He has just prepared his second major report on North Korea for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “Thank you, Father Kim Il Sung”: Eyewitness Accounts of Severe Violations of Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion in North Korea. The first report, released in November 2003, was Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps -- Prisoner Testimonies and Satellite Photographs."
FP: David Hawk, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Hawk: Thank you.
FP: First, tell us what motivated your interest in North Korea?
Hawk: From my previous and long involvement with Amnesty International (I was Executive Director of the US Section in the mid to late 70s and a member of its Board of Directors in the 1980s) and Human Rights Watch/Asia (I was a member of its Board from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s), I was aware of the dire paucity of information about the human rights situation in North Korea – a matter on which we became particularly cognizant during the many campaigns in support of imprisoned and persecuted South Korean democracy and human rights advocates in the late 1970s and 1980s.
During much of the 1980s and 1990s, I had concentrated on researching the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and seeking to promote and protect human rights there, finally heading the UN Human Rights office in Phnom Penh in the mid to late 1990s. I also went to Rwanda in 1994 and 1995 to document massacres that were part of that genocide. In 2003 I was approached by an NGO, US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and informed that there were then several thousand former North Koreans, who had originally fled to China in search of food during the height of the North Korean famine crises, but who were now resident in South Korea and accessible to journalists, scholars, and human rights investigators. I made three research trips of several weeks each to Seoul to meet with some 30 former North Korean political prisoners, whom I contacted through South Korean human rights groups. This research resulted in the 2004 report Hidden Gulag – Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps: Prisoner’s Testimonies and Satellite Photographs.
It is still illegal for North Koreans to leave North Korea. And the North Korean government doesn’t let anyone in who is going to ask about human rights violations. But the 7,000 North Koreans now in South Korea remain invaluable sources of information on the human rights situation in the DPRK. Basically, the international human rights community should take the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- one by one -- and conduct in depth interviews with these former North Koreans to find out how those rights – article by article – are being respected or violated. I was fortunate that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom invited me to research Article 18 which sets forth freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, which I did with the support and assistance of South Korean colleagues. That report, Thank You Father Kim Il Sun: Eyewitness Accounts of Severe Violations of Thought Conscience and Religion in North Korea was just published.
FP: Illuminate for us the cult of personality centered on Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il.
Hawk: Kim Il Sung was put in power by Stalin and kept in power by Mao. Both these Communist leaders, of course, had their own personality cults. So Kim Il Sung wanted one for himself, as it seemed like the normal thing to do. Kim’s personality cult became even more important during the Sino-Soviet dispute when Kim needed its status, plus his own “ism” -- in this case “Juche Ideology” -- to allow North Korea to remain independent of both his giant communist neighbors. The Kim Il Sung personality cult reached semi-divine levels at the hands of Kim Jong Il, who glorified not only his father but the Kim family going back five generations in order to justify the feudalist and decidedly un-Marxist, practice of political rule by dynastic succession.
FP: Since the dictator is painted to be a secular God, religion is by necessity demonized. Tell us some ways that religion is portrayed as evil and how it is persecuted.
Hawk: First, let me note that while Kim Il Sung is “worshiped” North Koreans do not use the same word for their “Great Leader” as they do for “God.” Responding directly to your question, Chapter 6 of the report details three periods in the complete destruction and elimination of public religious worship in North Korea. When the Soviets installed Kim Il Sung in power north of the 38th parallel in 1945, there was no Communist Party in Korea. Two religions, Protestant Christianity and a syncretic faith called Chondokyo – the “Religion of the Heavenly Way” a mixture of Confucianism, Shamanism, and Catholicism) provided indigenous Korean political opposition to the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910 to 1945). While Kim Il Sung quickly pasted together the (communist) Korean Workers Party, with Soviet support he suppressed the Chondokyoists and Protestant Christians as a political force, leading many Christian leaders to flee to the south. But while religion was broken as a political force, and the religious political parties subordinated to the Workers Party, in largely the same fashion as occurred in the “Peoples Democracies” in Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, religious worship was allowed and religion was not particularly demonized.
During the Korean War, Christian believers in North Korea reportedly welcomed the arrival of American and South Korean forces as the North Korean “peoples” army was retreating to the China-North Korea border. And then many North Koreans were evacuated to the South by the ROK and American forces as they in turn retreated southward in the face of advances by the Chinese Communist army. And obviously, many churches and Buddhist temples, etc were destroyed and many believers killed during that terribly bloody war.
Following the Korean War, and the death of Stalin, when the USSR went “revisionist,” North Korea, like China, went in the opposite direction instituting different versions of variously deformed“national Stalinism” that took the dreadful shape of Maoism (as seen in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution) and KimIlSungism. Unlike Mao, however, who denounced Confucianism as one of the “olds” to be uprooted and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il incorporated “Neo-Confuciansim” into the Juche Ideology. Neo-Confucianism was the established religious orthodoxy during the four centuries of feudalist Chosun dynasty rule (16th to 20th centuries) during which time all other religions and thought systems were rigorously suppressed, particularly Buddhism, which had previously been the Korean state religion for 1,500 years.
When Catholic Christianity entered Korea from China in the 18th century, the Chosun dynasty Neo-Confucianists executed the Catholic converts in waves of massacres whenever they reappeared. The Neo-Confucianists also killed the founders of Chondokyo (originally called Tonghak or Eastern Learning) when it was first proclaimed in the mid 19th Century. As in other areas of social/political policy, while retaining the rhetoric of Marxist-Leninism, KimIlSungism re-adopted the feudalist practices of the Chosun dynasty, and in the case of intellectual life rigorously sought to eliminate all heterodox systems of thought and belief. By the early 1960s, North Korea became along with Albania, the only countries in the world in which there was no functioning public religious worship.
Public worship was simply prohibited and those caught worshiping illegally were either executed or sent, entire families in many cases, to remote political penal labor colonies for lifetime slave labor. (Stalin sent dissidents to the Gulag; Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il send entire families-- another revived Chosun dynasty feudal practice.)
The suppression fell most heavily on Protestant Christians. The northern part of Korea had been the center of Protestantism in Asia, and Protestant Christianity were now identified with North Korea’s arch enemies: “un-liberated” South Korea and the United States, which had prevented the reunification of Korea under Kim Il Sung’s leadership. The missionaries who brought Protestant Christianity to Korea – many of whom were doctors or teachers – were demonized as American imperialist agents and spies sent to poison the minds and bodies of the Korean people.
FP: And yet, despite these horrifying circumstances, religion still survives in North Korea. Tell us how and some of the ingredients of this survival.
Hawk: Religious belief survives but barely. According to the figures presented by North Korea to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, only .2% -- two-tenth of one percent -- of the North Korean people are believers in one of four tolerated, State sponsored, and organized religions: Chondokyo, Buddhism, Protestantism and Catholicism.
The main ingredient of this extremely circumscribed, contained and controlled “revival” of religious practice is a change in North Korean geopolitical circumstance. In the 1960s, like Marxist revolutionaries in many other countries, the DPRK pursued an ultra-revolutionary political line. However, in the mid-1970s, faced with détente between the USA and the USSR, and a defacto anti-Soviet alliance between Communist China and the USA, Kim Il Sung had to revert to a “united front” political line. To enable “diplomatic outreach” to progressive religious elements in South Korea, Europe and North America, the party-state controlled “religious federations” that were originally created after WWII to suppress independent religions were revived, and North Koreans numbering in the hundreds or low thousands were allowed to resume worship in homes. Then in the late 1980s when Seoul was chosen as the site for the Olympic games, Kim Il Sung wanted to host a competitive World Youth Congress that would re-open North Korea, or at least Pyongyang, to the world, or at least the “Socialist” and “Non-Aligned” world. Kim figured that a capital city without any churches or Buddhist temples would be noticed. Hence, Pyongyang got a (priest-less) Catholic and a single Protestant Church, the pastor of which was Kim Il Sung’s uncle. Later, in an act of filial piety, Kim Il Sung had a second Protestant Church on the exact site where his devout Christian mother had worshiped. Subsequently, Kim Jong Il, saw a Russian Orthodox church while traveling by train through Russia. Proclaiming that an Orthodox Christian church in Pyongyang would improve Russian-North Korean relations, an Orthodox church was built just last year (with the financial aid and support of the Greek Orthodox Church in South Korea), even though there was not known to be any community of Orthodox believers in North Korea.
Thus it is that there are four churches in Pyongyang, and nowhere else in North Korea, even though numerous other cities on the east and west coast previously had substantial Christian populations. But even those four churches are not allowed to have “Sunday School”, youth groups, church newsletters and the other religious practices that are typical of Protestant Christianity everywhere else in the world, and which are explicitly provided for, that is recognized or proclaimed, in the international standards for freedom of religion. There are an unverified number of Buddhist temples in North Korea, mostly on scenic mountain tops, that are preserved as cultural heritage sites. But it is not known how much, if any, Buddhist religious practice takes place in these temples.
The believers who attend the limited and controlled home worship services and the three existing churches come overwhelmingly from pre-WWII Christian families. Undoubtedly there are other children from pre-war religious families who have secretly maintained the faith of their parents, but without joining or affiliating with the state sponsored and controlled religious federations. Several such persons were among the forty former North Korean interviewed in South Korea for the present report.
North Koreans who fled to China have encountered religion in ethnic Korean churches in Northeast China and from South Korean and Korean-American missionaries and faith-based famine relief workers who go the China-North Korea border precisely to assist the North Korean refugees in China. It is sometimes said that this contact has resulted in substantial numbers of “underground” worshipers in North Korea. The research for this report is not sufficient to lend support or denial to such claims. Most of the former North Koreans interviewed for the report thought this would be impossible, though two of the forty former North Koreans personally eye-witnessed public executions in the mid to late 1990s of other North Koreans apprehended for religious associations.
FP: How can we help those who are persecuted because of religion in North Korea? What do you recommend US policy should be toward this issue? How can it help the oppressed?
Hawk: Several things: most immediately, US citizens should press both the Executive Branch and the Congress to fully implement the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. That Act has many modest but concrete steps that can be taken. Unfortunately it is not being implemented. Secondly, NGOs that seek to raise human rights issues about North Korea, groups such as the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, desperately need financial support.
US policy-wise, in the longer run, or larger geo-political picture, with the exception of famine relief or Nunn-Lugar type expenditures for the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons materials and programs, economic assistance – bilateral or such multi-lateral assistance as the US can influence – such as loans or grants from USAID, the World Bank or ADB, the IMF or access to US markets and investments should be conditioned on North Korean human rights improvements, starting with cooperation with the ICRC and UN human rights officials. If North Korea wants to remain the juche version of the “hermit kingdom” there is little the outside world can do. However, if North Korea wants to join the international community and economy of the 21st century, then the international community can insist that North Korea begin to seriously comply with the international human rights norms and standards of the modern world, including freedom of thought, consience, religion and belief.
FP: David Hawk, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview and for exposing the monstrosity of the North Korean regime and bringing attention to those suffering under it.
Hawk: My pleasure.