Suki Kim is author of “Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.”
Last Saturday, an American was arrested at the airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. Tony Kim, a 50-something instructor at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), is the third American currently held by the regime. North Korea has not yet made any statement, while PUST was quick to issue an official memo stating that the reasons for the arrest were unrelated to the university.
Tony Kim’s arrest brings up many uncomfortable questions about evangelical ventures in North Korea. Because official diplomacy has failed, private initiatives may be necessary to instill positive changes inside the repressive country. However, at what cost are these types of operations functioning within North Korea?
In 2011, I lived for six months at PUST, a boarding university, guarded around the clock by the military. PUST, which opened in 2010, was founded by a Korean American evangelical named James Kim and is funded almost entirely with individual donations from international churches. It seems an odd premise, since religion is forbidden in North Korea and proselytizing is a crime. I taught English there, but my real objective was to be embedded within the system to investigate the deeper layer of North Korea as a writer. The other 30 or so teachers were evangelicals from around the world who called themselves “Christian educators.” PUST students (500 in total, most of whom are male) are handpicked by the North Korean regime from elite society. Essentially, funds sent by Christians around the world are helping to educate North Korea’s future leaders.
Under the system of the authoritarian Great Leader, which functions more like a cult ideology than a presidency, the worship of another God is not condoned. There have been several arrests of Christian missionaries, including Jeffrey Fowle, who, in 2014, was detained for five months after leaving a Bible in a public bathroom, and Kenneth Bae, who, in 2013, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, though he was released the following year. But they were grass-roots missionaries who entered North Korea on tourist visas — they did things that were not allowed by the regime and got punished accordingly.
PUST, however, is unique. The North Korean regime is well aware of the organization’s religious background; James Kim is an active evangelical in the region. He also founded Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST), a Christian university, in China on the border of North Korea, where Tony Kim taught until he came to PUST. An unofficial deal was struck between PUST and the regime that allowed the evangelicals to build the school in Pyongyang, fund it and teach the students as long as they do not discuss Christianity in public. The foreign faculty, many of whom are deployed there after extensive training at YUST, can observe their religious rites within the privacy of their dormitory, but they are forbidden from pursuing missionary efforts outside it.
PUST offers a mutually beneficial arrangement for both North Korea and the evangelicals. The regime gets free education for its youth and a modern facility, which can be used for propaganda, while the evangelicals get a footing in the remote nation. Missions in foreign territories often work with a long-term goal of conversion, where the spreading of the religion is conducted subtly through seemingly unconditional kindness, with the hopes of those beneficiaries eventually turning to the religion out of gratitude.
James Kim denies that he handed over any money to the regime. However, with North Korea, nothing comes free. Famously, the government of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for the 2000 Inter-Korean summit, had secretly helped to funnel $500 million to Kim Jong Il. This month, foreign journalists paid $300,000 to report from Pyongyang to cover the Day of the Sun military parade. So then, is the evangelical cash generated for PUST being used to prop up Kim Jong Un’s regime?
The concerns with PUST’s curriculum go beyond funding. When I was there, most teachers taught only English, and every lesson plan had to be approved by North Korea, and every class was recorded and reported on. The school claims that the teachings are now concentrated in the field of science and technology; PUST might, in fact, be arming the future leaders of nuclear North Korea with the requisite technical skills.
Yet there is also a positive aspect to PUST. From living with these foreigners on such an intimate basis, these young, isolated North Koreans are exposed to the glimpses of the outside world and its freedom, which might eventually provide hopes for North Korea’s future. One can argue that the potential gain is worth the dark compromises.
During my stay at PUST, I always feared that I would get arrested and not come out alive. Certainly, I had more reasons to fear — though I am not Christian, I was taking secret notes for a book, which would have been enough to be charged with subversion and espionage, among other things. But the evangelicals who were diligently obeying the North Korean rules were also vulnerable. Although they did not do any outwardly missionary work there, the regime could have, at any point, easily pinned any past activities on them in order to try them in its court. Some of the missionaries, such as those from the United Kingdom and Germany, had the protection of their governments represented in Pyongyang. Americans like me, however, were always sitting ducks.
The timing of North Korea’s arrest of Tony Kim is no accident. The negotiations for his release, as well as the other two detainees who are currently serving hard-labor sentences, will depend on the diplomatic maneuver between Kim Jong Un and President Trump, both of whom have recently been threatening preemptive strikes. If this latest arrest is any lesson, then it reminds us of whom we are dealing when we engage with North Korea. Tony Kim will certainly not be the last American detained by Pyongyang.