Christian work inside North Korea a serious challenge with vastly different approaches

North Korea has been shrouded in secrecy for decades. The hard-line Communist regime under the direction of long-time dictator Kim Jong-il has been at odds with Western governments for years over its nuclear ambitions and repressive treatment of its population. Operating within North Korea, also known as the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), is a complicated and cautious endeavor for numerous Christian organizations. There are two obvious, yet both very delicate ways, of offering Christian-based aid to North Koreans. One is by working with the government and gaining approved access to a country that is severely limited to foreigners. The other is clandestinely, working in the background to spread the Christian message at risk to those discussing it and the people they serve. Working with the government A handful of Christian organizations have been approved by the North Korean government to work with its citizens. Samaritan’s Purse, the mission and aid group run by evangelist Franklin Graham, has had experience working in the DRPK. Graham has traveled to the country repeatedly in recent years and worked for his organization and others to gain greater access. Last June, five relief organizations with Christian ties–Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Mercy Corps, Global Resource Services and Christian Friends of Korea–were approved to take part in a food distribution program sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations’ World Food Program. The groups were ordered to stop the food distribution in March at a time of heightened tensions in the region and amidst international criticism leveled at the North Korean government for a failed missile test. The government contended it had successfully launched a satellite into orbit. Tensions have escalated anew with a recent underground nuclear test, repeated missile launches and the conviction of two U.S. journalists by a North Korean court. “We are saddened by this decision (to end the food program), but are very proud of what the program has accomplished,” the organizations said in a joint statement. “Working closely with our North Korean partners, we have ensured that food reached almost one million vulnerable children, pregnant and nursing mothers, and the elderly. “Each of our organizations has worked in the DPRK for more than a decade. We remain committed to assistance in that country, and our individual, on-going programs focused on health, water, sanitation and agriculture will continue as before.” Joy Portella, Mercy Corps’ communications director, said the organization said food had been distributed to the best of their knowledge after the groups were asked to leave the country. Mercy Corps is a secular non-profit, but does have Christian roots. “In the ten months of this program, 169,000 metric tons of food was delivered to the DPRK, of which the U.S. NGOs brought in 71,000 metric tons,” Portella said. “In early May, our partner the Korea America Private Exchange Society (KAPES) informed us that the 22,000 metric tons of food had been distributed to the intended beneficiaries as well as through food-for-work projects. “We have received a report from KAPES concerning these distributions, but since our team was not on the ground to monitor, we cannot confirm the veracity of the report. We hope that the future presents another opportunity to continue food assistance.” Work, however, continues in different capacities within the country. Christian Friends of Korea (CFK) has operated in North Korea since 1995. The Black Mountain, N.C.-based mission provides support to 20 facilities in the countryside serving residents who suffer primarily from tuberculosis, according to executive director Heidi Linton. Linton’s husband is a fourth-generation missionary to Korea. Working proactively and carefully with the North Korea’s Ministry of Health has given CFK access to some of the citizens most in need of medical attention. “We are there to bring love and healing into a very difficult situation,” she said. Building a trusting relationship with counterparts in the government has been an ongoing and fluid process over the 14 years CFK has had a presence in the country. “We have gone from an environment of heightened mistrust in the early days to now where there is more active facilitation of our work and moving forward,” Linton said. “That’s a sea change. It has taken years of relationship building and living lives of integrity out of respect for both our donors and the recipients.” CFK provides a variety of TB programs, including sending medicine and medical supplies, food relief, facilities renovation and equipment upgrades, and providing agricultural assistance, including greenhouses. The organization prominently displays a cross on its logo and lets its actions bear witness to its Christian compassion. “The Lord just leads things into your life and it becomes a real passion,” Linton said. “You see that responding with compassion to observed needs makes a difference in practical ways that shines the light of Christ through our actions. Somehow God uses us to show His glory and it’s truly a privilege.” Operating under the radar Working outside the North Korean government to spread the Gospel is possible, but it runs some distinct risks. Open Doors works toward serving the persecuted church around the world with Bibles and Christian leadership training. In its 2009 World Watch List Rankings, it places North Korea at the top of the list for persecution of Christians. Rounding out the top five on the list are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia. Harrowing tales by about 30 Christians who have successfully escaped North Korea was shared in late April during testimony given in Washington. As an example, Bang Mi Sun, who has been in South Korea since 2004, described how she escaped with her family to China in 2002 after her husband had died and her daughter had disappeared. She was intercepted by human traffickers and was repeatedly sold. The last sale came to a man 15 years younger than her who, she said, had a doctor forcibly remove a contraceptive ring in an attempt to force pregnancy. Separated from her children she escaped only to be arrested by Chinese police during an identity inspection. She was turned over to North Korean authorities and sent to a labor camp. There, Bang said, she witnessed guards pounding on a pregnant woman’s womb which eventually led to death or her and her baby, plus prisoners eating insects and live frogs in an attempt to stay alive. Released from prison after a year, she returned to her village and stayed with in-laws. She was fortunate that her son had escaped to South Korea and contacted her through a Chinese contact who found her in her village. Bang made it to China again and successfully sought refuge in the South Korean consulate and was ultimately granted asylum. Persecutions for people willingly describing themselves as Christians can be even more perilous, said Eom Myong-Heui. Now a pastor in Seoul, she escaped to Myanmar and Thailand and was detained for six months before being granted asylum in South Korea. She was exposed to the Gospel by a Chinese missionary and accepted Christ after reading a smuggled copy of the New Testament. When the missionary was arrested, she was questioned for her beliefs. She was ultimately released and fled. Such stories of persecution and flight are common to Lindsay Vessey, program manager for Open Doors USA. She said affiliated staff is in North Korea clandestinely, but their identities are obviously kept secret. “This is not the type of situation where you feel like this might be what God is calling you to do,” she said. “The people who do this are extremely committed and willing to put themselves on the line for their beliefs.” Distributing Bibles and Christian literature can lead to arrest and forced labor at a minimum, Vessey said, adding to the daily issues with finding enough food to eat. Vessey grew up in Panama and said she is familiar with poverty and malnutrition in the developing world. Even so, her eyes were opened even further during a visit to the North Korean capital Pyongyang last fall on a tourist visa. “The people there were remarkably skinny,” she said. “When you consider this is the capital where food is the most readily available and there are parts of the country completely off-limits to foreigners, it’s hard to imagine.” She said there was a difference, however, between the way the government portrayed the West and Christianity compared to ordinary people she met through her Chinese guide. She told of a museum blaming the Korean War and the separation of the peninsula on the United States and that Christians were labeled as murderers and baby-killers. People she met were fascinated by small things such as chocolate she had and, she thinks, clothing. “Many of the people there do not have much and wear the same clothes every day,” she said. “I’m sure they noticed that we had different clothes on at different times.” Also of interest was the U.S. presidential election, which was coming up at the time. “When we talked to our guides about the election and the idea of voting and choosing our country’s leaders, they were very interested,” she said. “They were very curious about our way of life.” That being said, there were some aspects of daily life Americans take for granted which Vessey skipped. “We thought about if we had a picture of our house to show or had pictures and talked about the fact that my husband and I owned separate cars,” she said. “I honestly don’t think they would have believed us. Those ideas are so far out of their realm of possibility.” Links: Samaritan’s Purse: World Vision: Mercy Corps: Global Resource Services: Christian Friends of Korea: Open Doors USA:

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