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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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.

Closed Borders: Visiting and Leaving the DPRK

If you believe the steady stream of items propagated by the corporate media and government agencies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ with closed borders. People are not allowed to enter and its citizens are not permitted leave. If someone does happen to try and leave the ‘hermit kingdom’, he or she is dubbed a ‘defector’. Conversely, anyone who wishes to enter the DPRK is also a ‘defector’ – a recent example being the Chondoist leader, Ryu Mi Yong, who opted to leave South Korea and move to the north to join the bulk of her fellow Chondoists.

I must admit that I entered the DPRK with such a mindset. The warnings from governments like those of Australian, the United States and Canada did not help. They either warn against all travel or strongly advise you to reconsider your travel plans and go somewhere else. I believed that I could visit only with an officially sanctioned tour company (Koryo) and I had read that at most 2,000 foreigners visit the country every year. The very fact that I was able to visit amongst others should already have alerted me to a somewhat different situation, but such is the strength of preconceptions that it did not. Even more, the fact that the flight into the DPRK – a glorious Tupolev 204 – was filled mostly with citizens of the DPRK should have set me thinking. Yet again, it did not.

Only after arriving and spending a few days there did reality set in. Our hotel, Yanggakdo, was quite full, with tour buses clustered outside on any given day. People were constantly arriving and leaving, many of them Chinese but also a good number of people from other countries. For some reason, it seemed to me that Australians were everywhere. I had come with the assumption that we would be largely on our own. Clearly this was not the case. Even at the Demilitarised Zone close by Kaesong, there were buses aplenty, so much so that we were lucky in being the first in a long line of groups visiting the area.

I had to find out more. In one of my many discussions with the older tour guide, I asked. ‘How many visitors come to North Korea each year?’

He thought for a moment and said, ’10,000 or so’.

That made far more sense. Not a huge number by some standards, but way more than anyone would expect.

‘But is this the only hotel where visitors can stay? I said.

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘here are many places throughout the country where you can stay’.

‘So where could I travel?’ I said.

‘Most places’, he said. ‘You can travel in the far north, stay in the countryside, do some volunteer work on farms’.

Later I began to ponder the possibility of spending some more time in the place. I asked about foreigners working in the DPRK.

‘We have a quite a number at different levels’, said another guide.

‘What about universities?’ I said.

‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘foreigners come and teach at some of them. Many come as volunteers through UNESCO, and there is also the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology’.

‘Is that the one funded by Christian groups, with classes taught in English?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said, ‘and it teaches students about many facets of international education’.

‘Would I be able to spend some time at one of the universities?’ I asked.

‘What do you teach?’ he asked.

‘Marxism and philosophy’, I said.

He smiled. ‘Very interesting. I will see what I can do.’

I gave him my email address.

But what about Koreans travelling, working and studying internationally? I was admittedly quite astounded to find out how many from the DPRK do exactly that. Most go to China, but some travel further afield. Indeed, the week before, when I was in Harbin in the north-east of China, I had encountered students from the DPRK studying there. And this was only one example. To be sure, they need clearance from a government agency to do so. But I was reminded of the fact that I too need to request permission to travel overseas, albeit from my university rather than the government.

Even with this knowledge, on the day of our departure, I was still amazed at how many Koreans were boarding the train out of Pyongyang. On the platform were a few foreigners, but most were from the DPRK. Each day the train leaves for Beijing, carrying locals to various destinations outside the country.

Closed borders? If so, the gate is not securely fastened.

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