Earlier today, Choe Sang-Hun, the Korean correspondent for the New York Times wrote an article on a Christian school being run in North Korea, which is an atheist country. This particular article caught my eye for because I find the ubiquity of Christianity across the globe a particularly interesting cultural phenomenon. Because Christianity is spread through proselytizing and has a history of forced conversion (as recently as the 1940s), it has become the largest religion in the world, followed by Islam and Hinduism. Christianity boasts a total of 2.1 billion members across all denominations, making up 33% of the world’s population. Islam includes 20.1% of the world’s population, and Hinduism trails behind at 13.3%.
In general, East Asia (China, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea) is an atheist area of the world. Historically, this region is home to Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, Confucianism, and more, with Christianity first making an appearance in the 1600s in China.
The school boasts about 90 workers and 500 students. This Christian school is interesting because it teaches advanced subjects to the children of rich North Korean officials, and its American teachers are not allowed to preach. This is interesting because of the proselytizing nature of Christianity. The North Korean government has arrested two of the American teachers for “hostile behavior,” which could have been spying or proselytizing. According to the article, at some point one of the Christian professors tried to give a student a Bible; this got them deported.
The school could serve any number of functions for the North Korean government. The author mentions that the North Korean government can use Americans working at the school as bargaining chips with the increasingly aggressive U.S. government. Critics of the school say that it has helped the established North Korean government through training students to become part of the regime or giving information to the North Korean government. A journalist that used to work for the university wrote a book that discussed the compromises the school made with the North Korean government by giving them information.
This school seems to be somewhat both at-odds and compliant with the North Korean government. While it makes compromises, volunteers seem to have a habit of proselytizing (which may be an artifact of having multiple former missionaries on staff) and the North Korean government has arrested and/or deported volunteers from the school. The school aims to reinforce student loyalty to North Korea by requiring students to take a Saturday class on the state ideology of self-reliance.
An interesting but somewhat understated point in the article was the mention of the experiences of the students when meeting the volunteers. Because North Korea uses propaganda to demonize the United States, the students got nightmares when they first met the teachers. As a reader, I would have been interested to see a story discussing the acclimation of these students to their teachers and of the teachers to North Korea.