It used to be called “The Jerusalem of the East,” but Pyongyang today is the capital of one of the most religiously repressive nations on earth. However, that is not stopping the Catholic president of South Korea from inviting Pope Francis to visit North Korea.
During last month’s inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in suggested that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should invite the Pope to visit North Korea – a proposal to which Kim reportedly assented.
Moon agreed to relay to the Pope Kim’s message that “he would passionately welcome the Pope, should he visit Pyongyang,” according to a televised press briefing by the presidential spokesperson on Tuesday.
Moon is engaged in various diplomatic maneuvers to ease North Korea out of its long-term diplomatic isolation, notably by acting as an intermediary between Washington and Pyongyang.
The South Korean president – a Catholic and who was accompanied on his trip to the North by a South Korean archbishop – is set to meet the Pope at the Vatican on October 18, the Holy See’s Press Office said Tuesday, according to Yonhap newswire.
The day prior to his Papal audience, Moon will attend a “Mass for Peace” for the Korean Peninsula in Saint Peter’s, Yonhap reported.
Given the wide degree of religious repression in Pyongyang, it is far from clear whether the Pope will respond positively to Moon’s initiative; after the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, then-Pope John Paul reportedly declined a visit.
Rather oddly for a country in which smuggling a Bible through customs can result in imprisonment, there are, in fact, four churches in Pyongyang – two Protestant, one Orthodox and one Catholic.
However, questions hang over their authenticity.
Catholic mass, Buddhist monks
A former French resident of Pyongyang, who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity in order not to compromise sources still operating inside North Korea, was struck by the faux, carefully arranged, carefully scripted nature of the two masses he attended at the Catholic Church in Pyongyang.
“It is one seat, one person: All the seats and filled, and there are no empty seats and nobody standing,” he said – though he added that there are two rows set aside for foreigners, such as members of the Pyongyang diplomatic corps. “It is not a real mass, as the priest is not a real priest.”
The state-run North Korean Catholic Association has no ties to the Vatican.
In a country where freedom of association is strictly overseen, there is no collateral socializing around the services among the “worshippers.”
“When you go to church in France, people gather outside, before and after – there is community,” the Frenchman said. “But Pyongyang, the congregation arrives just before Mass, and everyone leaves immediately afterward – there is no community.”
Christian NGO OpenDoors USA baldly states on its website: “The churches shown to visitors in Pyongyang serve mere propaganda purposes.”
Michael Breen, author of “The New Koreans,” witnessed American evangelist Billy Graham preaching during his 1992 Pyongyang visit at one of Pyongyang’s two Protestant churches. “He preached ‘Christianity 101’ – he knew his audience,” Breen, who was a journalist at the time, recalled. “They were pretending to be Christians but probably were not – they were descendants of Christians, I think.”
It is not just North Korean Christianity that looks dubious: Buddhism, which has a far longer history in Korea than Christianity, faces a similar situation.
While most temples in North Korea are maintained as heritage sites, some have resident “monks.” Breen recalls meeting one in a mountain temple north of Pyongyang: When Breen asked him when Buddha’s birthday was, the monk had no idea.
Catholicism, repression, propaganda
Catholicism first entered the Korean peninsula in the 17th century, largely via the efforts of adventurous western missionaries who were forced to operate underground. Today, Catholicism is widely entrenched in democratic South Korea; according to the Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea, it boasts nearly 6 million worshippers. Pope Francis visited the country to a rapturous welcome in 2014.
The religion also played a role in the anti-authoritarian, pro-democracy struggles of the 1980s, when central Seoul’s Myong Dong Cathedral famously served as a sanctuary for anti-government activists. Given this, some conservative commentators are scathing about a possible Papal visit to the North.
“Whereas the Catholic Church’s tireless effort to oppose authoritarianism and promote human rights in South Korea is indisputable, what is also indisputable is that North Korea is one of the world’s worst persecutors of religion, particularly that of Christianity,” said John Lee, an NK News columnist. “The one true religion in North Korea is the cult of the Kim dynasty.”
Lee added that if he visited, Pope France “would be giving his tacit approval of all the Kim dynasty’s crimes against humanity.”
Breen, however, differs.
“Usually, when he visits a country, the Pope is greeted by Catholics and in North Korea there is going to be a ringing silence – unless they shake a tree and some fall out,” he said. “But I think he should go, because visiting a country does not imply endorsement – hopefully it would help nudge North Korea out of the cold.”
It needs nudging. According to the US State Department’s 2017 Religious Freedom report, although North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, there exists “an almost complete denial by the government of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
In 2017, the report alluded to 1,304 known cases of violations of religious freedom, including 119 killings and 87 disappearances. Even foreign citizens in North Korea have been tried and imprisoned for proselytizing.
Open Doors USA, which supports disempowered Christians worldwide, places North Korea at the top of its “World Watch List” as the most oppressively anti-Christian nation on earth. The NGO considers the level of oppression in the nation “extreme” and cites examples of imprisonment of Christians, violence toward them and even executions of pastors.
Ironically – and largely forgotten today – Christianity thrived in pre-communist northern Korea: Western missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries dubbed Pyongyang “The Jerusalem of the East.” As many as 3,000 churches dotted the region around the city, but those churches, and related seminaries, colleges and missionary houses were destroyed by the devastating air attacks of the Korean War.
Even so, surprising traces of the religion linger on in regime propaganda.
A bright star – similar to what the Bible says was seen over Bethlehem during the birth of Jesus Christ – is sometimes seen in propaganda imagery of the birthplace of second-generation leader Kim Jong Il, or guiding him on his leadership path.
And a phrase in first-generation leader Kim Il-sung’s “Ten Principles” – “You must be firm in your position which states there is not anyone or anything greater than the Great Leader Kim Il Sung” recalls “You shall have no other gods but me,” from the Biblical Ten Commandments.
Such borrowing should be no surprise. The father of first-generation leader Kim Il Sung was a graduate of a Christian school, and his mother was a Presbyterian deaconess, though North Korean biographies tend to paint them as independence activities.
While Kim wrote approvingly, if briefly, of Christianity in his autobiography With the Century, most of North Korea’s Christians are believed to have fled his communist state prior to, or during, the Korean War.
According to the 2017 US State Department report, citing North Korean data, “the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24% in 1950 to 0.016% in 2002.”
Post-war, a powerful personality cult blossomed in the 1960s and Christianity virtually disappeared. It is unclear how many are represented in the nation’s Christian Association, which oversees the churches in Pyongyang, but South Korean missionaries, many based in China, believe there may be hundreds of thousands of underground North Korean Christians who worship in secret.