Those short visits are what Krahun calls “vision trips,” offering an opportunity to “experience traditional culture, explore economic opportunities, [and] enjoy the pristine nature,” in addition to a chance to “bless the land and its people.”
One American minister in Seoul warns that as many as 70 percent of the supposedly underground North Korean Christians are actually government informants, looking to entrap adherents and those who help them. Others play down the risks. Ben Torrey, the director of the Fourth River Project, a YWAM-affiliated group helping to “prepare men and women for presenting the gospel to North Koreans whose minds and hearts have atrophied in the darkness of the Communist rule,” puts out the following online call:
We would like to encourage you to actually take a trip to North Korea and pray in the land. You can do it! That is, if you have a non-South Korean passport. Krahun Tours is a tour company based in the Rajin-Sonbong region of North Korea that wants to encourage Believers to come in, see and experience North Korea first hand and pray for the nation. It is perfectly safe. Really. You don't need to worry about getting into trouble. Check out their website at krahun.com/visit-dprk.
“As long as participants keep a level head and use common sense, there should be no trouble,” Torrey, a fourth-generation evangelist, wrote in an email. He described a gentlemen’s agreement of sorts between Krahun and North Korean officials.
“The authorities know that [Chris Kim’s] supporters are Christians and want to come pray for the nation,” Torrey wrote. “They are comfortable with them doing that as long as they do not: a) disparage the NK leadership; b) do not try to evangelize NKs or get them involved in the group's religious activities.”
Many of those who go back and forth frequently maintain two sets of electronics—one for use inside North Korea and one for China and elsewhere. Bae was found out, Torrey explained, when the authorities found an incriminating hard drive he had mistakenly left in his luggage.
“I suggest cleaning any laptops, iPads, smartphones, and such devices that you might have of any material (email, files, web search histories, phone directories, etc.) that could be viewed as antagonistic, an expose, or proselytizing, etc.,” he warned.
Although Torrey says he never felt in any personal danger while inside North Korea, he and his team were “constantly aware of abruptly changing rules.”
In addition to its tourism arm, Krahun also maintains what they describe as “ventures in … wholesale rice and detergent sales, and production of detergent, carpet, and ‘other handmade items’ for export.” The company’s financial records are not publicly available, as Krahun is not registered as a U.S. company or charity, thus it is impossible to know if it is self-supporting or relies on donations and church support.
At least five Americans have been arrested and imprisoned by North Korean authorities in recent years; according to the AP, at least three of those have been devout Christians. One American missionary, who also did not want to be identified because he still travels to North Korea, says he is prepared to die for his calling.
Any Christian hoping to spend extended periods of time in North Korea must come up with an officially acceptable reason for being there. In this instance, the missionary entered first with a business group then set out to establish his own. He and his organization have invested an amount he estimated at “more than several million” dollars in various North Korean ventures, including a number of factories. (The money comes primarily from donations from Korean-American Presbyterian congregations.)
He explained that he is usually supervised by the same North Korean minders when he visits the country. He claims they are fully aware of his religious beliefs, even going so far as to ask him to offer the occasional prayer at mealtime.
The missionary’s long-standing relationships still do not guarantee his safety, and he follows certain self-imposed rules. Though he has been asked, he refuses to assist North Koreans looking to escape the country; if he or any of his group were caught doing so, it would mean, at best, immediate expulsion.
Regardless, he knew Kenneth Bae, and realizes his fate could one day be his own.
Chantal Sobkowicz, a 64-year-old “mind coach,” was thrown out in 1991 after being caught handing out Bibles by North Korean security. Working in Pyongyang as a translator for the North Korean government’s printing house, Sobkowicz would leave copies of the New Testament all over the city, stashed in holes, placed under pavement stones, hidden in trees or sewers. Sometimes, she would buy a bag of food at the foreigners’ “dollar store” and leave the bag behind with a Bible inside. It was while she was translating Kim Il-sung’s autobiography that Sobkowicz was caught.
“I think I had just finished the third or fourth volume, when some people spying on me caught me trying to hand out New Testaments in Korean,” she said. “They locked me up and interrogated me in a shack by the river, at night.”
Sobkowicz was placed under house arrest, along with her two children, ages 6 and 7, whom she had brought to live in Pyongyang with her. After three days, more than 20-armed soldiers took Sobkowicz and her children to the airport. They were put on a flight back to France.
“The worst part was abandoning the Koreans,” Sobkowicz said. “I really loved the people there. They just meant so much more to me than my life back in France.”
Today, Sobkowicz has a more nuanced perspective on her experience.
“When you act in the name of God, you always feel you are above the law,” she said “This is not so. If you go to an ungodly country, you will only demonstrate godliness by first abiding by its laws.”
“They were right in expelling me,” she went on. “Not only did I know that I was acting against their law, I took pride in it. It is only because I was a new convert, out of my wits, that I did it.”
Sobkowicz admits it is a strange change of heart for a missionary to have, but the intervening years appear to have tamped down her evangelical zeal. Every missionary sets out to change other people’s minds, but in the end, the time she spent in Pyongyang had more of an effect on Sobkowicz than it likely did on any of the North Koreans she had hoped to reach.
“It took about two years to get past it,” she said. “It was like they had gotten to me more than I had gotten to them.”
Update, Nov. 7, 2013: This article has been updated.