The Walled Country: Truth and Lies in North Korea

The service had already begun as we made our way to the front pew of North Korea’s only Catholic church. The choir led the congregation in traditional hymns beautifully sung, and pictures of the Blessed Mother, the Sacred Heart, and the Stations of the Cross were all reassuring. Nevertheless, I felt uneasy. This was the third time in three years that I’d been to church in North Korea, and each time the building was filled perfectly. Not a seat left empty; not a person left standing. Was it all staged?

The service followed the Order of Mass; we could only hope that the offertory was for the Church rather than the Korean Workers Party. In Asia, the sign of peace is often a polite bow. Here it was eager handshakes and warm smiles. But scanning the congregation, I was struck by another peculiarity: There were no children.

We were a British Parliamentary delegation, led by General the Lord Guthrie of Cragiebank, former chief of the defense staff under Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair. With him was Colonel Ogilvie-Graham, who had worked with the Iraq survey group; I was present for continuity, having visited North Korea previously. Accompanying us was a recent recruit to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on a familiarization tour of the region. All four of us, providentially, were Catholic.

The service ended abruptly, and the 140-strong congregation scrambled for the door, thus avoiding any interaction with us. There was no Eucharist. In fact there was no priest; three laymen in white vestments led the prayers.

We left more than 50 rosaries, as well as prayer cards from Aid to the Church in Need and booklets titled Martyrs of Korea, hoping they’d be distributed. The booklets told of the growth of the Church in Korea—the only Catholic Church to have been established by lay believers. When French priests arrived in disguise in the 1830s, there was already a flock of thousands, despite frequent persecution. The message of Christ resonated in a culture that had heard since 450 B.C. that “those who follow the will of God know only love for all mankind, and seek by love to benefit others” (Mo-Tzu).

In Martyrs of Korea, Rev. Richard Rutt describes the ordeals faced by those incarcerated for their faith: “A cord was passed under the thighs, crossed over the front then held taut by men on either side who applied a sawing motion that cut through the flesh like a cheese-cutter, right to the bone.” Prisoners were given boiled millet twice a day. Those who could not buy or acquire more food were reduced to eating the straw and lice. Many recanted their faith. Others were faithful to the end, including Korea’s first priest, St. Andrew Kim, beheaded with eight strokes of a sword on the flat sands of the Han River in 1846. Pope John Paul II visited those same Han sands in 1984 to perform the first canonization outside Rome. Forty-seven Korean women were recognized as saints, as were 46 Korean men, seven French priests, and three French bishops.

And yet the persecution of the 1800s doesn’t compare to the annihilation that came under Kim Il Sung.

“Before [Korea] was divided,” explained Archbishop Cheong Jin Suk of Seoul, “there were 52 parishes in the North. They had some 50,000 believers compared to 100,000 in the South. [But] after 1949…no priest was left alive in the North.”

Condemnations from the international community have had an effect. Two Protestant churches were built in Pyongyang in the 1980s, as was the Catholic church in Jangchung, attended by our delegation. The presider, Mr. Han, was nervous as he spoke with us outside the building. Under the scrutiny of escorts, he said he had 800 believers in his parish, and all together there were 3,000 Catholics in the country. About five times a year, they’re visited by priests from abroad who are permitted to say Mass.

Two years earlier, Baroness Cox, Lord David Alton, and I visited Anju, about 40 miles north of Pyongyang. Lord Alton asked if there was a church in the town. The mayor, a formidable lady, surprised us by saying that every Sunday a few believers gathered to pray at the ruins of a Catholic church that had been bombed during the Korean War. This was certainly news.

But back in Pyongyang, as Baroness Cox and I emerged from a Protestant service, a government official boasted, “See, now you can tell the USA we have religious freedom in North Korea.”

The churches exist for show.

On our first full day we visited the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery. The 200 graves, each with a bronze bust of the deceased on a pedestal, supposedly commemorate those who had given their lives in the revolutionary struggle, particularly against the Japanese colonialists of the 1930s and 1940s. Not all died fighting. Pride of place at the top of the hill went to Kim Il Sung’s wife, mother of Kim Jong Il (the current Dear Leader). She died in 1949 in childbirth. A woman named Jang Kil Bu was honored with a martyr’s grave for having borne a dozen children to the revolution.

In truth, the cemetery honors loyalty to Kim Il Sung rather than service to country. Ruthlessly he had led a group of guerrillas in Manchuria, gaining recruits by kidnapping local ethnic Koreans and funding his fight by extorting the same people he claimed to be protecting. Persecuting his people to maintain power was Kim Il Sung’s style from the start.

After the cemetery we were taken to the Arch of Triumph (modeled on Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, only bigger) and the Tower of Juche Idea (modeled on the Washington Monument, only taller). Juche is the philosophical front of the Kim Dynasty. Translating approximately as “I control,” it holds that “man is the master of everything and decides everything.” Apparently, man triumphs even over nature, and by way of example we were shown the West Sea Barrage. It’s an impressive feat of engineering: The five-mile-long dam protects Pyongyang from flooding, has desalinated the Taedong River so it can be used for irrigation, and has increased the river’s cargo-carrying capacity by controlling the tides.

The dam was built by 30,000 soldiers of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Footage of the construction, completed under atrocious conditions, appeared like scenes from Belgian trenches in World War I: rain-spattered soldiers shoveling mud, shouting, laboring frantically through the night to defeat their enemy. The work cost many lives.

The KPA is the fifth largest army in the world, with more than a million men and women under arms and seven million in reserve. Its stated purpose—after defending the nation—is “to construct the development of the country.” It serves as a vast labor force for socialist projects: building roads, digging irrigation canals, and erecting monuments to the Leader.

General Guthrie’s own military credentials paved the way for an unprecedented meeting with KPA officers, including General Kim Sang lk, deputy minister of the People’s Armed Forces. By opening up about his own background, Guthrie hoped to prompt Kim to open in turn. Guthrie managed to engage Kim, stirring him to smile and laugh, but on tougher subjects moving him to cough and turn in his seat in calculated disdain. In the end, Kim said nothing about himself or anything of substance. Questions on human rights and humanitarian issues were ignored. On the nuclear question, we were given the stock response: “It is all down to the USA to drop their hostile policy.”

For light entertainment we watched 2,000 soldiers executing a tae kwon do demonstration at an Arirang festival. Their display was energetic and aggressive; bayoneted rifles were lunged and twisted, choreographed perfectly. The grand scale recurred at the International Friendship Exhibition, a display of 220,000 gifts from around the world to the Great Leader and the current Dear Leader. The message for the busloads of citizens is of global tribute paid to their president. One room set up as a shrine to Kim Il Sung houses presents that have arrived since his death in 1994.

It is odd for a government to collect gifts for a dead man and to be led by a son whom nobody sees, but the political hierarchy in North Korea resembles that of a mafia family more than any other structure. The Parliament was empty when we visited, as deputies use it only two days per year to rubber-stamp decrees made elsewhere. These officials are no more elected than the two tiny opposition parties are genuine parties. Decisions are dictated by Kim Jong Il and the small core of generals that holds him in place for their mutual advantage.

The glue that binds the system together functions on two levels. On the surface runs a tightly fabricated propaganda narrative; beneath, there lurks brutality. Three mass deceptions are promulgated constantly, ubiquitously, and at the highest level to form the regime’s cover story. These three are Kim as liberator, Kim as defender, and Kim as provider.

To take each one in turn, on the Cox-Alton visit, we met with the head of state, Kim Yong Nam. He spoke uninterrupted for 40 minutes on a warped version of Korean history, claiming that Kim Il Sung liberated Korea in 1945 from Japanese imperialists. He neglected to say that Kim Il Sung never led more than 300 men in his guerrilla fight; that Kim fought in Manchuria, not Korea; and that in 1941, when the Japanese military machine became too voracious, Kim withdrew to the USSR and sat out the rest of the war there. Also omitted from the fable was the American effort in the Pacific and the sacrifice of the Allies and Chinese across Asia. No connection is made between Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrender—it was all down to Kim Il Sung and his rifle. The story goes that, without Kim, there would be no Korea. He is the father of the nation.

The second lie was served to Guthrie by the vice-foreign minister and was reiterated during an hour’s tour of the Fatherland War Victory Museum, where it’s absurdly alleged that the United States started the Korean War. The same accusation is raised incessantly by the North Korean media, alongside the claim that Kim Il Sung led the defense and won the war. In reality, for months Kim had been begging Stalin to support him in an invasion of South Korea. Initially Uncle Joe desisted, but once Russia had developed a nuclear bomb Stalin gave Kim the green light.

After a strong start for the communists, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur implemented one of the most outstanding military operations of the last century—an amphibious landing off Seoul that turned the course of the war. Naturally this detail is ignored by the North. A United Nations coalition liberated South Korea. Kim Il Sung was stripped of his command by Chinese Marshal Peng Dehuai. Peng poured hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers onto the peninsula to halt the UN advance, and more Chinese died in the war than the combined deaths of the 17 other combatant nations. But while Pyongyang’s war museum has dozens of photos of Kim, there are only two of Peng, and little mention of the Chinese soldiers. Furthermore, the North claims victory when it actually lost territory. Despite all this, the government never ceases to extol “the brilliant iron-willed ever-victorious commander General Kim Il Sung,” defending his people from unrelenting American aggression.

In the third lie, Kim (as provider) is praised for engineering a socialist paradise. For decades children at primary schools have started their day by lining up before a picture of Kim Il Sung and saluting it with outstretched arms, saying, “Great Leader, Grandpa, we are so lucky to have you who gives such good meals to ones so low as we,” striking their hearts as they speak. Despite a famine that killed more than a million people in the 1990s, the fantasy has barely changed. For Kim Jong Il’s 2003 New Year’s address, he wrote, “Our Leader, our ideology, our army, and our political system are the best in the world.” The facts speak otherwise: The GDP of North Korea in 2004 was $30 billion. South Korea’s was $930 billion.

Neither does its political system value the unborn. North Korea forcibly aborts babies of those deemed “bad elements.” One defector told me that she saw newborn babies suffocated with wet towels because their mothers—repatriated after a brief escape to China—had met with South Korean Christians while there.

“Human rights in North Korea cannot easily be measured by a Western yardstick,” intoned Kim’s vice-foreign minister in a meeting with Guthrie. The first human right, he said, is national sovereignty, without which life has no meaning. “So our government provides the people with the rights of eating, housing, clothing, medical care, education. These are important rights. Therefore the state provides the right to life and the people’s right to exist.”

“I am shocked when you say human rights is about the right to exist,” Guthrie countered. “It is about much more than that. It is about dignity. It is about fairness. It is about freedom of choice.” If the minister had his own thoughts, flanked by attentive comrades, his job was to give the unbending party line.

But truth matters. If historical facts are denied, then higher truths will not be reached. Rev. James Schall argues, “Revelation has long recognized that its most dangerous opponent is the city closed in on itself, using the coercive powers of the state to define reality.”

It is vitally significant that the absurdities that are promulgated every day in every corner of North Korea go largely unchallenged. One night I found a chance to chat with some men in their 20s. They were cheerful and friendly, but when I offered a criticism of North Korea, their demeanor changed dramatically. Smiles vanished and the men turned away in silence and fear. The foundation supporting the superstructure of propaganda fantasies is the brutal reality of the gulag.

Over the decades, hundreds of thousands of people have been worked literally to death in the North Korean prison system. Living in conditions beyond description, often prisoners lose their hair or their teeth. Others turn black with sores or suffer collapsed spines.

But what was hidden is coming to light. Last year President Bush met with Kang Cheol Hwan, an escapee from North Korea who had spent years in the gulag as a child prisoner. The president was right to identify North Korea as part of an axis of evil in his 2002 State of the Union address. Defectors—including a former prison guard—told me that if reports of the president’s speech ever filtered through to the prisoners they would be “very, very delighted.” These men, women, and children know they are experiencing evil, they want the world to recognize it, too. Professor John Rawls theorized that the test of any political policy was how it would affect the worst off. By this test, President Bush’s words were invaluable.

The gulag is the cornerstone of totalitarianism. Laid down by Kim Il Sung from the beginning, North Korea has depended upon it ever since as an economic engine and for maintaining social order. Pope Benedict XVI said totalitarianism is the attempt to make absolute what is relative. In North Korea this has been achieved to a degree previously unknown in history. This has come about in four distinct ways.

First is the elimination of internal variance. Whoever is non-conformist or different must be purged. Hence, Kim began by killing the clergy and the non-communists and then spent 20 years killing off the communists in other factions. Finally, he purged his own comrades until he was left with only his personally crafted supporters.

Second, the outside world is subdued. Consider the claim that the world bows down in voluntary homage to Kim. Hence, “Songs of unstinting veneration and trust are ringing out in all countries where revolution [is] making people…call comrade Kim Il Sung ‘the greatest…with whom no other leader of any other country can compare.'”

Of course, the flip side of this is North Korea’s need for adversaries. Karl Popper wrote, ‘All tyrannies justify their existence by saving the state (or the people) from its enemies—a tendency which must lead, whenever the old enemies have been successfully subdued, to the creation or invention of new ones.” Because geopolitics has not allowed otherwise, North Korea has been content to keep its original “enemies”: Japan and the United States. Until these are overcome, the slightest internal dissent is counted as treason.

Third, totalitarianism supresses the transcendent. It must be total, so it cannot accept that anything exists beyond its reach, it denies that there are boundaries it cannot cross. As such it has no regard for truth, as we have already seen. Force-fed these lies daily, it becomes increasingly difficult for the people to recognize truth.

Finally, totalitarianism inevitably deifies the leader. Unable to destroy the part of the human being that yearns for God, the tyrant tries to fill that space with himself. Propaganda paints Kim Il Sung as a demi-god: “His brilliant exploits, outnumbering even the glittering stars of night, look like boundless forests, each towering golden into the sky and emitting rays like fire, telling its own epic.” The North Korean calendar is dated from the birth of Kim Il Sung, not the birth of Christ. Hence 2006 is Juche Year 94. And although he died in 1994, the revised constitution later enshrined Kim Il Sung as North Korea’s “eternal President.”

His son is reaching for a similar mantle. Descriptions claim that “Kim Jong Il has a healing love of which he alone is capable—accepting the suffering pains of the people as his own,” and that “his love is indeed infinite and eternal.” There are more than 30,000 monuments to the Leaders, and everything bears their name. And so, 20 million people are living not in the image of God but of two limited mortals.

Such a system cannot abide Christianity. It imitates it—Ten Principles instead of Ten Commandments, for example—as it tries to destroy the original. At the Korean War Museum, the first exhibit includes photographs of crucifixes, hymnbooks, and a monastery captioned “den of espionage.” A sketch shows a knife-wielding priest seeking to kill an innocent Korean. The commentary condemns American preachers for trying to enforce a system of slavery and subjugation. This is what we didn’t see from the front pew of the Jangchung show church.

Can change come to North Korea? Kim Jong Il was awed by Shanghai when he visited and longs to emulate China’s change. For a decade North Korea has experimented with economic liberalization by opening three Special Economic Zones (SEZs). These are supposedly centers for free-market enterprise where tax-exempt foreign investment is welcome. The most recent SEZ was established in Kaesong. There’s no language barrier for South Korean investors, and labor comes cheap with 3,000 workers employed—so far—at under $70 a month. But two earlier SEZs on the Chinese and Russian borders have already flopped. North Korea wants foreign money but it wants to keep “capitalist mosquitoes” out. By that they mean any notion of freedom.

Foreign powers are consumed by the nuclear question. But focusing solely on this problem has meant years of stalemate—or worse, has allowed North Korea to continue to develop nuclear weapons. There are other options. Senior U.S. lawmakers like Senator Sam Brownback recognize the value as well as the moral imperative of emphasizing issues of human dignity, hence the North Korea Freedom Act. Could this be a signpost to a still more excellent way?

World Youth Day has been held in North and South America, Europe, and will be held next in Australia. Perhaps Asia’s turn is near. South Korea has a track record of hosting major multi-national events: the Olympic Games in 1988 and the soccer World Cup with Tokyo in 2002. Recalling what Pope John Paul II achieved in Russia by visiting Poland, perhaps a spirit of change could blow across the Korean peninsula if the 2011 World Youth Day were held in Seoul. South Korean society is deeply Christianized—with a faithful archbishop.

The year 2011 in North Korea will be Juche Year 99. The strain of preparing for the celebrations of the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth will occupy the entire nation. But the crucifix is a powerful sign that can speak to people where political theories fail. North Koreans understand suffering as well as contradiction. Kim lives in luxury; Christ died for us. Kim condemns; Christ forgives. Kim claims glory, but he cannot compare with a man who died 2,000 years ago and yet is loved by youths of every nation. Christ, truly present in the Eucharist, liberates man from sin and death. He can liberate from other tyrannies, too.


  • James Mawdsley

    James Mawdsley served as secretariat to the British-North Korean Parliamentary Group for 2003-2004. He is author of The Heart Must Break: the Fight for Truth and Democracy in Burma (Century, 2002). The delegation visited North Korea from September 24 to October 1, 2005. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and not necessarily those of the delegation.

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