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Colin Pattinson

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North Korea and How the Church Can Bring Democracy

Posted: 25/01/2012 11:29

In the aftermath of Kim Il Sung's death the hope for a dramatic change of power has dwindled. Many speculated about a possible collapse but it appears currently Kim Jong-Un is continuing the dynasty and has allied with key party members. He is striding along the same path with the ghosts of his father and eternal president Grandfather in tow. So how can democracy triumph in North Korea if the option of a dramatic collapse does not occur. Can slow burning change help to destroy the regime from within & lay foundations for a new democratic North Korea?

There is one group in Korean history that might possess the key to be able to enact such a change. A group that came over great odds and possesses great power and influence in modern South Korea. The group is the Christian church. Which may appear odd at first if you assumed South Korea was largely Buddhist. The success of Christianity within Korea might provide a possible avenue that democracy could travel through to access North Korea and its masses.

At first missionaries in Korea faced resistance, they were killed and tortured, but eventually they began to make a telling impact in Korean society. In the late 19th century Korea began to shed it's tag as a hermit kingdom and move towards modernisation. The missionaries played a key role in this and their work brought Western expertise and funding into the region. Missionaries who were backed generously from back home built hospitals and schools. They brought Western medicine, teaching methods and ideas.

The most notable perhaps still exist in Seoul today, the Severance hospital and Ehwa's women's university. The women's university in particular was at the forefront of social and political change. It's inception demonstrated a key shift in social change and was an excellent tactic to spread the word of the church. The church used women to access communities and preach Christianity. These 'Bible Women' broke free of prior traditional constraints and held a new found responsibility which they had never had before. They took to the role with zealous passion and now had an access to education which was previously barred from them.

They learnt to read, write and hold important roles in the community. The university later, during times of political uprisings and upheaval, was the stomping ground for many prominent female protesters for campaigned for freedom from Japan or for democracy instead of dictatorships. The breaking down of this traditional Confucian hierarchy and the benefits missionaries brought to Korea gave them as a collective a respected role in society. No longer persecuted they began to be looked too as voices in political matters and as a voice of the people.

Throughout South Korea's post-war years of dictatorship Christian priests called for democracy. Park Chung-Hee, the controversial dictator who brought prosperity to South Korea and laid the foundations of it's economic successes, had key members of the church silenced as well as his political opponents as they all cried out for democracy. Another key group who called for democracy and hold great power for political change in Korea are the students. Due to Confucianism, that values education, students are looked on more favourably here than in other nations.

They're typically not depicted as lazy slobs watching daytime TV but instead have had a hand in modern Korea's past political movements and route to democracy. They however are a group that stands little chance of making the same strides in North Korea. In North Korea only those most loyal to the party can attend the most prestigious schools in Pyongyang. They are hand picked and if you want to get ahead in the restrictive state then you need to play ball with the regime or face damning your entire future and the name of your family. With such pressures and looming threat it seems unlikely a coordinated student uprising could occur. There is no freedom of speech and organising a group or arena in which to voice complaints is far too risky. Unlike in South Korea's history the conditions simply aren't present for a student led political voice to call for change. The church has an advantage of endless will and mild international protection. A worldwide network of believers can reassure a missionary and know that international attention could be accessed if something untoward occured. A student who keeps his inner thoughts to himself does not have the same reassurances.

In fact North Korea was once home to a thriving Christian community. Pre-Korean War, Pyongyang was known to harbour a significant Christian community in Asia, second only to Manila (heavily Catholic). Kim Il Sung's mother and father were reportedly devout Christians. The eternal president swept this under the rug however under the advice of the Soviets. The Soviets advocated that Kim Il Sung should pursue a cult of personality rather than a cult of religion. The communist forces were not to fond of the Christian community within Pyongyang and during the Korean war they were made to flee south. Many Christians resettled in Seoul and helped to lay the foundations of the Christian community you can see today (including a church within Seoul that holds the record as having the largest Pentecostal Christian congregation in the world). In Pyongyang three Christian churches officially remain, however most report these as simply fronts for the regime. The government say that religious freedom is accepted legally however straying away from the grasps of the regime and into the arms of Christ would realistically not be accepted. Freedom is not a word you associate with North Korea and its people.

While the regime still has a tight control on all aspects of society, a religious route might be able to make the greatest in roads into the North. The Christian community does not lack in enthusiastic people to give aid to North Korea. Christian groups send balloons over the DMZ filled with the word of Christ and extolling democracy. There are an abundance of missionaries lining up at the Chinese border. There have been reports of missionaries holding North Koreans captive within China in order to drum up extra cash or missionaries killed by North Korean operatives on Chinese soil. Although with varying success it is without doubt that it remains a group dedicated to accessing North Korea and trying to improve it from within. They also have an advantage in that Christianity is an easier belief system to transition too.

Many refugees become Christian after escaping North Korea. It could be because of the sense of community that they no longer feel while being in a capitalist state or that transferring their devotion to God instead of their leaders helps them overcome the initial barriers of the new world they face. Thus a possible scenario were Christians might gain an opportunity to access the North and its people could be if yet more food shortages or lack of supplies befalls North Korea. If other world powers ignore and are unwilling to help the North may need to look for another source to fill the gap. That gap could be the ever willing Christians. If given access and opportunity it could be a way for them to make roots in the society and ween people away from the cult of personality and into a group willing to adopt democracy.

Christians remain a key group who are persistent in their efforts but also historically bring a democratic influence with them. A democratic seed could be fostered within the people if a free of state-control setting could be established, the church could be haven and a home to all those anti-party thoughts that may float secretly inside the head of those unwilling to voice them. If North Korea is to seek democracy it is unlikely to happen suddenly. Decades of propaganda and a distrust of the West will not be easy to shake but if given the correct conditions the influence of the church could redress the balance and offer a new voice in the state and could dictate it's future.