Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea offers sweeping insight into the day-to-day living of one of the world’s most closed societies. She draws her accounts from extensive interviews with defectors from North Korea and her own travels in the region.
Demick’s journalistic writing keeps the book moving. She weaves together several narratives to expose the reader to the history, politics, triumphs and trials of North Korea. She has little to offer when it comes to the faith of those in North Korea, but such is not the focus of her book.
What can be found about the faith history of North Korea is interesting, however. She asserts that before Kim Il-sung came to power, North Korea had a vibrant Christian community:
Kim Il-sung took the cult of personality to a new level. What distinguished him in the rogues’ gallery of twentieth-century dictators was his ability to harness the power of faith. Kim Il-sung understood the power of religion. His maternal uncle was a Protestant minister back in the pre-Communist days when Pyongyang had such a vibrant Christian community that it was called the “Jerusalem of the East.” Once in power, Kim Il-sung closed the churches, banned the Bible, deported believers to the hinterlands, and appropriated Christian imagery and dogma for the purpose of self-promotion.
Broadcasters would speak of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il breathlessly, in the manner of Pentecostal preachers. North Korean newspapers carried tales of supernatural phenomena. Stormy seas were said to be calmed when sailors clinging to a sinking ship sang songs in praise of Kim Il-sung. When Kim Jong-il went to the DMZ, a mysterious fog descended to protect him from lurking South Korean snipers. He caused trees to bloom and snow to melt. If Kim Il-sung was God, then Kim Jong-il was the son of God. Like Jesus Christ, Kim Jong-il’s birth was said to have been heralded by a radiant star in the sky and the appearance of a beautiful double rainbow. A swallow descended from heaven to sing the birth of a “general who will rule the world.” (45)
The effectiveness of the enshrinement of the Kims as both penultimate leader and pseudo-deities can be illustrated by observing the hysterical reaction to the news of their deaths:
These histrionics seem over the top, but the propaganda spread to the citizens of North Korea asserts that their country is the most prosperous, most developed country in the world. However bad things may appear, it is worse elsewhere. Their good fortune is due solely to the generosity and provision of their Great Leader, their Father. How else would you expect one to react when their God dies?
Yet just to the south, across the 38th parallel to the south lies another Korea. This one couldn’t be more opposite. Democracy and capitalism have made South Korea one of the more prosperous nations in Asia. Seoul is a major world city and shows its connections with the west in its modernization. It is so different from Pyongyang that North Korean defectors to the South often have a difficult time adjusting to their newfound freedom.
Among these freedoms is the freedom of religion. Christianity has exploded in South Korea:
The most Christian country in Asia after the Philippines, South Korea sends missionaries spreading the gospel and dispensing humanitarian aid throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. In contrast to the general ambivalence most South Koreans show defectors, the missionaries are passionate about the plight of North Koreans. Thousands of South Korean missionaries—sometimes joined by their Korean-American counterparts—have flocked to northeastern China [a hub for North Korean defection], where they work quietly so as not to provoke the Chinese authorities, operating small, unregistered churches out of private homes.
At night, their red neon crosses glow eerily in otherwise dark patches of countryside. Other safe houses for North Koreans are known only by word of mouth. Since the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the mainstream nongovernmental organizations cannot overtly violate Chinese laws against sheltering North Koreans, the missionaries fill an important void by providing food and shelter to refugees. (261)
Since the death of Kim Jong-il in December of 2011 and the official installation of his son Kim Jong-eun as his successor earlier this year, there has been speculation about the prospects of reunification between North and South. Recent statements released by the DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official title of North Korea) indicate that despite appearances of “change,” reunification isn’t on the table. They still expect to achieve “final victory” in their conquest of the Korean peninsula.
As technology continues to make the world smaller, it will become progressively difficult for North Korea to shut out the rest of the world. It is not a stretch to believe that one day, perhaps in my lifetime, the North Korean regime will fall and reunification will begin. It happened in Germany and it can happen in Korea. What remains to be seen, however, is the impact that will have on spirituality in the region. Just as the economic complexities will have to be sorted out with great care, reunification will present complexities of faith as well. What will it look like in those first few years? Who or what will rush in to fill the void? Are there seeds of Pyongyang’s previous Christian dominance that have survived the communist rule? Will the dominance of South Korean Christianity be a help or hindrance after reunification?