Worshipping in Pyongyang

‘Do you believe in God?’ The minister asked. In fact, it was his first question, after the handshake.

‘Do you believe in God?’ He repeated. ‘In the DPRK you need to believe in God to worship in a church’.

I was a little taken aback, not so much because of such a question in the DPRK, but because this was the minister’s form of welcome. We had arrived only moments before, taken to the church for a worship service by our guides. Two women in traditional Korean dress smiled from the doorway, while the minister and an older man (who turned out to be his father), came down the stairs to welcome us before entering the church.

How did we end up in such a situation? This was my second visit to the DPRK (my partner’s first). We had opted for a tour with only the two of us. This would – we hoped – provide a more in-depth engagement on matters that interest us.

I had requested a visit to Chilgol Protestant Church, since I knew that when he was a child, Kim Il Sung used to attend the church with his parents. Originally a Presbyterian mission church from the nineteenth century, it had been destroyed during the Fatherland Liberation War, or Korean War (as with the rest of northern Korea and twenty percent of its population). As part of the reconstruction of the north, Kim Il Sung had suggested the church be rebuilt. Later, other churches were either rebuilt or built, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox. But it was to Chilgol church I wanted to go, as well as the memorial nearby to Kim Il Sung’s mother.

I expected perhaps a weekday visit, a brief tour and possibly a discussion with the minister and staff. But no, our guides arranged for us to attend a worship service on a Sunday morning. So it was that I stood there, at the foot of the stairs to the church’s front door, asked by the minister whether I believe in God. How did I respond?

‘That is a very direct question’, I said. ‘In Australia, we would rather say “do you go to church?” It means the same thing’.

The minister’s father smiled, understanding my point.

‘Yes, I do go to church’, I said, ‘in Australia and China’.

The father may have been satisfied, but the minister – a quiet man – was still not sure. Nonetheless, I was guided to a seat right at the front of the church. Behind me were three other visitors: my partner, who came in later after some hesitation; a younger man of Korean background; and an older Korean man who seemed to be from the south and took many pictures and videos.

Who was in the congregation? Mostly middle-aged worshippers, a mix of male and female, with some younger people. The choir of about 15 people sung powerfully and passionately, with a distinctly Korean style (so also the soloist). In all, there would have been 60-70 worshippers present. Were they all – as some have speculated without a shred of evidence – a ‘rent-a-crowd’ for the benefit of foreigners, with a sprinkling of government spies for good measure? I hesitate even raising this question, since it is simply ludicrous to suggest so.

The liturgy was clearly of the Reformed tradition, with which I am so familiar: prayers and hymns of approach, followed by confession of sins; Bible readings from the Old and New Testaments; a long sermon with careful interpretation of the text; a soloist after the sermon; prayers of supplication and collection (to which I contributed); final hymn and benediction. Although I cannot understand Korean, I could easily recognise the liturgy and its style. Indeed, the liturgy, the simple style of the church, a the reverence of the minister and the careful and calm approach to the sermon – all these reminded me of so many country churches in which my father had been minister and preached, coming as he did from the same Reformed tradition.

One moment will always remain with me, for the minister was at the beginning of the service not entirely sure of my motives for attending worship. As each hymn was announced, an attendant would make the sure the visitors had found the hymn in question (occasionally with an English version). We used the hymn book that had been published under the auspices of the Korean Christian Federation in 1983. The second hymn I recognised and sang lustily. As I did so, the minister looked over, realising I was quite familiar with this type of activity. He caught my eye and smiled ever so slightly. The recognition was clear. The announcements at the close of worship included a welcome for the visitors. It was said with genuine warmth.

After the benediction, the visitors were ushered out of the church. A handshake and farewell from the minister was followed by a number of other handshakes. The congregation remained in the church for further activities. Perhaps a Bible study, perhaps a parish meeting – I can only guess.

The question remains as to how all this is possible, especially in a country so systematically demonised. We must begin with the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and state support for church buildings and ministerial staff. Of course, one must obey the laws of the land, which include the forbidding of proselytising and any breach of sovereignty. Foreigners are free to worship, as are Koreans. This includes Christianity, as well as Buddhism and the uniquely Korean religion, Chondoism.

Further, since the late 1970s, Christians, who had been worshipping informally but had developed a form of Christian socialism, began to worship openly again. Among Protestants, the Korean Christian Federation was reactivated (originally formed in 1948). Churches were rebuilt or built anew, a theological college opened, Bibles and hymn books were printed, and a religion department (within philosophy) was opened at Kim Il Sung University. Today, Protestants number over 12,000, with more than 30 ministers and 300 church officials. They been actively encouraged to worship openly, although some continue in informal house churches.

The Federation has been increasingly engaged internationally. A crucial period was during the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the Korean economy all but collapsed due to the end of support from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, along with devasting floods and hail storms. The Federation was instrumental, through the World Council of Churches, in securing significant food aid during the period. It became clear to the government and society at large that Christians in the north have the good of the country at heart.

All of this leads to the situation we have now, in which I and my partner were able to worship in Pyongyang in 2018. I hardly need to state the obvious: it was one of the most significant services I have ever attended.

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Sanctions – What Sanctions?

‘No, impossible!’ She said with the sweetest voice.

I had pointed my camera at a shop shelf full of products and looked over at the attendant hopefully. It was not to be, so I put the camera away.

Why could I not take a photograph in a shop in Pyongyang? I wondered as I bought some water and walked away. You can take pictures of almost anything, except military personnel. So why not the shop?

Like other shops I visited, it was indeed full. It had products made in the DPRK, from China, Vietnam, Germany – you name it – except perhaps for the United States. A department store with two levels was full of people, buying food downstairs, and clothes, furniture (IKEA), appliances and sports equipment upstairs. A booth enabled one to exchange foreign currency, specifically Chinese Yuan, Euro and US dollars, into Won. If you had any left over at the end, you could change them back. Foreigners were not the only ones at the booth. In fact, when I went I was the only foreigner changing money.

What is going on the DPRK? Everywhere I turned were flat screen televisions, with music videos, news, soap operas playing. The modest hotel where we stayed had hair-dryer, fridge, scales, safe, alarm clock and whatnot. The brands were the ones you would see elsewhere. The streets were busy with traffic, some older but also quite a few new ones. The Koreans make their own cars, but there were plenty of foreign brands as well. The metro, trolley buses and trams have begun sporting newly designed and made vehicles. To be sure, the older ones still run, with clear vintage from Eastern European production during the era of the Communist Bloc (and well-made they were). But they are being replaced by new ones made in the DPRK.

Even more, Pyongyang is undergoing a building boom. A couple of years ago, everyone took a year off from their study and non-essential jobs to volunteer on building sites for a year. This was only part of  a longer boom that started a few years ago. Foreign architects have been working with Korean architects to design a new phase of unique architecture, which one simply cannot find anywhere else. Older buildings are being renovated, new ones are springing up.

Clearly, the DPRK economy and trade are doing rather well. Very few analysts have realised this, apart from the Chinese (for example, here, here and here). To be sure, some areas still need a lot of work after the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the economy almost fell apart, floods devastated the countryside and a fair amount of poverty returned. The railways and roads have been told they need to make do with the existing and ageing infrastructure, and many rural areas still use hand sowing and harvesting (although I also saw new machinery in parts). That will come, they plan, with Chinese and southern cooperation. Indeed, at the hotel where we stayed were a few foreigners like ourselves, but it was mostly used by visiting Chinese business people and Koreans.

Obviously, the much-hyped sanctions are not working very well. Northern Koreans have lived with sanctions for much of their 70 years as a state, so they know how to deal with them. But now is different. One reason is that channels for trade have been opened up and are running well indeed, but under the radar. Another reason is that countries like China, Russia and others have already made moves to work with the DPRK after Kim Jong Un’s clear international engagement. As is the Asian preference, when negotiating one builds trust by making reciprocal moves on the way forward. It does not do to demand everything and not budge.

But the third reason may be the strongest: sanctions are typically made in US dollars. This works if the preferred currency for international transactions and reserves are held in US dollars. However, with the United States wildly slapping sanctions all over the world, more and more countries and entities are dispensing with the US dollar. For example, last year only 39 percent of international transactions used the US dollar, while 37 percent used the Euro and 3 percent the Chinese Renminbi. Soon, the US dollar will slip even lower, especially when more and more people see that currency as toxic. I suggest that this situation is a major factor in the ineffectiveness of the sanctions on the DPRK.

While they do not like to use the terminology, the DPRK is clearly developing its own version of the ‘Reform and Opening Up’. In China they celebrated 40 years of the Reform and Opening Up in 2018. The DPRK has seen how beneficial such a process can be, although they prefer the terminology of ‘changes’. But at heart lies the socialist ideal of improving the socio-economic lives of everyone – as is stated in the DPRK constitution.

So why was I not permitted to photograph a shop full of products? The answer should be obvious: they did not want a non-Chinese foreigner plastering photographs all over the internet to show how ineffective the sanctions really are.

Pyongyang: A New Socialist City

Pyongyang is like no other city on earth.

But you need to go there to feel what it is really like.

First impressions: you might look at one or two individual buildings and wonder at their architectural style. Here you do not have the fashions of the ‘West’, in which buildings look striking for a while, only to appear worn and clumsy soon afterwards. Nor do you have many ‘Asian’ influences that feature elsewhere in this part of the world.

If you look carefully, a few buildings from the 1950s and even 1960s evince a Soviet-era style, influenced by Stalin-baroque. The best quality materials, careful design and a permanent grandeur – these and more are features of such a style.

But they are relatively few, for the DPRK has followed its own patterns of architecture, increasingly conscious of a distinct tradition that has a consistent distinct feature: again and again, the buildings are focused on facilities and opportunities for the people. I have never seen so many concert halls and theatres, for all manner of public events. So also the multitude of specialised sports facilities, catering to a tradition in which physical exercise is central to one’s wellbeing. To be sure, there are the expected museums – of art, the anti-imperial struggles and the lives of the Kim family – but these too are places where one always finds people.

Deeper reflection: perhaps night is the best time to see the city in a different way. Now the lines of connectivity emerge. Turn this way and you see the light show on the pyramid-like Ryugyong Hotel; turn that way and you see how they point you across the river to the Juche Tower and the statue of two men and women holding up the symbols of the Workers Party – hammer, writing brush and sickle. Turn again and again and you see how one building after another has been located in careful relation to the others: the children’s playground with its carnival features; Mangyongdae Children’s Palace; the Grand People’s Study Hall; Mirae Scientists Street; the collection of residential high-rises that weave and rise – in purples, greens, blues and reds. A setting sun catches on another set of apartment blocks on the other side of the road from the circus building and you realise that each block has been located to do precisely that: reflect light in ever changing patterns. The examples could be multiplied again and again.

Some would call this ‘town planning’, but that is a weak term for what continues to happen in Pyongyang. It is a wholesale reorganisation, if not a completely new production of space itself.

How did such a city arise? In some sense, the Fatherland Liberation War (also known as the Korean War) did Pyongyang a favour. I mean not the massive slaughter perpetrated by the United States in what can only be described as war crimes. No, I mean that the city – indeed the whole country – was completely destroyed. After the armistice was signed and the United States reluctantly settled for occupying the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, the people of the north set about the massive task of building anew.

The model city of Pyongyang is the result.

As I write, the city is undergoing another building boom, a visible sign of the economic boom of the last five years or so. The new phase was kick-started by a year devoted to building. All able-bodied people not involved in agriculture or defence took a year away from study and work to focus their energies on building sites. Old buildings that had fallen into disrepair during the 1990s continue to be renovated and a spate of new constructions are under way.

At the other end of the scale, a foreign architect or two has been busily at work with local architects in developing new and distinct building styles. As Calvin Chua, a leading architect from Singapore who has been working on Pyongyang since 2013 observes, he may come up with a list of suggestions, but the local architects take up his ideas and develop them in their own way and in light of the tradition they have developed. He admires their skill, experience and unique creativity.

All of this has produced an absolutely unique city. It can disorient a visitor accustomed to other cities and their traditional or bustling spaces. It can make one wonder at how such a unique place could indeed be built.

Earlier, I used the term ‘feel’ for gaining a sense of what the city is like. I do not mean an emotional perception or even a gut feeling, but a feel for the very different production of space. One needs to take in the whole rather than individual units. If you do so, you begin to understand that the nature of the space has changed. Space is not a given, in which human beings find their place, but space is produced in different ways by the acts of human beings and their socio-economic systems. Thus, space has been produced in Pyongyang like no other place on earth.

Let me put it this way: during the communist era in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, they began feeling their way forward for a new and socialist production of space. For example, you can still find this effort in parts of East Berlin (the former capital of the German Democratic Republic). Karl Marx Allé is perhaps the best example, with its magnificent Stalin baroque devoted to flats for workers. But you can also find it in the outskirts of Halle, or in the centre of Baia Mare in Romania, or indeed in Minsk, which was flattened during the Second World War. Keep looking and you will find more and more such examples.

Nonetheless, these were initial and partial efforts and the sense of a newly produced space is fleeting – especially today as efforts to obliterate them in terms of a capitalist production of space continue.

By contrast, in Pyongyang they have been producing a new sense of space for 65 years, beginning with nothing and building anew. In many respects, it is what eastern European and Soviet cities tried to be: a new socialist city.