(ATTN: North Korean defectors and a South Korean missionary interviewed for this story requested that they not be identified for fear of the safety of their families they left behind in the North and for personal reasons.)
By Kim Hyung-jin
SEOUL, May 18 (Yonhap) -- Before she defected to South Korea in 2002, Kang Jin-ok, then a hotel employee in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, detested passing by Chilgol Church, which she considered a symbol of Western imperialistic aggression.
"Indeed, I was scared of looking at its cross," recalled the 42-year-old Kang, citing a widespread North Korean perception that Christianity is "a bad element" in the socialist country.
"At that time, I could have questioned why it was there and why it was always deadly quiet around the church even on Sundays. But I didn't do so. I just hated it and I used to make a detour to avoid the church on my way home and to my workplace."
Kang said she later learned from South Korean Christian missionaries she met in the Chinese city of Yanbian in the late 1990s that the Protestant church in Pyongyang was "a fake entity," primarily serving as a state propaganda tool.
"I learned everything from why there is no creationism (a belief in the Bible's story of creation) in my country to how South Korea became richer than North Korea," said Kang, adding that her enlightenment eventually led her to flee the impoverished communist country.
Chilgol Church is one of the four officially sanctioned churches in North Korea, whose controversial roles and functions have raised the question as to whether any genuine form of religious freedom exists in the totalitarian society, even at a low level.
The three other churches -- Pongsu Church, Changchung (Catholic) Church and Jongbaek (Russian Orthodox) Church -- were all consecrated in Pyongyang after 1988 amid growing international criticism of the North's alleged restrictions on religious freedom.
Citing the churches, the North insists that its constitution provides freedom of religion to its 23 million people, though it also stipulates religion should not be used as a means to drag foreign powers into the country or destabilize its social order.
"Our constitution guarantees freedom of religion and many people, in fact, have been carrying on religious activities. Also the constitution guarantees the right to build religious facilities and the hosting of religious ceremonies there," Kang Ji-young, a senior member of the (North) Korean Council of Religionists, told South Korean reporters visiting Pyongyang last week.
In its 2001 report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, North Korea said there were 12,000 practicing Christians, 800 Catholics, 10,000 Buddhists and 15,000 others believing in Chondogyo, an indigenous synthetic religion. The repot said they worship in churches or at homes in small groups.
But, after visiting the North Korean churches, many outside travelers claim that the masses and services they witnessed there were "all staged."
"There were all fakes. No doubt about that. So we don't have to go there and get moved by saying, 'Wow, there is still a church in the North,'" said Soh Kyung-suk, a renowned conservative South Korean pastor who has visited the Pongsu Church six times.
"There were little signs of spontaneity during a service. I also found no child in attendance and no Bible study groups there, and we were even banned from talking to North Korean service participants," he said. "What was most startling was that church officials didn't even know any hymns at all."
Soh publicly took issue with the authenticity of Pongsu Church two years ago, triggering angry responses from the North and raising worries that fledgling inter-Korean exchange programs could be canceled.
The Pongsu Church is now being reconstructed with an association of South Korean Presbyterian churches assuming the entire US$45 million cost.
There also have been frequent reports about severe persecution of suspected religious people in North Korea. International human rights groups say that the mere possession of a Bible can bring a death penalty in the North, while contacting foreign missionaries often results in detention in a political prison camp.
"Religious freedom? No way. I bet a majority of people in the North don't even know what exactly Christmas is and who Jesus Christ is," said Yoo bong-il, a North Korean defector, disclosing that his elder brother was sent to a labor camp for attending an underground church service in China in 1997.
"We were just taught to have negative feelings towards Christianity."
Eum Min-suk, another North Korean defector, said she secretly converted to Christianity with the help of a South Korean missionary in China in 1997, but had to immediately betray her beliefs after she was arrested by North Korean security forces.
"They forced me to stand barefoot in minus 20 degrees Celsius weather and grilled me to extract a confession that I was a Christian. I was able to save my life only after denying God and Jesus Christ. I feel still distressed whenever I think I acted like Judas," said Eum, who later opened a Protestant church in Seoul for fellow Northerners.
Many experts link the lack of religious freedom in North Korea to the strong influence of a personality cult that has been built around the country's leader Kim Jong-il and his late father and founding president, Kim Il-sung.
"They have a god-like status. There is no room for any kind of religion to take a root in the North, as that might be regarded as a threat to the regime," said Lim Soon-hee, a North Korea expert at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
"Kim Il-sung even took on God's position in the Old and New Testaments. North Koreans were taught Kim, not Moses, parted the sea and Kim, not Jesus Christ, walked on water" she said.
All North Koreans must wear lapel pins containing the images of the two Kims and hang their portraits side-by-side on the walls of their homes. Thousands of statues and monuments dedicated to the Kim dynasty dot the country, and North Koreans must take annual pilgrimages to historical sites related to them.
Before the Korean Peninsula was divided in 1945, Christianity flourished in the northern half of the land. Pyongyang, in particular, was a thriving center for Christianity and was dubbed "the Jerusalem of the East."
In the mid-1940s, about 200,000 Protestants and 57,000 Catholics lived among the 9.1 million people in what is now North Korea, according to South Korean documents.
Holding the Marxist belief that religion is "the opium of the masses," however, the senior Kim harshly clamped down on religious activities. South Korean historians say that by 1970, the North's regime dismantled 1,500 churches and executed or detained as many as 400,000 people for engaging in unauthorized religious activities.
The crackdown focused largely on Christians who the late Kim saw as a U.S.-influenced potential threat to his rule, according to the historians who note that the Soviet-trained leader was relatively lenient on Buddhists.
In the late 1950s, the late Kim invented the "juche" (self-reliance) ideology as his country's ruling philosophy, which some view as the country's unofficial state religion.
"Its promoters describe 'juche' as simply a secular, ethical philosophy and not a religion. But, from a sociological viewpoint, 'juche' is clearly a religion, and in many ways is even more overtly religious than Soviet-era Communism or Chinese Maoism," www.adherents.com, a U.S.-based Internet Web site specializing in world religion, said in its latest report in April, explaining why it has chosen North Korean "juche" as the world's 10th largest religion.
Many South Korean missionaries argue that the spread of the Christian Gospel is one way to transform North Korea, claiming the controversial North Korean churches have been playing a role in spreading the Gospel in the closed society.
"I know some are saying Pongsu and Chilgol Churches are fakes. I understand their arguments. But I would say the churches should exist as long as they can spread the Gospel even to just one person," said Kim Kyung-nam, a South Korean pastor who has been working to convert North Koreans to Christianity in the Chinese city of Dandong since 1990.
The 69-year-old pastor said he has secretly visited North Korea several times since 2001 and found there were many people who wanted to accept God.
"North Korea is changing. It appears to have loosened its control on religion amid economic difficulties," he said. "I'm positive the Gospel will spread throughout the entire North some day."
Kang, the North Korean defector, described her experience of being detained in an internment camp in Shinuiju, a North Korean border city with China, in 2001 after meeting South Korean missionaries in China.
"There were about 30 women in my cell, and 80 percent of them were Christians. We hummed hymns together at night and prayed for each other when we were taken out for interrogation," she said. "One night, men in the next room shouted at us, 'Hey bitches, stop singing that song. We'll all be killed.' They knew what we were singing."
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