This article was produced in collaboration with NK News—an independent source of news and analysis of North Korea.
For nearly two years, Kenneth Bae, an undercover missionary from Lynnwood, Wash., safely shuttled groups of Christians in and out of North Korea’s Rason Special Economic Zone. In November 2012, Bae’s crusade ended abruptly. The owner of Nations Tour, a China-based front company he formed as a cover to evangelize in the world’s last Stalinist state, Bae was arrested by North Korean agents as he passed through the Wonjong border crossing with a small group of European travelers. The 44-year-old Korean-American was charged with possession of “anti-DPRK literature,” convicted of encouraging foreigners to “perpetrate hostile acts to bring down [the] government,” and sentenced to 15 years hard labor.
It is relatively rare that North Korea arrests a foreign national, even rarer when one considers that a company like Nations Tour is hardly unique. The so-called “Business as Mission” movement, which instructs devout Christians to set up companies as vehicles for spiritual outreach, dates back to the 18th century but found new life at the beginning of the 21st. It’s a missionary model that, by definition, assumes a certain amount of risk for those setting out to reach the “unreached.” But the risks haven’t dissuaded the faithful from taking up the cause. Today, there is an extensive, well-financed network of for-profit missions, using shadowy front companies to evangelize in North Korea. Though precise numbers are impossible to pin down, missionary-businesspeople have set up a staggering breadth of enterprises, including tour agencies, bakeries, factories, farms, even schools and orphanages, all in the name of spreading the Good Word.
Christianity’s roots in what today is known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are deep. The Great Pyongyang Revival of 1907 was touched off by Western missionaries during an evening service on Jan. 14 of that year and planted thousands of churches across Korea. The movement lasted about four decades before the religion was effectively “disappeared” in 1948 by Kim Il-sung. (Kim—whose parents and grandparents were devout Christians and his uncle a minister—believed the faith would pose a threat to his regime.) Today, North Korea, a country widely regarded as the world’s most hostile toward organized religion, has a strong pull for a certain stripe of evangelical Christians, whose fervent efforts are focused, laser-like, on recapturing lost souls. And the 746-square-kilometer Rason Special Economic Zone—the same northeastern corner of North Korea that attracted Kenneth Bae—is ground zero for these modern apostles.
Generations of central planning and Soviet-style inefficiencies have left North Korea in dire need of food, fuel, and just about everything else. The nation’s largest trading partner is neighboring China, from whom it buys much and sells little. With no rational person likely to accept Pyongyang’s terms for foreign direct investment, Kim Jong-un’s regime has few options.
“The only people willing to do business in North Korea are ones who don’t really care if they make money or not, ones that have other reasons for being there,” says economist and investment strategist Patrick Chovanec, who has visited and analyzed North Korea extensively. “There’s just a certain level of cognitive dissonance there on both sides, which is not uncommon in North Korea.”
Foreigners visiting North Korea are permitted to possess Bibles, but North Koreans caught with them can expect to be jailed, tortured, or put to death. According to an American missionary who once traveled with Nations Tour and spoke on the condition of anonymity, Bae’s group did ferry Bibles into North Korea. In her description of the delicate dance that played out upon their arrival, she said their Bibles were counted by North Korean border guards on the way in and then again on the way out to make sure none had been distributed. A final inspection had the guards flipping through each copy to ensure no pages had been torn out and left behind.
Bae had briefed the 15-member group before leaving China on how to behave inside North Korea. There was to be no overt proselytizing, no discussion of politics, and the two or three pastors who were traveling with them were not to be addressed by their titles. In her recollection, the visitors tested the limits about as much as they could without getting expelled from the country—or worse yet, being forced to stay.
Once inside North Korea, visitors are accompanied by government minders—“tour guides,” euphemistically—at all times. On group hikes with their guides, the missionary said they sang Christian songs, but hummed key verses to avoid saying the word ‘God’ out loud.
“That was our way of worshipping and praising in our hearts, even if we couldn’t say it,” she said. She’s uncertain if their guides and other North Koreans understood the message behind the song’s words.
The North Korean authorities do have red lines. Different groups of Christians—under the constant supervision of their handlers—are kept in different areas of Rason to prevent any collaboration between them. (“We would like very much to meet on a Sunday, they don't want that,” says one longtime clandestine missionary to North Korea.) Preaching to North Korean children is strictly off-limits. And certain topics are simply forbidden.
“Talking about God directly, that would be like, asking for a death sentence,” said the missionary who traveled with Bae.
However, no one ever said talking about God in a language nobody else understands was out of bounds. Bae recounted one such instance in a sermon he delivered in 2009:
One night, I suggested that the team go to karaoke for foreigners to "worship," but there was a blackout so we had to go out and just sit at the beach. There were also around 30 North Koreans who came out because of the blackout. We just worshipped, singing songs about Jesus and playing the guitar like we were playing around. There was one team member from Ghana, so I asked him to pray for us in his language. He came to the front and started repeating, “God is great” for 10 minutes in his language. I was disconcerted but the North Koreans started following this. At the end of the worship, he said, “Amen" and then all of the North Koreans were surprised and his words spread out quickly.”
Having made at least 15 such trips into the country, Bae was seemingly unaware that anything was amiss. Like most things in North Korea, all was well until the day someone decided it wasn’t.
The young woman who traveled with Bae insists he had “no malicious intent” and that Bae’s very public prayers that “the walls” in North Korea would someday come down were not a thinly veiled plot to overthrow the government, but rather a figurative call for “their leadership [to] allow more freedom for their people to freely worship God if that’s what they want.” However, she did concede that “from the North Korean government perspective, I can see why they would say those things about him.”
Bae wasn’t acting alone. Although he had taken up his missionary work as an act of individual devotion, he was also, in some sense, an agent of a larger religious enterprise. In his specific case, it was a Hawaii-based ministry founded in 1960 called Youth With a Mission, or YWAM (pronounced “WHY-wham”), one of the largest mission groups in the world. Bae had been trained and sent on his mission by YWAM. The Christian organization has long been an advocate of the “business as mission” model, with its own School of Business and Entrepreneurship. Its strategic frontiers division—which covers much of Asia, in addition to parts of North Africa and the Middle East—exists “to bring the Kingdom of God to the least reached peoples by creating businesses that operate with biblical principles with the aim of bringing spiritual, social, and physical transformation in and through the business sphere.” The group’s founder, Loren Cunningham, has said that getting Bibles into North Korea is absolutely critical; he is certain the near 75-year absence of scripture in the Communist dictatorship will lead to the people’s moral collapse if the regime ever crumbles.
Krahun Co. is another leader in the race to “save” North Korea. It is a wholly foreign-owned tourism and trade company headquartered in Rason and run by Korean-American Chris Kim. With a branch office in Yanji, China, Krahun Co. planted its flag in North Korea by setting up a goat farm in 1999, immediately following a four-year famine that wiped out, by some estimates, as much as 16 percent of the North Korean population.
Despite the ongoing persecution of Christians in North Korea, Krahun Co. is surprisingly open about its motivation for doing business there. Last year, at a student missionary conference held in St. Louis, Mo., the organization explained its purpose this way:
Krahun Co. seeks to be a bridge between DPRKorea and the outside world to facilitate believers who have been called by the Father to be His representatives by serving its people through short visits or immigrating to DPRK to be their welcomed neighbors.
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