The Two Koreas

Having Friends on Both Sides


Soft Diplomacy in Korea


L a d u s h k i n -- A photo on the webpage of “Mennonite Central Committee” (MCC) from the summer of 2018 shows a thin, Asian gentleman sitting on a tractor in Manitoba/Canada. The gent happens to be Ri Yong Phil, North Korea’s (DPRK) ambassador to the United Nations. His visit and the visit of a delegation of agricultural experts to Canada at the same time are fruits of the Mennonite effort on soft diplomacy. Pennsylvania- and Manitoba-based MCC insists on its webpage that its primary goal is the “construction of mutual trust”. Dialogue and the building of friendships are viewed as immediate and realistic goals. Demands for enforcing ultimate geo-strategic goals such as Trump’s “CVID” (Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization) are regarded as unhelpful unless they include reciprocal actions on the part of the US.


Since September 2017, US sanctions keep its citizens from visiting the DPRK. But because MCC was granted an exemption in March of this year, its US-citizens remain able to visit the country three-four times per year to deliver humanitarian goods and medical aid. As a rule though, South Korea does not permit its own citizens to visit the north.


These latest travel sanctions were imposed after the death of the US-American student Otto Warmbier in June 2017. One theory I heard in South Korea was that Warmbier had unsuccessfully attempted suicide while in North Korean internment and was consequently delivered home in a comatose, brain-dead state. A serious, extensive report on the Warmbier case by Doug Bock Clark (see pg. 15 in “www.gq.com/story/otto-warmbier-north-korea-american-hostage-true-story”) leaves open attempted suicide as a real possibility.


Mennonite Central Committee first became involved in Korea during the Korean War, in 1951. Being of limited size, it pulled up its stakes in South Korea in 1971 in order to address pressing issues in Vietnam. Relief aid for North Korea was started in 1995. MCC’s Northeast Asian headquarters were moved from China to Namchuncheon/South Korea in 2014.


Despite the current sanctions, Western church involvement in the DPRK is more widespread than readily apparent. Though itself not resident in South Korea, “World Vision”, thanks to its massive size, is probably most widely involved in humanitarian work in the north. Other actors include the Black Mountain/NC-based „Christian Friends of Korea”, which is involved in medical projects in nearly 30 locations in the north. The Andrews/SC-based “Eugene Bell Foundation” sponsors 12 medical centres for tuberculosis. According to “Wikipedia”, its founder, Stephen Linton, has been in the DPRK more than 80 times since 1979. He accompanied Billy Graham on his visits to Pyongyang in 1992 and 1994. Now involved in farming projects, the “American Friends Service Committee” has been active in Korea since 1953.


Secular agencies involved in the North include several German political foundations: the “Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung” and the “Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung”. The “Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung” is even involved in an effort to protect birdlife.


Last-but-not least is the evangelical-founded and –sponsored “Pyongyang University of Science and Technology”. This place of learning is a joint venture between the DPRK and a consortium of North American and South Korean individuals and institutions headed by the Korean-American Chin-Kyung „James“ Kim. It opened its doors for business in 2010 and has usually had 250-500 all-male students. A sister organisation, the “Yanbian University of Science and Technology” was founded nearby in northern China in 1992 and boasts 2.000 students. Forbidden to evangelise, PUST nevertheless makes no effort to hide its evangelical roots. Each term, the school has usually hosted 25-50 non-salaried North American instructors. But due to US-sanctions, it currently cannot fulfil its commitment to supply Western instructors and is running on less than full power. (See for ex. “Der Spiegel” from 5 Sept. 2017. Their webpage is “www.pust.kr”.)


A political storm was hatched after an undercover journalist and non-evangelical, the Korean-American Suki Kim, spent six months teaching English at PUST in 2011. Her ensuing book, “Without You There is No Us”, got her onto the “New York Times’” bestseller list, a “TED” lecture and several prizes. Detractors accused her of a simplistic, black-and-white political perspective and sacrificing others for the sake of her own career. One example of the book’s imprecision: The author claims that very few DPRK-citizens are permitted foreign travel. Yet manual labourers exported to Russia – and even Poland – have been a significant source of foreign income in recent decades. (A practice similar to the export of Cuban doctors.) Even Russia has been sending these workers home since 2017 in hopes of complying more thoroughly with UN and US sanctions.


Church life since 1988

In its preparations for the “13th World Festival of Youth and Students” in July 1989, the DPRK changed course by agreeing to permit a controlled, official church life in Pyongyang. The Bongsu Church was founded in 1988 and now possesses a structure seating 1.200 persons. Billy Graham preached in this church twice; his son Franklin also did so in 2000 and 2008.


Interestingly, the smaller Chilgol Church, re-founded at the same time, is dedicated to the memory of Kang Pan-sok (1892-1932), who, as the mother of state-founder Kim Il-sung (1912-94), is celebrated as the mother of the nation. Though not well-known in the country, Kim Il-sung conceded in his autobiography that his parents were active Presbyterian laity. As a small child he had attended this church. (He was taken with his parents to China when they fled their Japanese-occupied country in 1919.)


Both of these churches were built with strong South Korean and US funding. One Western visitor describes the singing of the Bongsu congregation as excellent, but that little contact with parishioners is possible. When parting, the congregation had sung “God be With You till We Meet Again”. Unique to the DPRK, parishioners remove their Kim Il-sung badges when entering Bongsu Church.


According to Wikipedia, there always has been a minimal amount of Christian presence in the North Korean government. Kang Yang Wook was a Presbyterian minister who served as a vice-president from 1972 to 1982. Kim Chang Jun was a Methodist and vice-chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Both of them were apparently buried with high government honours. Another Presbyterian, Kang Ryang-uk (1902-1983), was chairman of the “Korean Christian Federation”. His mother was a cousin of Kim il-Sung’s mother. Wikipedia claims that in the 1960’s, as many as 200 Christian congregations “may have been tolerated” by the government. A small seminary is still functioning.


The Catholic Changchung Cathedral was also rebuilt and re-opened in 1988.


The Orthodox arrived on the scene last. When Chairman Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) visited the new cathedral in Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East in August 2002, he was asked by a Russian diplomat if the DPRK had Orthodox believers. Kim replied that he would find some. Consequently, in April 2003, four newly-baptised Orthodox students came to a seminary in Moscow. It was reported even then that all of four had worked for the North Korean intelligence services. One of them, Feodor Kim (Kim Hoe-il), admitted it was very difficult to accept the Orthodox faith. Four more students came to a seminary in Khabarovsk in August 2016.


The cornerstone for Pyongyang’s first Orthodox church, the “Church of the Life-Giving Trinity”, was laid in 2003. Metropolitan Kirill, now the patriarch of Russian Orthodoxy, officiated at its dedication on 13 August 2006. Church life here may be as vibrant as any in Pyongyang, for it appears to enjoy strong support from the local Russian diplomatic and business community. (See the Facebook page of the Russian embassy in the DPRK.) The congregation even has an archbishop: Theophanes (Kim), an ethnic-Korean Russian born on Sakhalin in 1976. He was consecrated as archbishop for the two Koreas in December 2017. Due in part to the Orthodox split between Moscow and Constantinople, the Archbishop has limited access to the faithful in South Korea.


A Commentary: Politics

Mennonite Central Committee supports the US’ House Resolution 152, which calls for the formal ending of the Korean war of 1950-53. This they see as a “significant first step in securing a nuclear agreement”. Though not a political ally of the North Korean state, it does believe that soft diplomacy and interpersonal relationships are possible.


MCC Canada official Rick Cober Bauman claims that all human-built walls will in time expire. He insists that “the wall that divides North Korea and South Korea will eventually fall. And when it does, MCC wants to have friends on both sides.” The Mennonites have a precedence for that: When North Vietnam finally defeated the South in April 1975, four MCC volunteers, three US and a Japanese one, stayed on. That was a lonely but vital Christian witness.


Have a look at this moving film by the Eugene Bell Foundation: “www.abc.net.au/foreign/out-of-breath/10825830. It’s a dramatic example of how concern for the well-being of others can overcome the strongest of political obstacles. Westerners are risking infection by being involved in the treatment of seriously-ill, North Korean tuberculosis patients.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
Ladushkin, Kaliningrad Region/Russia,

1 September 2019


A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #19-07, 1.473 words.