Considering Missionary Approaches to North Korea

In light of the recent arrest of an American citizen — another Southern Californian evangelical — in North Korea for missionary activities, the following proposal seemed appropriate for consideration:

Assuming that North Korea remains sovereign, Christian refugee organizations might do well to devise a ten or twenty year strategy for solving the refugee problem with the active cooperation of the Chinese atheists as opposed to promoting regime collapse in Pyongyang and operating outside of the law. It’s a question of goals: if you want media attention, throw Bibles (or yourself) across the Tumen River and get deported.  If you want to convince the Chinese government to honor the right against refoulement of North Korean refugees, dig in your heels for the long haul and help change Chinese society with the rest of us.

On the other hand, there is the status quo: go on the Daily Show to raise awareness and raise a new generation of recruits who treat the Tumen River like the antebellum Ohio and conceive of themselves as a new generation of abolitionists, and hold principled and creative protests in Seoul, while assuming that China remains the picture of implacable totalitarianism (or angry mob-rule nationalism), totally unable to mold its own debate about North Korean refugees.

North Korean refugee and gulag survivor Dong Hyuk-Shin watching Chinese rioters in Seoul during the Olympic Torch Parade, April 27, 2008. Image by Dan Bielefeld


  1. How do you want to change the Chinese society “with the rest of us”? Are you implying they should try to convert the Chinese into Christians? Yuck!

    1. JCM, glad to get your views here. I don’t mean at all to convert Chinese to Christianity (that’s between “the Chinese” and God, I suppose, not really any of my business so far as I know) but to become a part of the difficult process of China’s opening up and reform, which is to say in the case, the expanding if still limited discourse of individual rights. In other words, to get on the May Fourth bus which has a tendency to break down and go off of a cliff from time to time, but still manages to progress, or to appear to progress.

      To formulate things slightly differently:

      1. China is indisputably the key to changing the status of North Korean refugees
      2. There is an emerging discourse on individual legal rights in China
      3. The route to successful (and INCREMENTAL) change on the North Korean refugee front is to, in Chinese forums ranging from conferences to blogs, link the issue of North Korean refugees to that of rights.

      Then you have something approaching a feasible direction.

      The alternative is what we have presently: people sneaking around China to get a few refugees out here and there, bring in a film crew or writing a book about it once safely out, raising awareness in the US but raising Chinese hackles yet again, repeat cycle until someone gets dragged across, or walks across, the frozen Tumen River.

      Is there such a thing as a HAN CHINESE advocate for North Korean refugees in China? Why, to my knowledge, has this question never been broached? Given the immense linguistic and cultural expertise of Koreans from Seoul to Los Angeles, is there no one whose prime “job” it could be to raise awareness in Chinese spheres about the problem in a way that does not tacitly endorse the (technically illegal) aiding of North Korean refugees on the “underground railroad”? Or is that just a pipe dream?

      Or is a Chinese-language DailyNK website as far as we will get with this?

      Hope that clears up my thinking a bit.

  2. Adam. That Nomad link made my day. Are you not being duped: it reads like a parody and loved those “edgy multicultural photos”. This is the mission from god for me. Only in the US, but then again there is Donald Trump.

    1. Thanks KT. I am certainly not being duped: LiNK is a youth-driven and smartly-marketed movement which seems to be stemming from southern California; I’ve met a number of the “nomads” on their sojourns through the Puget Sound. Glad you liked it, man!

  3. Completed the Nomad PDF application form, been accepted and have just recieved ny Team KT NK christian survival kit containing:
    1. 1/100,000 silk map
    2. 2 pkts of M @ Ms
    3. Pre-departure dvd on counter-interrogation survival techniques – “Have you been saved yet’?
    4. Combined electronic English-Hangul dictionary, phrase book and bible.
    Have you been saved yet?
    Sorry, I don’t like kimchee!
    Whic way is the DMZ?
    5. 5Kgs of NK currency

    And in line with the edgy nature of this program, I will be para-sailing in with a live para-cam feed to CNN. Bit conflicted about the sound track though. Christian rap or old testament heavy metal.

  4. I agree that the best way to help the North Korean refugees is to work with China. China is working with North Korea currently because China is getting something out of the deal. If westerners (who generally have more resources than North Korea) can replace North Korea as the provider for China’s desired products then China may be more inclined to stop working with North Korea against the refugees.

  5. In terms of “ordinary” people seeking to help with the issue of refugees, why bring up the concept of religion at all? I guess being a bible-thumper and using that as your basis for refugee saving could bring media attention to the issue, but I think that religion is just as dividing as the DMZ. Educate the regular people in Westernized countries, like the United States, about the humanitarian issues at hand in the DPRK (because indeed we do have more resources and action-ability). Work with the Chinese government to devise a strategy for the refugees that is beneficial for all parties involved. And then – actually follow through with that strategy; but – approach it from a non-religious standpoint. It will give people less to argue about.

  6. I agree that to create any change in North Korea we should be working with China. But I also think that working with China is only one piece, albeit a key piece, of the puzzle. Isn’t media spotlight in America regarding North Korea good? It reminds Americans that that crazy North Korea still exists. It opens up the door for discussion and contemplation of the current circumstances. And if America ever wants to take a part in helping North Koreans, the first thing is getting more public spotlight on the issue. So, even though most of the things Americans/Westerners do along the Chinese-North Korean border are pretty stupid and for the most part don’t make any difference to the people there – they do make a difference to the public in America. Even a quick mention in the evening news about North Korea raises awareness. People sitting in front of their TVs might think, “oh, what’s this? North Korea sounds like a bad place” – these thoughts get peoples’ gears cranking about North Korea; it gets them more interested and maybe a little more aware of the situation. And I think that’s just as important, if not more important, then Americans going out there and trying to physically help North Korean refugees and try to change the totalitarian government in North Korea.
    I think you could use the analogy of trying to help out a friend in trouble. For example, if you have a friend that you’re worried about, say they spiraling out of control; there’s only so much you can do for them. At some point it’s out of your hands. At some point you just can’t do any more because it’s not you who is in trouble, but your friend. I think this can be applied to North Korea. Ok. We’ve got this “friend”, North Korea, that we want to help out. We see their people are totally oppressed and the situation isn’t looking too good, especially because North Korea is creating a pretty volatile atmosphere in eastern Asia. No one wants a cranky neighbor who threatens nukes anytime they get upset. I definitely sympathize with China and South Korea. How crummy for us would that be if Canada was like North Korea? I think since the US is so removed from the situation, we think anything we try to do to help will be welcomed with open arms. But the US won’t feel the after effects quite as severely as China and South Korea. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that really the most we can do is be aware of the situation and try not to get too nosy.
    So, I think it’s good that the Americans are becoming more aware of the situation in North Korea. And I do think if we want to see real change in North Korea we, the US government, have to work with China and South Korea. They are the countries that are directly affected by North Korea and they are the ones that need to be taking the steps to bring about change in North Korea. We can support China & South Korea, and encourage them and help them out if they ask (say military wise), but I don’t think we should be shoving our desires on them. At some point we’re going to have step back and let things play their course.

  7. I think that the focus on doing extreme actions that result getting deported or in North Korean custody is not the best option. Although it gets more press towards the issue of refugees, it seems as though it causes more tension and political strain between countries. Every time an American citizen is in North Korea, it takes an influential political figure to negotiate their return. I am curious how many people actually become more interested in the refugee issue or thinking about North Korea when there is an incident.
    It seems as though China’s stance on North Korean refugees is one of the biggest factors that can influence some change. The way that China is dealing with North Korea and the decision to send refugees back is the place to start. The methods that South Korea has been using to inform North Koreans of world events and democracy through pamphlets attached to balloons and sending them into North Korea seem to be effective, especially when Mike Kim talks about it on The Daily Show. I think the best thing that Westerners can do to also make an impact is to get people informed. It’s still very surprising how many people do not know about this issue, and if enough people become involved, pressure can be put on representatives in Congress to make a political step.

  8. I agree with the above comments, in that the attention grabbing efforts made by individuals are the wrong way to go about aiding the North Korean refugees. By taking these measures they are just reinforcing the stereotypes that “outsiders” have been given in both China as well as North Korea. In order to strengthen their cause, the “liberators” should work within the systems instead.
    However, I also believe that we should not step in as a government, or national entity to “force” changes upon China, or North Korea. As shown in past struggles in the region, outside interference generally leads to a strengthening of bonds- against the domineering foreigners.
    I think that the best way to work around these problems is to find more people within China who support these same ideals and work harder at supporting the internal assets rather than placing our own foreign ones.

  9. I believe that we are putting to much attention to North Korea, let it be, nobody is perfect. North Korea is not the only nation in the world that have problems, if we considered what we(western countries and Europe) are going thru right now, who are we(us) to said that this country is doing good or bad. Many conflicts are going on right now specially in North Africa; North Korea even with its ups and downs still going forward since after 1953 cease fire, the country must be doing something right after all. Lets said, if we get ready of the Kim dinasty right now, is it going to be better for NK or is it going to be worse? Do we know that, no we do not?

    1. Good question, Angel. There is certainly a desire for the unknown (e.g., the post-Kim era) but much less certainty about what that would look like and who would pay for it, social costs, etc.

  10. I am in agreement with the suggestion that the best approach to assisting the NK refugees is to bring awareness to the western world, and through the involvement of the Han Chinese on the NK refugee issues along with their own advocacy for human rights with CCP. However, I am afraid that NK refugees are doomed in their struggle for economic freedom if the only hope that we have is to rely on Chinese intervention. These are the reasons:

    1. Economic reform in China does not necessarily translate into political reform. Chinese dissidents are facing repression in their own struggle for freedom of speech, individual rights and a better future. The latest crackdown on the Chinese activists is a case in point. Ai Wei-wei, China’s best-known artist and dissident, was detained at Beijing airport on April 3rd. Since then, his whereabouts is not known. What’s worse, some of China’s top defense lawyers, along with many advocates for villagers’ rights, have also vanished. It seems that the slowly emerging discourse in recent years with respect to individual rights and due process are now being challenged. Since February of this year, activists (dissidents) have been arrested by armed police under arbitrary detention rules and have then disappeared. The government states, “These troublemakers are inflicting chaos in state security, no law can protect them.” (the Economist reports)

    2. As we have learned from the Chinese History class: Transfer of power is a delicate matter. In 2013, China will have a new leader. Xi Jinping, will be assuming control of China. Thus far, the West knows little about his policy preferences. However, the current crackdown and round up of dissidents, along with the recent disappearance of the Confucius statue near Tiananmen Square (The NY Times) confirms that China is still very much a Communist state. It also reminds us that, likewise, North Korea is a Communist state.

    3. Furthermore, China has recently raised its central bank reserve ratio to 20.5 percent in an attempt to curb its fast growing economy and control inflation. China is facing high prices in food and housing. The consumer price index in March indicates that food prices have risen 5.4 percent, and the price of a typical home in Chengdu costs about 25 times the average annual income of residents (The NY Times). Among other measures, the government has raised minimum wages in the hope of reducing the big income gap between the rich and the poor, and the urban and the rural. However, higher wages drive up the cost of production, leading to higher prices which endanger China’s status as the low-cost workshop for the world. In short, inflation is a big problem to the CCP. It can potentially pose a threat to Chinese social stability. Therefore, China is not ready, in the near future, to tackle the NK refugee issue.

    4. According to the source (DPRK Economic Watch), Chinese corporations have acquired 50 year exclusive development rights to import about 120 tons of iron ore each year from the North Korean Musan Iron Mine, which is known to be the largest outdoor iron mine in Asia. Without a doubt, for CCP to tackle the NK refugee issue with Kim Jung Il would certainly jeopardize the joint-venture business for China.

    5. I would also like to emphasize that I see the LINK organization involved in the smuggling of NK refugees to be a precarious network, not to mention the illegitimacy in how they conduct business. I do not consider it to be a missionary work since monetary payment is required by the NK refugees.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Alan! Interesting and important final point you make in particular — the refugees certainly have to pay to get out of the country and there are major financial moves being made by various family members to make all of that happen. Many of the refugees are actually relatively better off than the poorest North Koreans.

  11. Due to the relationship between China and N. Korea it is obvious that the best way to deal with N. Korea is through (the generally more rational) Chinese government. However, even if these people were in it for the “long haul” I find it very hard to believe that N. Korea would make any drastic changes in there policies.

  12. While the use of diplomacy with China and/or Korea for the people may be the best plan in the long haul, it also may be for naught. This kind of discussion tends to argue the greater good is attainable at some point if we just work hard enough but that isn’t always the case. Perhaps the death of the present Kim will bring about a shift in ideology in NK to a better future for the people, I doubt it but anything can happen. Now, how the missionaries are handling things is idiotic and shortsighted, I agree there. But to sympathize and remember how the people are being treated is legitimate and it is difficult to sit by with the knowledge of what is happening to the people in NK and say, “It will get better if we just talk it out and hope that China will listen to a Western nation over a known ally for hundreds of years.” That isn’t totally accurate but the point is how do we know anything for the future besides the death of NK civilians. Human integrity, personally, trumps political manners.

  13. Certainly, speaking as a Wiccan in a predominantly Christan (secular) country, it is counterintuitive to try to sneak into North Korea and think you’ll change anything. Missionaries, or anyone for that matter, sneaking into North Korea is just a general problem for the people involved, the Koreans, and the Chinese. While there is nothing wrong with Christan missionaries or evangelicals wanting to help out North Korean refugees, there is something wrong when they break the laws. Missionaries have a purpose, and it’s not to stir up dissent and cause problems that affect political and government offices.

    It seems to me that without Chinese help and without acknowledging that Chinese culture does play a huge foundational role in understanding Korean culture, there is not much that can be done here. China has harsh rules for a reason, part of their legalistic tradition, and North Korea has the same legalistic society. While I’m not saying that China should be sending these refugees back, knowing what happens to some of them, it is the legal recourse given their political system. The work that groups do to help refugees is admirable, but there are problems in working like this, especially when these groups go against the one country in East Asia that could potentially help them.

  14. I agree that educating the western world would be the best approach to helping out North Korea. But at the same time it scares me. With the whole NK situation being in the dark for most of the western world, what’s going to happen when more people find out? I’m speaking more about those crazy people out there. There are those Christians that want to go about these situation in the wrong way. They would rather convert then help out in more productive ways. If they just go in there Bibles a’ blazing they’re just going to get caught and be used as leverage for North Korea. That’s not going to be helping out anyone. If anything I feel like it hurts the situation more than anything.

  15. Going off of Angel’s comment, the problem of how to handle refugees can not be viewed as a problem in and of itself. It seems to be deeply intertwined with a much bigger creature: North Korea. I propose that it is hard to present a solution to the refugees issue when it is only the branches to the tree. One solution demands another to be complete. It is almost as if the presentation of this dilemma demands the observer to step back and see the bigger picture. I think the Chinese government has put up with this issue in the way it has because there is more at stake then the refugees; E.G. the precarious relationship that China and NK have. Though China does play the role of ‘The Mother of North Korea’, it still has valuable investments in North Korea. I think a somewhat passive role should be taken in addressing this regfugee situation and more energy should be invested in the larger problem, the cause of the refugee problem.

  16. For me, the issue is if you are going to go there in the first place go there to HELP PEOPLE, not try to convert them. American churches have this tendency to want help and they way they help is converting. Well, not everyone wants to be christian/mormon/catholic ect…. It is great if they are there to address the issue of refugees and work with governments, but don’t carry your bible, you need to carry a language dictionary.

  17. @Monicza O. Yes, this christianity conversion tendency in the US is most pronounced. HK airport always seems to contain a large contingents of mormons and christian others embarking for all points north, and especially Fujian for some reason. Callow youth either talking too loudly or updating their folks back home via fb. Some sort of Manifest Destiny thing.

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