In which Erich Weingartner questions Pak Kim Li about religious liberty in the DPRK. (First published in CanKor Report #302, 22 February 2008.)
Erich Heinz Weingartner (EHW): I want to talk to you about religion.
Pak Kim Li (PKL): No thanks, I’d rather not.
EHW: Why not?
PKL: When you Westerners talk to us about religion, there are always ulterior motives.
EHW: How so?
PKL: You either complain about our lack of religion, or you complain that our whole society is a religious cult.
EHW: I guess that depends on how you define religion.
PKL: The bottom line is that when you talk religion at us, it invariably concerns imagined shortcomings on our side.
EHW: Aren’t you being a bit too defensive?
PKL: With reason. Even the best military defences are powerless against the seductions of the human heart. Religion is just another ideological weapon aimed at the heart of our revolution.
EHW: And that is why you outlaw religion in your country?
PKL: We do not outlaw religion. On the contrary, freedom of religion is guaranteed in our Constitution. Article 68: “Citizens have the freedom of religious beliefs. This right is granted by approving the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies.”
EHW: Yes, and then it goes on: “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State and social order.”
EHW: Which leaves the door open to declare any religious activity as harming the social order.
PKL: Again this accusatory tone. Do you want us to start nitpicking the Canadian Constitution?
EHW: The religious rights group Open Doors just released its annual watch list of nations persecuting Christians. Did you know that the DPRK has topped the list for the sixth year in a row?
PKL: Should I be surprised? Where is this group based?
PKL: So what else is new?
EHW: But they say they have branches worldwide, including the Republic of Korea.
PKL: No surprise there, either. Surely someone as sophisticated as you are, Mr. Erich, can see through this blatant US-promoted and financed slander against us.
EHW: I don’t know if you can say that. The second-worst country on their list is Saudi Arabia, which is a close ally of the USA.
PKL: And you read this where?
EHW: Yonhap News Service.
PKL: South Korea. Figures. And did the title mention Saudi Arabia?
EHW: No. Only North Korea as number one.
PKL: I rest my case.
EHW: They say that, “There is no other country in the world where Christians are being persecuted in such a horrible and relentless way.”
PKL: And where is the evidence for this?
EHW: The report does not cite specific sources. Apparently they compiled the list on the basis of answers to 50 questions that were put to its indigenous contacts, field workers and persecuted believers.
PKL: And who are these indigenous contacts?
EHW: They don’t cite their sources, of course.
PKL: “Of course?” Why “of course?”
EHW: Well, if your country violates religious freedom, their inside sources would need to be protected, wouldn’t they?
PKL: Yes, if. But if you have no witnesses, you really don’t have a case, do you?
EHW: No. And that is exactly why the Mafia often assassinates witnesses, lawyers and judges.
PKL: And now you’re comparing us to the Mafia?
EHW: This organization claims that more Christians were arrested in your country last year than in 2006, and that many were beaten, tortured or killed because of their beliefs.
PKL: So after all the sermons you have preached to me about the “rule of law”, you’re saying we’re guilty until proven innocent?
EHW: Why doesn’t the DPRK take some of the heat off itself by allowing the United Nations special human rights rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn to visit your country?
PKL: Because this is a matter of principle. The United Nations does not appoint special rapporteurs unless the USA and other dominant powers have political reasons to push for such an extraordinary treatment. The DPRK had no problem engaging in serious human rights conversations with the European Union, in or outside our country. We even sent our lawyers to study human rights law in Sweden. But then came cowboy George Bush and pressured the EU and several countries — including Canada — to sponsor a human rights resolution at the UN. Since the Europeans had been such unreliable allies in the war against Iraq, they needed to throw a small bone of penance in the direction of the USA, and we ended up being that small bone. If the EU or the UN were really serious about human rights, we would welcome them in Pyongyang at any time. But we will never succumb to anyone undermining our sovereignty.
EHW: What about the case of my fellow-Canadian citizen Mr. Kim Je Yell?
PKL: I don’t know that name.
EHW: He’s a Korean-Canadian businessman from Edmonton who helped to set up and supply dental clinics to the Rajin-Sonbong region.
PKL: The special economic zone we have renamed “Rason.”
EHW: Yes. And for his efforts on your country’s behalf, Mr. Kim is arrested and kept in detention for over two months.
PKL: Oh yes, that one. You called me about him after his detention in November.
EHW: Why was he arrested?
PKL: I don’t know. I told you that at the time.
EHW: I thought perhaps you might have more information by now.
PKL: All I’ve been told was that national security was involved. It wasn’t an arrest, it was an investigation.
EHW: He never made any secret about the fact that he is a Christian. Was that the “national security” issue?
PKL: Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody gets arrested in the DPRK for religious reasons. You’re a Christian, aren’t you? If I remember correctly, you went to church in Pyongyang on a pretty regular basis. Did we ever try to stop you? Did we kick you out of the country?
EHW: Obviously not.
PKL: Let me speak plainly here. Christians have an exaggerated impression about their importance. Christian churches in most parts of the world — especially Europe and North America — are losing ground. They are losing adherents and believers. Christianity is no longer as big a threat to Asian countries as it once was on the coat tails of imperialist powers. Frankly, we have bigger problems than to waste our time persecuting Christians.
EHW: Then you say Kim’s arrest was pointless?
PKL: Don’t try to be clever, Mr. Erich. I am saying that when our security agencies risk international outrage by detaining any religionists, you may be sure there is more at stake than religion. We don’t fear religion, but we are very alert to sabotage.
EHW: Then you’re concluding that he…
PKL: I am not concluding anything about this particular case. I do not know the details of this case. I cannot pronounce myself about this case. I don’t even know what this person was being investigated for.
EHW: Okay then, let’s take a hypothetical case. What sorts of activities would warrant an arrest? Distributing bibles, maybe?
PKL: We don’t ban the Christian bible in our country. In fact, you know very well that the Korean Christians Federation has itself printed bibles in Pyongyang.
EHW: Yes, and hymn books as well. But why do we keep hearing reports about arrests of people caught with bibles in their possession?
PKL: I have never heard of arrests in our country based solely on the possession of a bible or any religious literature. I repeat: there are always other reasons involved. For example, we do have a general ban on literature printed in South Korea.
EHW: Yes, I remember the trouble one well-meaning WFP staff member got into for bringing anti-smoking brochures into your country. She was genuinely concerned about the health of her Korean co-workers. She had no idea that the pamphlets might be sensitive. And they weren’t. The only problem with them was that they were printed in the ROK.
PKL: You have no idea how much anti-DPRK propaganda is shipped from South Korea into our country. Some even arrives via balloons! You can’t expect customs agents to evaluate each piece of literature that arrives in our country. A total ban on anything printed in South Korea was the easiest way to deal with this problem.
EHW: So what else could get a Christian foreigner into trouble? Attending worship in a house church? Preaching a sermon?
PKL: You have done both of these and have not been arrested.
EHW: Yes, but in each case it was established churches or registered worship points.
PKL: Well, if the worship place is not registered, then one begins to get suspicious about whether the activity is really religious or has some subversive purpose. As for preaching, that also depends on whether your sermons are really religious or something more political.
EHW: You can’t just separate the religious from the political that way. Christians believe that their faith should impact their entire lives, which includes social and political responsibilities.
PKL: Look, let me just repeat: we have legitimate and legal churches. Since 1988 there have been newly constructed church buildings in Pyongyang: two Protestant and one Roman Catholic. South Korean churches are in the process of rebuilding one of the Protestant churches, Bongsu Church, which will increase its capacity from 300 to 1,500. Recently, a Russian Orthodox church was built as well. We have hundreds of Christian worship points — what you call “house churches” — in Pyongyang and in other parts of the country, all duly registered and legitimate. We are even allowing overseas Koreans to build a University of Science andTechnology in Pyongyang (PUST). The PUST people have made absolutely no secret of the fact that this will be a Christian institution, with Christian professors doing much of the teaching. We welcome all religions and all religious workers, as long as they do not wish to undermine our country and our system.
EHW: So you have religious freedom but not political freedom.
PKL: Look, you cannot deny that we are under threat. And that we have a right to defend ourselves as we see fit. You cannot hold it against us if we are extra cautious in the area bordering China.
EHW: Why? Is China not your friend and ally?
PKL: It is, in a manner of speaking. That is why border security in the north is far less severe than in the south. But this more relaxed border is also being used by those who are plotting against us.
EHW: China would never allow such activity.
PKL: We will never depend on others to guarantee our security. The vast majority of the population in the areas bordering the DPRK on the Chinese side are ethnic Koreans. The Chinese authorities have a hard time controlling what goes on in those areas. There is a lot of corruption, smuggling, human trafficking… Even our border guards are not immune to bribery. Many south Korean and overseas Korean religionists infiltrate that area…
EHW: I know a number of these. They supply economic and social assistance to the homeless refugees.
PKL: Perhaps some do, and we have no quarrel with them. But many others are there to agitate against our government. We have solid evidence that some are even involved in paramilitary training for an eventual invasion.
EHW: Solid evidence? Surely that is a fantasy. I cannot imagine that China would turn a blind eye…
PKL: Don’t forget that this Tumen River region also borders Russia and Mongolia.
EHW: Alright, I accept that your government would be nervous about what happens along its borders. But getting back to my fellow-Canadian Mr. Kim, don’t you think it is rather counter-productive to frighten the family of one innocent businessman who had already proven by way of his humanitarian activities that he has a genuine concern for the welfare of your people?
PKL: I repeat. I do not know anything about his case. I have no facts to claim either his guilt or his innocence.
EHW: He must obviously have been cleared of all charges, otherwise he would not have been released.
PKL: Then why not look on this whole incident as a positive lesson? Our security agencies had legitimate concerns about this man’s activities. They investigated. Canada had legitimate concerns about the treatment received by a Canadian citizen. Canadian Ambassador Ted Lipman came to Pyongyang to enquire about his case. We received the ambassador and engaged in serious dialogue. By means of this dialogue, the case was resolved and Mr. Kim was released into the custody of Canadian consular officials. Neither the man in question, nor his family, nor the Canadian Government turned this case into an international propaganda circus. Why not look on this incident as a model for how all human rights issues should be dealt with?
EHW: If only…
PKL: I’m sorry. That is all the time I have for you today.
EHW: Alright, Mr. Pak. I thank you for this conversation.