Friday, August 24, 2007

North Korea: Positive Changes

Date: Friday 24 August 2007
Subj: North Korea: ". . .though your footsteps were not seen".
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal


In June 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il in a historic inter-Korea summit. It was the first rapprochement between the North and South since the border closed in 1953. At that June 2000 meeting in Pyongyang, the leaders signed a landmark document committing the two states to work toward reunification by (amongst other steps) facilitating the reunions of families separated by the Korean War, improving economic cooperation and building a railway line across the heavily patrolled border.

The situation improved to the point that when the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in October 2000 she was able to report: 'Kim Jong Il said I hope you'll figure out a way to send us some English teachers and if they're Korean-American, that's fine.' (Albright press briefing 26 Oct 2000: Link 1)

However, through 2002 US - North Korea relations soured and the North Korean regime retreated into a defensive posturing position, from where it has since been maintaining isolation and belligerently using the threat of nuclear weapons to ensure its survival and to extract concessions from the West.

Whilst North Korea is rated as the world's most severe abuser of religious liberty, there can be no question that, despite the souring of US - North Korea relations, North and South Korea have made significant strides towards fulfilling their historic commitment of June 2000.

* Family reunions have occurred.

* North Korea scrapped its centralised state rationing system and moved to a market economy. Public markets have been operating since 1 July 2002. Most significantly, this has enabled cross-border trade with China. (Link 2)

* During the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2004 Athens Olympics, North and South Korea competed as separate nations but entered the stadium together under their 'Unification Flag'. At the 2006 Asian Games they competed as a single nation, as they will do again in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

* In May this year, two rail lines that now cross the demilitarised zone (DMZ) were given a test run. On Thursday 17 May, two trains carrying 150 passengers each - one train from each direction - crossed the border for the first time in over 50 years. A South Korean official said the test signified "re-connecting the severed bloodline of our people". A North Korean official said both nations "should not be derailed from the tracks" towards unification. (Link 3)

* Economic co-operation has also gone ahead with the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Park (Link 4) and the near-completion of the Christian-funded, English-language, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (Link 5) (Also see North Korea Economy Watch.)


A second inter-Korean summit scheduled for 28-30 August 2007 in Pyongyang has been postponed to 2-4 October due to the severe floods that have devastated North Korea. Associated Press quotes UN Assistant Secretary-General Margareta Wahlstrom, the deputy emergency relief coordinator, as saying (17 August): "'There are approximately 300,000 people who are homeless. About 58,000 houses (are) destroyed. We've seen over 90,000 hectares of farmland which is flooded and about 60 missing, 83 dead so far. About 10 percent of the population in the provinces in the south are affected.'

"In North Hwanghae, she said about 70 percent of arable land has been affected and 50 percent of the health clinics destroyed. According to an overview by UN relief officials in the region, more than 800 public buildings, 540 bridges, 70 sections of railway and more than 500 high voltage towers were destroyed, and more than 30 reservoirs and 450 agricultural structures were damaged. In addition, the heavy rains have ruptured river banks in more than 800 places and dikes in 10 places, the UN said." (Link 6)

Whilst this is not North Korea's first major catastrophe, it is the first time the regime has chosen not to hide it. Aid agencies have been surprised by the regime's new-found willingness to swiftly reveal information and seek assistance so that suffering may be relieved. (Link 7)

Of course sceptics would be forgiven for wondering if this response could be one of sheer political expediency. It could indicate merely that internal discontent is so palpable the regime is desperate to ensure suffering is alleviated quickly before there is a revolt! However, it could also indicate that the regime is waking up to reality, accepting the inevitable and beginning to "test the water" (so to speak) of openness.


There have been other tentative steps towards increasing openness and connection to the outside world. Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University, Seoul, recently told the Korea Times that the Internet will be the first gateway to the outside world for North Korea when the tension on the Korean peninsula eases after the South-North summit. "Kim Jong-il has great interest in the information technology sector. Pyongyang has kept its network closed from the outside because it was concerned about the Web's possible influence on its regime. But if it wants to come out to the international society, it is inevitable to utilise the Internet, first of all.'' (Link 8)

Koh told the Korea Times that there already are broadband networks set up in North Korea and that Kim Jong-il has already established and opened a computer technology centre.

As noted by the Korea Times : " '.kp' has been allocated as North Korea's country code domain. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) clarifies: "At the present time there is no delegated operator for the KP domain, but ICANN has received a request to delegate the domain. This request was discussed by the ICANN Board at its meeting on 14 August 2007 . . the minutes will be published shortly." (Link 9)

As Professor Koh told the Korea Times, "Using of the domain suffix indicates that North Korea is now ready to jump into the ocean of information and it wants to prepare for the change. The opening can only be possible when the political climate gets warmer in the Korean peninsula. If the North Korea - US relations improve, reforms and opening will follow.'' (Link 8)


The 2-4 October inter-Korea summit in Pyongyang is hugely important. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun will travel to Pyongyang through a reconnected cross-border road. Reunification could and probably needs to take a long, long time. However if trust and confidence can be built - confidence that South Korea will not be swamped with destitute refugees and confidence for Kim that his position is secure - then openness and liberty need not be so far away. (Democracy, with its emphasis on equality, rule-of-law, separation of powers and such principles, has its roots in biblical Christianity; it grew out of the Reformation and is a fruit of Biblical truth. Religious liberty needs to come before democracy so that the foundations for democracy can be established.)

North Korea is presently the world's worst abuser of religious liberty, with extreme repression and Christian suffering. But the people of God have a lot of "handles" to take hold of in prayer for North Korea. This should not surprise us and we should not be too discouraged. Over the past 54 years the predominantly local (Korean) chorus of prayer for North Korea has grown into a global symphony. Why should we not expect great things from God?

"Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen." Psalm 77:19 (NIV)

Elizabeth Kendal


1) Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. 26 October 2000
Press Briefing on plane en route Washington, DC from Seoul, Republic of Korea
As released by the Office of the Spokesman, US Department of State,%20D.C.%20from%20Kor.pdf

2) North Korea: Reassessing self-reliance?
By Elizabeth Kendal. 31 July 2002
World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis

3) BBC. Korean trains in historic link-up.17 May 2007

4) A Capitalist Sprout In N. Korea's Dust
Industrial Park to Broach Free Market
By Anthony Faiola, Washington Post Foreign Service, 23 May 2004
ALSO North Korea Economy Watch, Kaesong category:

5) Pyongyang University of Science and Technology
ALSO: On a mission for God. By David McNeill. 15 Aug 2007
A Christian-funded, English-language university is being built in Pyongyang, writes David McNeill. "NORTH Korea seems set to take a giant leap out of the intellectual cold with the development of an English-language university, in which academics from across the world will teach the best of the country's graduate students.",25197,22245921-27702,00.html

6) UN official says 300,000 homeless, 58,000 houses destroyed, 83 dead in North Korea floods. 17 Aug 2007
For more on the floods see: DPRK hit by floods

7) North Korea Opens Up Over Flooding
By Jennifer Veale, Seoul. 15 Aug 2007,8816,1653130,00.html
ALSO: N Korea changes tune on aid amid floods
By Jennifer Macey. 16 Aug 2007

8) N. Korea to Connect to Rest of World via Web

9) Clarification Regarding .KP Country Code Top-Level Domain.17 August 2007