So yet another American has been detained in the DPRK for supposedly proselytizing in the country.
This is not the first time this has happened in recent memory, nor is it actually even the second. And although it is tempting to speculate on Jun’s motives before all the facts come out, it would be reasonable after the Robert Park and Aijalon Gomes incidents to ask oneself if Jun is cast in the same mold.
Indeed, it does seem that Jun comes from an Evangelical Christian background in Orange County, a fortress of Korean-American Evangelicalism. However, there is a key difference between Jun’s case and the others that have come before it: Jun was already in North Korea legally when he was arrested.
This may be a rather small detail that is lost among the general public, but to those who are familiar with Evangelical engagement with North Korea, it is a very important one: Pyongyang continues to walk a tightrope with Christians, especially those with an Evangelical bent.
While Evangelicals such as Park and Gomes have gained the spotlight, other Evangelical Christians in the Korean-North American community have quietly built up operations within the country. Whether it is operating orphanages, or bakeries, or ramen factories, these churches in cities from Toronto to Los Angeles have not only started what can only be seen as “missions” in North Korea, they have done so with the full permission of the regime.
A pastor from Vancouver who had visited the DPRK recently once shared an anecdote about his visits to North Korea. He would never say grace before eating, since this would be a dead giveaway to his background and true intentions. One day, before sitting down for his meal, his North Korean minder asked point blank, “don’t you have to do something before you eat?” The pastor, not wanting to break the 9th Commandment, attempted to mumble his way through an explanation. The minder smiled, and answered: “it’s OK. Only Christians come to North Korea these days.”
This anecdote underscores this powerful point: that Pyongyang, despite fully aware that the true objective of any Evangelical church is to proselytize, has allowed such operations to not only sprout on the ground, but flourish. To any North Korea watcher, this is somewhat contradictory behaviour. Anyone who is familiar with the repatriation process of North Korean refugees who have fled to China knows that one of the first questions the Bowibu asks upon detention is whether the refugee has been in contact with missionaries stationed in northern China. And we fully know that severe punishment is the consequence to answering affirmative to that particular question.
So we have a peculiar situation where Pyongyang welcomes Evangelical Christians through one door, and sends them to prison camps through another. Trying to decipher this behaviour is probably worthy of another post (or perhaps even a chapter in a book!) so I will save that particular analysis for later. However, what we do know for a fact is that both types of Evangelical Christians have extensive operations in either the DPRK or China and have, from what I can personally attest to, solid support from their communities back home.
The question then is of which type of operation Jun was a part of – that is, if he was not acting alone. If he was part of the Evangelicals who have been allowed to operate within North Korea, what triggered his arrest? Did he engage in active proselytizing, or was he simply conducting “business as usual?” If he was simply conducting “business as usual,” what does this mean for future operations for Evangelicals within North Korea?
As an individual with contacts in both Evangelical communities, I will continue to watch this story with keen interest – I can say with some confidence that there will be more to come.