Pope Francis visits a favela in Brazil during World Youth Day 2013. Photo: Wikipedia
Pope Francis visits a favela in Brazil during World Youth Day 2013. Photo: Wikipedia

Adventurous Catholic missionaries introduced the Christian faith to Korea’s last royal kingdom in the 18th century, and this Thursday, Pope Francis was reportedly to mull an invitation from the 21st-century Kimdom to make an unprecedented visit to that country.

Hanging over the papal decision will be facts on the ground: North Korea is, according to relevant non-governmental organizations, the most repressively anti-Christian country in the world.

Still, that hasn’t stopped US and other Western mission societies and South Korean Christians from trying to spread the Gospel there using various ruses to get around laws prohibiting evangelizing. Naturally, however, there are times when they get caught.

When that happens, Pyongyang customarily arrests them on implausible charges such as espionage or plotting against the state. That was the fate shared this summer by three Korean-Americans and one Canadian. All were fortunately released amid the good vibes following the Winter Olympics.

inThe three American detainees – Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Kim Sang-duk (aka Tony Kim) – were released after being imprisoned for about two years. Their releases followed a visit to Pyongyang by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has spearheaded Washington’s ongoing diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.

Korean-Canadian Hyeon Soo Lim was let go in August after being sentenced to life in prison for, among other charges, “using religion to destroy the North Korean system.” He was freed through Ottawa’s diplomatic efforts.

The Korean-Americans were all fairly unknown, but Hyeon was, and is, one of the most prominent pastors in Canada. He had been held by North Korea for two years and seven months.

After being released, Hyeon returned to his pulpit to denounce his treatment. “It was difficult to see how the ordeal would end,” he told his flock.

It is equally difficult to understand why North Korea would have let such a prominent Christian into the country in the first place.

Missionary work is dangerous in North Korea. No foreign missionaries are allowed to preach openly – though one famous exception was made by state founder Kim Il Sung for US evangelist Billy Graham in 1992

Missionary work is dangerous in North Korea. No foreign missionaries are allowed to preach openly – though one famous exception was made by state founder Kim Il Sung for US evangelist Billy Graham in 1992.  Similar restrictions concerning missionaries apply in China, though that country is somewhat more tolerant of Christianity.

Two of the American detainees were associated with the North Korea-based Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Kim Hak Song worked in agricultural development, while Kim Sang-duk taught accounting. They were charged with “hostile acts to subvert the county.”

PUST is a peculiar institution for several reasons. For starters, its president, James Chin Kyung Kim, is an American citizen and an evangelical Christian. PUST was funded by Christian evangelicals in the West and is the only foreign-owned university in North Korea.

Why would North Korea’s militantly xenophobic leaders tolerate such an institution, and allow many of the children of the elite and military to attend a university where only English is spoken, and where the staff are mostly foreign?

The university is tolerated because it provides excellent instruction in such critical areas as business administration, agricultural development (important in undernourished North Korea), accounting and other disciplines that are critical for the country’s economic development.

James Kim also started a similar institution, the Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST), just across the Tumen River in a region of China that is heavily inhabited by Korean-Chinese. A few years ago I happened to visit the Yanbian University as part of a reporting trip to the border area in northeastern China.

This institution, like PUST, is for all practical purposes a church-run university, but you would not know it by visiting the campus. There are no crosses, no pictures of Jesus, no Sunday services. It is just that the faculty is entirely made up of “committed Christians” – who are also qualified teachers of the university’s secular curriculum.

American missionary groups seem to have hit on one way to get around China’s and North Korea’s strict anti-religious prohibitions: finance and build a polytechnic; offer training in areas that are important to the country’s development; and staff it with dedicated Christians.

The Chinese and North Koreans, of course, know exactly what is going on but tolerate it so long as their laws and regulations are not openly challenged. To quote a Chinese proverb: They look on things with one eye open, and one eye shut.

It goes without saying that faculty members do not preach in the classrooms. Any proselytizing is done off-campus in the teachers’ homes, and even here there are pitfalls. When authorities ask them about their church activities, they usually say they are merely answering questions posed by students, not proselytizing.

Still, it can be tricky and sometimes dangerous work. One can easily surmise that the three Kims who were detained violated some of the laws on proselytizing. Their arrests for “hostile acts against the state” might be a shot across the bow, a warning to the other missionary-teachers that they are being watched closely.

PUST opened this school year without its 60 or so American teachers – the largest single concentration of Americans in North Korea. However, it was not Pyongyang that prevented them from entering the country: They were victims of the blanket travel ban imposed by the US State Department in September 2017.

So far, none of the American teachers, including university president James Kim himself, have managed to get an exemption from the travel ban in order to return to the classroom.

The travel ban was imposed in the wake of the Otto Warmbier incident. Warmbier, an American university student visiting North Korea as a tourist, not a missionary, apparently attempted to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel.

He was arrested, charged, sentenced to 15 years, and imprisoned. After a year and a half in North Korean detention, he was returned to the US in a comatose state and died shortly thereafter. The medical reasons for his condition and death remain unclear. For the State Department, this incident made clear that North Korea was too dangerous for any American to travel to.

One can hope that the growing detente with North Korea, symbolized by US President Donald Trump’s possible second summit with Kim Jong Un, may bring about a relaxation of the ban.

If it does, there will be plenty of committed Christian teachers who would be happy to return despite the dangers. In a more distant future, they may look forward to a more liberal day in North Korea when they can preach the Gospel openly, knowing that they will have laid the groundwork for more missionaries to follow.

Japan-based Todd Crowell was formerly senior writer for Asiaweek, and now writes for publications worldwide. He is the author of five books:  Farewell, My Colony: Last Years in the Life of British Hong Kong (1998); Tokyo: City on the Edge (2001); Explore Macau: A Guide and History; The Dictionary of the Asian Language; and The Coming War.