‘N. Korea Has Sincere Prayers’

Berlin, Germany - At 10 a.m. on a cloudy Sunday, four South Korean visitors, including pastor Lee Young-il, are escorted down the aisle of a church in which around 300 well-attired people have already taken their seats.

Lee looks around to satisfy his curiosity. There is nothing special. The rectangular hall has a crucifix, a piano, an organ, seven heaters, three crystal lights on the ceiling and a contribution pouch hung on a wooden pole.

The service began right after the four guests found seats near the altar. Minutes later, however, Lee suddenly recognizes something ``very’’ strange: There are no young people in the church.

At that moment, Lee is reminded that he is visiting a Sunday service in the capital of North Korea.

``It was Pongsu Church in Pyongyang on May 12 in 2002,'' Lee, 64, said during an interview with The Korea Times at his church in Berlin. ``I couldn't find any young people. Even the choir, composed of around 30 people, looked like they were in their 40s.''

Lee, then chairman of the Korean Evangelist Confederation in Germany, visited Pyongyang together with three other Koreans and five Germans _ all church officials _ at the invitation of the North’s Korean Christians Federation (KCF), which was allegedly established in November 1946.

``I asked why the attendees were not any younger and they told me it’s because boys and girls have many other things to enjoy such as football and music on weekends,’’ Lee said. ``As a Christian, the answer was very difficult to understand.’’

Their five-day journey, the first of its kind for South Korean Christians in Germany, was supposed to end on Saturday. But the four Koreans could watch the Sunday service as the communist regime accepted their request for staying in Pyongyang three days longer than the Germans, Lee said.

The Pyongyang regime might have wanted to let them know that North Korea, home to 22 million people, is also a normal country in which people have religious freedom. Lee quoted Kang Yong-sop, chairman of the KCF, as saying that North Korea has around 12,000 Christians, 30 pastors, two churches _ Pongsu and Chilgol in Pyongyang _ and more than 500 ``home churches’’ throughout the country.

When Lee and eight others made a pre-arranged visit to a house that North Koreans call a ``home church,'' in the Rakrang district of Pyongyang on a weekday, he could meet 10 people _ three men and seven women _ showing how they conduct their own religious service. Once again all of them were in their 40s or over, Lee said.

``A male missionary was presiding over the meeting and they sang a hymn to an accordion,’’ Lee said. ``From the missionary, I heard many people who can’t go to the churches get together at somebody’s home to offer a prayer like they do every Sunday. But I still felt like there had been something exaggerated.’’

To explain his feeling, Lee mentioned his encounters with Kwon Kyong-hui, a 12-year-old student, at the Mankyongdae Youth Palace in Pyongyang and Chang Kum-suk, a 18-year-old waitress at Potonggang Hotel in Pyongyang where he stayed eight days.

``I asked them whether they’ve heard of church and they said no,’’ Lee said. ``Only once did I meet a person who said he is aware of the practice. He was a 48-year-old barber in the hotel. That was the reality. Young people do not even know what a church is. And older people just remember it because they might have heard of it when they were young.’’

One day before his departure for Germany, Lee visited a museum in Sinchon, two hours drive from Pyongyang, where he could come closer to the reason why the ``cradle'' of Christianity on the Korean Peninsula, has been changed into a religious wasteland.

``The museum was built to show people how cruel American soldiers were during the Korean War,’’ Lee said. ``In a hall, we could see pictures of American missionaries like Rev. H. G. Appenzeller and H. G. Underwood (both came to Korea in 1885). A tour guide said all of them were American spies. To North Koreans, American missionaries are considered just as thugs, enemies and imperialists.’’

The northern part of the Korean Peninsula had more than 2,400 churches, including around 70 in Pyongyang, in 1945 when the country was liberated from Japan’s colonial rule, according to religion historians.

Before the 1950-53 Korean War, Lee said, the number of seminaries in the northern part of the peninsula was much larger than that of the southern part. ``Most of those who wanted to study theology had to go to the North,’’ he said. ``But now North Korea has only one seminary.’’

The 450-seat Pongsu Church, established in September 1988 at the Mankyongdae district in Pyongyang, has the seminary in which 12 students were allegedly taking part in a three-year course when he visited Pyongyang.

Despite such alarming religious situation in North Korea, Lee unexpectedly said he thinks the ``Christians’’ whom he met in Pyongyang ``believe'' in God because their prayer was ``so sincere.’’

``I can definitely say as a pastor that people can’t pretend to be pious,’’ he said. ``When we went to Chilgol Church on a weekday, we could meet a presbyter. I could feel her truthfulness through her prayer. She was crying to heaven for the reunification of the Peninsula. I got the same feeling in Pongsu Church too.’’

Chilgol Church, built in October 1992 at the Mankyongdae district, has around 150 seats, according to researchers on North Korean religion.

Lee acknowledged that the status of the late Kim Il-sung, founding father of North Korea, and his son Kim Jong-il, current leader of the isolated country, have both risen from a political figure to the level of a religious icon.

``I know North Koreans consider Kim as a kind of god,’’ Lee said. ``Given the fact that Christianity is monotheistic, I also had a question: How can those North Koreans accept Christianity, while revering Kim as a god? But you know what? Now I can understand their situation. They first had to adjust themselves to their society and, within that boundary, they are currently trying to get lessons from the Bible.’’

Lee said the content of prayer he heard in North Korea was very similar to those in South Korea. ``There was nothing praising Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il,'' Lee said. He added that no portraits of Kim were found inside the churches, including the ``home church.’’

``The Bible in the North was not that different either,'' Lee said. ``The two Koreas are using Bibles which originated from the same version which was translated by the Western missionaries before the division of the Peninsula (in 1945). As far as I know, the Bibles are basically same.''

He has two sets of the Bible from North Korea. The first volume, a bound book of the Old and New Testaments, was printed in April 1990, and the other volume in 1984, both by the Pyongyang General Print Factory. He also has a 400-page hymnbook from North Korea.

``Many people define North Korea as a land of no religion,’’ Lee said. ``But I think there is hope in North Korea because they have the Bible, hymnbooks, churches and missionaries. That’s enough for a good start.''

In September last year, the U.S. State Department said in its International Religious Freedom Report 2004 that genuine religious freedom does not exist in North Korea. The report quoted North Korean defectors as saying Christians were imprisoned and tortured for reading the Bible and talking about God.