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Pebbles in their Mouths By: Faith J. H. McDonnell
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, August 06, 2009

Victims of North Korea’s brutal regime once died in anonymity. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) deliberately isolated itself from the rest of world. But now news of Kim Jong Il’s prison nation escapes almost as frequently as North Koreans attempt to escape to “better” conditions in China. Escapees and refugees tell of millions of deaths from famine, imprisonment of another million in the country’s labor/death camps, 21st century gas chambers, and various other DPRK human rights atrocities. The Washington Post recently released such grim reports, but nothing prepares us for the execution of a 33 year-old mother of three for distributing the Bible. More shocking, her death was all but ignored by churches in America.


An Associated Press report July 25, 2009 said that in June 2009, Ri Hyon Ok, a North Korean Christian, was publicly executed in the northwestern city of Ryongchon, near the Chinese border. She was distributing the Bible, forbidden in North Korea. She was also accused of spying for South Korea and the United States, probably for having contact with South Korean, Chinese, or American Christians. According to the Investigative Commission on Crimes Against Humanity, on the day after Ri’s execution, her parents, husband, and three small children were sent to a political prison camp near the city of Hoeryong. The North Korean government punishes three generations of the family of one who has transgressed because of the late Kim Il Sung’s law that the seed of enemies of the state “must be eliminated through three generations.” Considering the brutality of these camps, it might be argued that Ri’s fate was the lesser of two evils.


North Korea’s constitution “guarantees” freedom of religion. But Kim Jong Il and father Kim Il Sung have persecuted, imprisoned, and killed Christians in an attempt to wipe out Christianity. North Koreans must follow Juche, the Kim Il Sung-created state religion. Juche’s “three fundamental principles” are that North Korea is politically independent, economically self-sustaining, and militarily able in its national defense. Juche also includes compulsory worship of the warped, egomaniacal “Great Leader” (the late Kim Il Sung) and “Dear Leader” (Kim Jong Il). As with all warped and egomaniacal leaders, both past and present, the cult needs deception to sustain itself. This is why North Korea represses the truth of the Bible.


In addition to lying to its own people, the North Korean regime has little difficulty deceiving some official western visitors. Many American church leaders are eager to criticize the “demonization” of North Korea by the West rather than acknowledge the regime’s brutal treatment of its own people. (They must enjoy the present administration’s apology tour.) Such church officials have waxed eloquent over visits to North Korean churches where they “worshiped in freedom” with Korean brothers and sisters (otherwise known as DPRK “minders”). Some people don’t recognize a Potemkin village when they’re in one.


During the week in which the execution of Ri Hyon Ok and the imprisonment of her husband, parents, and three little children in prison camp was reported, The Episcopal Church mourned the death of one of its saints, newsman Walter Cronkite. Episcopal Life preened over his funeral at St. Bartholomew’s, Park Avenue. Church’s media noted such funeral attendees as Andy Rooney, Barbara Walters, Charles Gibson, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Brian Williams and others.

A few blocks away, United Methodists were “rethinking church” through a $20 million dollar advertising campaign.  Using Time Square’s “Super Screen,” the full motion 26 by 20 foot screen on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, a press release one advertisement that asks, “What if church considered ecology part of theology?” Is it re-thinking church to ask “What if church was a place where people were executed for their faith?”


There was no mention of Ri Hyon Ok’s death by the National Council of Churches USA (NCC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC). The NCC  news included such laudable actions as the appointment a top staffer as chair of the Save Darfur Coalition and support for rape victims in Congo. Top priorities also included a candlelight vigil at Washington, DC’s Lafayette Park to “speak out against mountaintop mining.” And a call for “justice” for the Cuban Five, bemoaned the “languishing in a Miami jail since 1998” of Cuban agents charged with espionage and conspiracy to commit murder in the United States. The World Council of Churches’ recently issued a statement on North Korea. They declare that the regime’s nuclear test highlights the “need to abolish all nuclear weapons.” In an open letter in 2008, the WCC scolded South Korea’s new president Lee Myung Bak for not continuing the “sunshine” appeasement policies of his predecessors towards North Korea.


The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is sponsoring a “protest fast” with focus on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is only mentioned as a place where famine occurs and as an option for donating funds for the hungry. A 17-page study guide condemns unfair land ownership, use and the need for equal distribution of land. It urges readers to think about the ways in which they and “their country” have “albeit unintentionally” played a part in using farm land in Korea for industrial development. But the guide never mentions that the North Korean regime caused the famine-related deaths of some three million North Koreans and still uses food as an instrument of economic and political control. Nor does it mention that North Korea’s privileged Party members have never lacked food. Ironically, as the PCUSA prepared for its August fast, and North Koreans suffered from hunger, Kim Jong Il opened a new fast-food restaurant in Pyongyang. In March, “Kim Jong Il – a noted gourmand – had ordered the opening of the country’s first Italian restaurant,” with chefs trained in Italy and food made with imported ingredients.


We have come to expect this response to North Korea’s human rights violations against its own people from mainline liberal church leaders. But what about the evangelical church world? In 2002, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) issued its “Second Statement of Conscience Concerning Worldwide Religious Persecution with Special Examination of Sudan and North Korea.” The statement declared, “Horrible as may be the torments now suffered by vulnerable believers throughout the world, those suffered by faith communities of Sudan and North Korea may be more brutal, more systematic, more deliberate, more implacable and more purely genocidal than those taking place anywhere in the world today.”


In 2007, the NAE was more focused on other human rights “violations” when they released a 20-page “Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror.” This document could have denounced torture by Islamist movements and thug regimes around the world, including North Korea, as well as being the vehicle that it was for pacifist evangelicals to plead their case. But the drafters state, “The immediate occasion for this declaration is the intense debate that has occurred in our country since 2004 over the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of those who are detained by our nation and other nations in the ‘war on terror.’” The declaration never indicates if it considers such “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” as the “Meow Mix” song and the dreaded caterpillar treatment as torture. One thing is sure, though. These actions pale by comparison with the torture of the NAE’s fellow Christians in North Korean prison camps. But the declaration is only considers U.S. use of torture, in the war in which U.S. troops are fighting and dying.   


“Christian Justice in Difficult Times,” is the title of the NAE’s upcoming October 2009 forum for evangelical leaders on critical issues facing the nation and the Church. They have invited President Barack Obama to address the opening session, and the forum will include sessions on evangelism, financial challenges and the Church, marriage, poverty, sanctity of human life, creation care, immigration, and nuclear terrorism. Let’s hope they don’t miss the opportunity to pick up where they left off on speaking for North Korea’s persecuted and oppressed.


In June, when Ri Hyon Ok died, it is almost certain that before shooting her the executioners would have followed their common practice, stuffing her mouth with pebbles and placing a hood over her head. These additional indignities make sense in the DPRK system. The hood depersonalizes the one who is about to die, so that the hundreds of North Koreans forced to watch the execution do not think of her as a fellow human being. And the pebbles are to guarantee that prisoners cannot shout any invectives against the Dear Leader.


No one has placed pebbles in the mouths of American Christian church leaders. They are free to speak out in support of the oppressed and persecuted people of North Korea. But rather than denouncing the human rights violations of the North Korean regime, many church bodies and organizations seem to have other priorities.   

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).

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