Wednesday, July 31, 2002

North Korea: Reassessing self-reliance?

Date: Wednesday 31 July 2002
Subj: North Korea: Reassessing self-reliance?
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator


North Korea is one of the world's most severe abusers of religious liberty and cruelest persecutors of Christians. The Reunification Talks that commenced in Pyongyang, North Korea, in June 2002, opened a window of hope that change may be possible in the previously impenetrable "Hermit Kingdom". However, the talks have constantly been frustrated and beset with difficulties.

In these testing times we should not forget that many believers, especially South Korean believers, have prayed consistently; even daily for some fifty years, for God to liberate North Korea.

Famine is the primary factor forcing North Korea to once again return to the negotiating table, and to reassess its policy of "Juche" or "self-reliance". While none of the diplomatic or economic changes outlined below relate directly to any religious liberty issues, they do however, give grounds for optimism that North Korea may truly be seeking to end its isolation and commence real engagement with the outside world - in which case, real opportunities to exert influence and leverage regarding religious freedom should also open up.

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Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who recently visited North Korea and met with Kim Jong-il, reports that North Korea is seeking constructive dialogue with Japan and the US to talk unconditionally about lessening its international isolation.

On 25 July 02, only days after Mr. Ivanov's visit, North Korea expressed "regret" to South Korea over the naval clash that occurred on 29 June in which five South Korean sailors were killed. What makes this so significant is that it is so out of character - it is only the third time North Korea has ever expressed remorse in a long history of attacks on South Korea. In this same message, North Korea also proposed the resumption of reunification talks between the North and South - an offer South Korea has accepted. South Korea's Unification Ministry has now offered to send a working-level team to North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort from 2 - 4 August to prepare for a ministerial meeting in Seoul.

But most remarkable, is the news that North Korea has scrapped its centralised state rationing system and is replacing it with public markets that have been operating since 1 July 02. Wages have been increased accordingly to accommodate the change. Factories and companies will also end their reliance on state subsidies and become self-supporting with profits linked to productivity.

A BBC correspondent in Seoul, Kevin Kim, says that recently the North's leader, Kim Jong-il, called for a new way of thinking, suggesting he was more open-minded about adopting capitalist systems in his country. (see link 1) Some observers have compared the steps to those China took in the late 1970s as China gradually opened up its economy.

BACKGROUND

Christians in North Korea have long suffered severe Communist oppression, firstly under the Soviets who controlled North Korea after WWII, and then under Stalin's handpicked successor, Kim Il-sung. It is estimated that some 2,300 North Korean Christian congregations with around 300,000 members have disappeared since the border closed in 1953 at the end of the Korean War. An estimated 100,000 Christians are amongst the one million North Koreans currently suffering as prisoners of conscience in North Korea's gulag of some 200 concentration camps where torture and starvation are commonplace.

It has been reported that in the camps and prisons, Christians are especially despised and singled out for the most severe treatment. Hundreds of North Korean believers found with Bibles have been executed. The government insists that the dead but "Eternal President" Kim Il-sung be worshiped as a god, and his son, the present ruler Kim Jong-il, to whom all manner of supernatural phenomena are attributed, be the object of "ardent worship".

Links
1) BBC "North Korea 'moves to market economy'" 19 July 2000
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/low/world/asia-pacific/2137826.stm