Change in North Korea

February 14th, 2012

A Thaw in the Diplomatic Ice?

On Monday, January 16, the Associated Press (AP) inaugurated a new international bureau in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK). Since North Korea has controlled the flow of information in and out of their nation, journalists interpret this action as perhaps a thawing of the icy relations between North Korea and the United States.

The world has been watching North Korea since the death of its leader, Kim Jong-il, on December 17. Much of the media conversation has been focused on his son, Kim Jong-un, the new leader, and if he will continue his father’s policies or deviate from them. Some experts predicted that the new regime would take aggressive actions against South Korea, possibly to solidify Kim Jong-un’s credentials as a strong leader. Joel Brinkley, a former foreign correspondent and Stanford University professor of journalism, believes that recent events demonstrate the opposite. He points out that North Korea moved to release prisoners and freeze uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons in exchange for more food aid from the United States. Officials in the new North Korean regime have also said they want to make economic reforms similar to China’s. Brinkley compares the situation in North Korea to recent diplomatic progress between the United States and Burma and urges the United States to make overtures toward peace with the new regime.

Political and Religious History

Because the Korean peninsula is situated between Japan and China, it has always had strategic military value on land and sea and has been under control of Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese powers. Yet the Korean people have retained their own identity as a nation and culture even as they adopted and transformed music, writing, martial arts, philosophy, and religion from their neighbors.

One important aspect of Korean culture is its diverse spiritual heritage. Confucianism, Shamanism, and Buddhism have deep roots in Korea. Zen Buddhism developed there. Catholic missionaries arrived in the 1600’s, and the first Protestant missionaries were Methodists who arrived in 1884. Christianity spread so quickly that Pyongyang, then the capital of Korea, came to be known as the “Jerusalem of the East.” Even under Japanese rule and persecution from 1910 to 1945, Christianity continued to flourish. In 1945, after wresting it from Japanese occupation, the United States and the Soviet Union divided control of Korea, although the country was ostensibly unified. It became the next flashpoint in the struggle between the two superpowers. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) was recognized as an independent country in 1948 by the United Nations. In 1950, the Northern army, backed by the Soviet Union and China, invaded South Korea. The United States and United Nations intervened. The three-year war devastated Korea. Though an armistice was signed in 1953, the countries are technically still at war.

During the war, an estimated five million Christians fled from North Korea. They went on to establish churches in the South; some have grown to become the largest churches in the world. Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul claims almost 800,000 members. Many of these churches work to support underground churches in North Korea, the membership of which is estimated to be anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000. Religious groups that are not endorsed by the North Korean government are considered threats to the cult of personality surrounding their leader and to the philosophy of Juche.

Leadership Change

Juche is the ideology that guides the North Korean regime. It is often translated as “self-reliance.” It is the philosophy that undergirds the totalitarian rule of North Korean officials. This principle regards foreign influence with deep suspicion, regardless of whether that influence is American, Chinese, Russian, or Japanese. Given Korea’s history of various foreign occupations, Juche may not be surprising, but it has led North Korea to isolate itself from the world. Even China, its closest ally, often seems befuddled by North Korea’s erratic diplomacy, its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and its belligerent attitude toward South Korea and the United States. Because the military dictatorship rules over people who have to cope with poverty and famine, the government has to keep itself isolated so that it does not collapse from within.

The people of North Korea have experienced widespread hardship and hunger. In the 1990’s, up to a million people died from starvation. Stories from defectors paint a picture of dire conditions in outlying villages, of crumbling factories and potholed roads. The government leadership does not tolerate dissent or complaint. A widely circulated photograph on the Internet shows a satellite view of North Korea at night. It contrasts with South Korea and China, which are dappled with city lights. North Korea is a patch of darkness whose only bright spot is the city of Pyongyang. Even there, electrical service is not constant.

The dictatorship of North Korea has been a subject of mockery, horror, and fascination in the United States. Propaganda associated with Kim Jong-il included assertions that he was a fashion icon and one of the world’s best golfers. At his birth, winter supposedly changed to spring, and a new star appeared in the sky. One satire photo blog is titled Kim Jong-il Looking at Things and features propaganda photos of the deceased leader. A documentary produced by North Korea for Kim Jong-un, the new leader, portrays him as capable military general, although he is only approximately 27 years old.

Kim Jong-un is not Kim Jong-il’s only son. The former dictator’s older son, Kim Jong-nam, lives in China and has written a book. In it, he says that while he believes North Korea wants normalization of its ties with the United States, the government officials fear that such reforms would lead to political collapse. He says that although some form of collapse is inevitable, he hopes that his half-brother has the capacity to make the necessary reforms that will bring relief and prosperity to his people.

His hopes may have some basis in reality. Chinese, South Korean, and European companies have invested in mining, transportation, and infrastructure in North Korea. Foreign investment in North Korea reached nearly $1.5 billion in 2010. Businesses face political problems, arbitrary government decisions, poor infrastructure, and an impoverished, malnourished, and uneducated workforce; but many investors believe North Korea has potential as an emerging market. Perhaps Kim Jong-un will emerge as the right person at the right time to bring change.

Touring the DMZ

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is the closest most Westerners ever get to North Korea. It is ironically named because it is full of landmines and surrounded by barbed wire. At Panmunjom, also called the “Peace Village,” tourists can walk into the buildings that sit on the border and stand a few yards beyond the short concrete threshold that marks the border of North Korean territory.

I visited Seoul, South Korea, with a group of American clergy in August of 2010. In addition to learning a bit about the history of the Korean peninsula and speaking with members of some of the largest churches in the world, we toured the DMZ and visited a tunnel reportedly dug as an invasion route by North Korea into South Korea in the 1970’s. I recall the mixture of fear and hope expressed by tour guides, American military personnel, and South Korean citizens. The tunnel, made into a tourist museum, spoke to fears of an unpredictable and dangerous enemy who might pop up at any time. Our American military escorts made a point of always referring to the northern country as “Communist North Korea,” never “DPRK” or “North Korea.” One soldier informed us that in the event of a North Korean attack, his life expectancy was about 20 seconds.

In the same area, we visited the Dora Mountain train station. This northernmost terminal was built with the hope that passenger rail service between North and South Korea would one day be a regular event. The facility is sleek, built out of glass and steel, and decorated with murals featuring scenes of peace and friendship.

The DMZ is a symbolic lesson. Barbed wire and minefields maintain a separation between North and South Korea; but the area has become a nature preserve, filled with lush vegetation and the call of birds. It reminded me that in spite of our human tendency toward war and conflict, God is always about the business of growing new life and allowing beauty and hope to flourish in unexpected places.

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