government, in addition to Christian messages.

The North has complained about this tactic in meetings with South Korean officials. "Like David's slingshots striking Goliath, our leaflets hit Kim Jong Il where it hurts," Lee said. "No wonder the beast is shrieking with pain."

The Christian mission gained urgency in the late 1990s, when a famine that eventually killed up to two million people drove thousands of North Koreans into China.

"I heard incredible stories from North Koreans in China: of villagers digging up freshly buried human bodies for food, schoolteachers unable to conduct classes because they were starving, families cooking infants' afterbirth to eat," Choi said. "I thought about all those poor North Koreans dying and going to hell because their souls were not blessed by Jesus."

Korean missionaries in China provided food and shelter for refugees, who lived in constant fear of being caught by the Chinese authorities and sent back to North Korea.

"You don't say outright 'believe in Jesus,' " said the Reverend Lee Seung Bae of the Christian Mission for North Korea. "You show them South Korean television and Christian movies. Some refugees return to us and we gradually introduce them to Jesus."

Choi, for his part, developed a more direct system. He lived with his refugees in an apartment and had them repeat Bible tapes aloud.

"That way, they read the New Testament from cover to cover each day," Choi said. "The tape is fast and you don't understand what it says when you first try it. But after going through it 10 times, you begin to understand. After 100 times, you feel it's too slow."

Choi's aim was to produce "North Korean missionaries for North Koreans." He started with 14 refugees in 1998. Eight of them finished the course and were sent back to northeastern China to convert more North Korean refugees to Christianity.

When the Chinese police broke up Choi's group in Xi'an in central China, in 2001, he had converted 250 North Koreans, of whom 70 were trained as missionaries. Choi was expelled from China and 59 of his followers were deported to North Korea.

"The Chinese police beat us mercilessly with batons," said one North Korean who was sent back and later escaped to the South. "But we huddled together and sang hymns all day."

The man, who asked for anonymity to protect his relatives in the North, criticized Choi's methods.

"Confining people who have nowhere to go and making them read the Bible for up to 14 hours a day is like telling a drowning man he'll be saved only if he believes in Jesus," he said.

There is no reliable information on how many missionaries may have lost their lives in their work. The Reverend Joseph Park, the mission director of the Christian Council of Korea, said there was evidence that "many martyrs, perhaps dozens, have spilled their blood in the North." He added that an intensified crackdown by China has forced some missionaries to leave.

Choi has not been allowed back into China, but he said others maintain the mission there. One continuing program is Bible transcription.

North Korean refugees are paid one yuan, or about 13 U.S. cents, for each page they copy, Choi said. "This way, we spread the Gospel and help them earn a living. There are plenty of North Korean refugees who want to do this, but we don't have the money to support them all."

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