Pacific Prospective features the research of graduate students.
Timothy S. Rich – tsrich [at] indiana.edu
On April 11, 2011, the US State Department confirmed North Korea’s intention to prosecute an American, Jun Young-su, held since November 2010 for proselytizing. Another American missionary, Aijalon Gomes, was prosecuted and released in August 2010, following the February 2010 release of missionary Robert Park. A fascinating juxtaposition emerges: while more than one thousand North Koreans risk their lives to escape the hermit kingdom each year, outsiders risk severe punishment to enter the country to preach Christianity, with little evidence that missionaries in general receive leniency.
At one time, nearly equal numbers of Koreans on both sides of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) left with hopes of a better life on the other side. Those days are long gone, along with the days of disgruntled or disillusioned American military officials defecting to North Korea (their usefulness in propaganda largely evaporated with the end of the cold war). Since the mid-1970s, most have struggled to leave North Korea.
Today, foreign missionaries struggle to enter, including North Korean refugees in China taking up the cause. They are increasingly attracted to North Korea, despite the rampant human rights abuses reported by refugees. They bring news of the outside world, in addition to a religious message that directly challenges communist ideology, undermining the North Korean government’s control of information. The government has responded by imprisoning missionaries and other foreigners who attempt to educate North Koreans. Occasionally, a missionary – like Young-su, Gomes, or Park – is released after American diplomatic intervention.
The government also doles out harsh punishments for its own citizens. According to the DailyNK, unauthorized contact with a foreigner will result in confinement in reeducation camps and the forced relocation of family members. Such measures are unusual leading up to the birthday of the eternal president Kim Il Sung (who died in 1994) as celebrations often include amnesty for many prisoners.
Scholars have argued for years that such measures meant the North Korean regime would soon collapse – but this has not occurred. Still, as North Koreans increasingly gain access to the outside world and Christian ideology via foreign missionaries willing to defy the government, one wonders how long the regime can avoid reform.
Timothy S. Rich – Doctoral candidate in political science at Indiana University.
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- North Korea confirms US citizen is arrested, BBC News, April 2011
- Freed US missionary Robert Park leaves North Korea, BBC News, February 2010
- Internal Exile Decree Confirmed, DailyNK, April 2011
- NKorea Honors ‘Eternal President’ on His Birthday, National Public Radio, April 2011
- The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea, book by Charles Robert Jenkins, 2008.
- Our other Memos about North Korea