On the pages of our Magazine, we more than once or twice touched the matter of illegal activities of South Korean and American Protestant religious organizations on the territory of North Korea. However, each time when a new pastor is detained by the authorities of North Korea or China, defenders of the “religious values” start telling that confessionary statements most likely were coerced under torture, other evidence were falsified, and that it all in all “is well known” that the tyrant regime of Kim’s Family prosecute Christians on no grounds.
At the end of October 2015, this view has got a serious jolt, as the exposure of anti-State activities of Protestants happened not in North Korea or China themselves, but at the territory of “free world.” As TV broadcasting company CNN informed on October 27 referring to data of Intercept Company, which was the first to learn about the operation, the US military intelligence service used the staff of Humanitarian International Services Group (HISG), a Christian charitable organization, for delivery of radio beacons and other spy equipment to DPRK.
Kay Hiramine, founder of HISG, is an evangelical Christian and a well-known person in the charitable community. In 2007 he personally received the award from the hands of President Bush for mobilization of volunteers to remedy the effects of hurricane “Katrina”. HISG was created shortly after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, and was responsible for the supply of medical equipment, clothing and other basic necessities to countries affected by natural disasters, including Niger, Mali, Ethiopia, Kenya, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen and China. For the first two years HISG was a classic charitable organization, but in 2003 it began cooperating with the Pentagon, including in the North Korean direction.
What is curious is that, according to a former CIA officer who gave an interview to CNN, “religious figures must not be used for these purposes as it is prohibited by law, but there is no such prohibition for staff of charitable organization.” The first test was a consignment of warm clothing, which included the Bibles, secretly delivered to DPRK. Then, under the cover of humanitarian missions the employees of HISG were collecting information, while simultaneously delivering to DPRK spy sensors, small radio beacons, equipment that was able to misdirect target missiles.
For these activities the organization got tens of millions of US Dollars, – The Intercept has published evidence, including financing and management schemes through a secret network of organizations created specifically for confusing financial traces. In 2012, the program of espionage against North Korea was closed, and in January 2013 Hiramine Kay announced the termination of HISG activities due to insufficient funding and dismissed the staff.
The author does not know if there is a connection between these events. We would like to note, that the scandal in the US was not so much connected with actual espionage, but with an important ethical issue, including the ‘blind’ use (as most of the staff of Humanitarian International Services Group was not informed about the operation) of staff of charitable organization, who lately may become the target for repression? In this regard the Intersept recalled how in 2011 the CIA used a Pakistani doctor to disclose the location of Osama bin Laden under the cover of a vaccination program against hepatitis.
After the raid, the doctor was arrested by the authorities and taken to prison, and the Taliban killed several doctors who participated in the campaign against poliomyelitis, announcing that the program was a part of a spy operation of Western intelligence services.
For us the other issue is more important: the authorities of DPRK have grounded reasons to cast a wary eye at the activities of humanitarian organizations. At the same time it is not a story about a fight against religion in general. Thus, on October 28, DPRK was visited by the 12 Catholic priests from South Korea, who celebrated a joint mass with their North Korean counterparts. The priests represented the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice, which was created in 1974 by South Korean clerics in order to promote the unification of the North and the South. The Association follows rather free views and, in particular, requires the abolition of South Korea’s National Security Law, which we wrote about more than once. It was the first visit of a Catholic delegation to the north of the peninsula since 2008, and the authorities of Seoul agreed to this visit and expressed hope that it would contribute to “the exchange of religious, and not of political nature.”
Another typical example is the fortune of 21-year-old student Joo Won Moon, who illegally crossed the China-North Korea border and got to the DPRK territory on April 22 this year. Being a faithful Protestant, living in the USA since 2001, Joo, as he said, “wanted to be detained”, thus trying to spur certain processes, because the USA does not abandon its citizens, and will be ready to protect them by any means necessary.
It became obvious at once that he is a dreamer, not a spy, and at the end of September there was a half-an-hour press-conference held in Pyongyang, during which Joo Won Moon spoke with a prepared speech in which he “understood and apologized.” Later, in an interview for CNN Joo expressed the desire to “show to the world that a normal student who was in North Korea illegally, thanks to the goodwill of the authorities of North Korea will be able to come back home safe and healthy.”
On October 5, 2015 North Korea transferred Joo to the South Korean authorities. According to representatives of the South, it was done to lower down the criticism related to human rights violations. However, now Joo Won Moon may face a prison sentence in his home country as an unauthorized visit to North Korea is prohibited by the National Security Act.
In order to summarize and remember for future: in North Korea, as in all socialist countries, formal respect for freedom of conscience stays a side with strong anti-religious propaganda. Besides, against the backdrop of the Korean War and after it, a sufficient number of North Korean Christians were in the “fifth column”, and the authorities could not miss to respond. And, as it may be seen, the suspicions against a particular type of Protestants are still far from being ungrounded, as inside DPRK the activities of the HISG never served a reason for scandal; thus, apparently, Pyongyang learnt about their work for the Pentagon just now.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.