Monday, January 28, 2008

Christian donations not helping South Korea help North Korea

My reader(s) may know that I am not fan of religion and I hope that was not colouring my opinion when I read a Newsweek article about Christian groups donating supplies to North Korea.

In the larger picture, many international groups, the UN, for example, have chosen not to donate supplies to North Korea because North Korea will not allow inspectors to go in and see where the food and such are going. South Korean groups have taken up the slack and are more concerned with getting at least some aid to the people even while knowing most goes to the elite.

GI Korea has followed this story with a slightly different viewpoint from mine. He believes that no aid should be given without inspection. I agree that the more inspection the better, but I can understand how, if they were my relatives, I would give plenty with the hope of them getting a little.

Recently a Canadian-Korean pastor had been detained but was released. Korean citizens are not released and the GI, again, sees this as weakness on the South Korean Government's part. In this case, I think it was not the nationality of the pastor so much as the knowledge that Christian groups are responsible for a major part of the aid received. (I may have mixed up the links to the GI -sorry 'bout that)

From the Newsweek article:
South Korean churches are competing to provide humanitarian aid to their compatriots in the atheist north. It's harder to give help than it should be.

Pastor Douglas Shin has learned the cost of good intentions-especially in North Korea. Every time the Seoul-based Protestant missionary goes in with another shipment of food for the hungry, the regime's officials grab much if not all of it for themselves, he says. Once, when he tried to negotiate a visit to the capital, Pyongyang, they demanded that he bring a whole rail car loaded with 60 tons of flour and supplies. He finally bargained them down to a 10-ton food shipment, delivered just inside the border by truck from China. At least they let him hand out some of it to people on the streets.

That willingness to cut deals is making North Korea increasingly dependent on Christians from the peninsula's southern end. While nongovernmental agencies like World Vision and Save the Children, fed up with the North's rampant corruption and lack of transparency, have closed down or sharply reduced their activities there, South Koreans are racing into the void.
By that measure it's tough to beat the Rev. Yonggi Cho of Seoul's Full Gospel Church, the world's largest single house of worship, with 780,000 congregants. Early last month Cho and 250 fellow South Koreans attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the Full Gospel's $22 million cardiac center on the banks of Pyongyang's Daedong River. ...

North Korea's few churches-Potemkin temples to give the illusion of religious freedom, critics say-are getting costly makeovers courtesy of religious groups on the far side of the DMZ. Seoul's Presbyterians are spending nearly $3 million to rebuild Bongsu Church in Pyongyang, while Baptist groups are planning to invest a similar sum in nearby Chilgol Church, which was once attended by the mother of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.

The southerners aren't competing for converts; proselytizing remains strictly forbidden in the atheist North. The real prizes (for now, at least) are trophy assets-the kind that look good on church Web sites and help fill the collection plates. (My bolding)

Anything is an improvement on North Korea's present health-care system. Even in privileged Pyongyang hospitals lack electricity and running water as well as basic equipment and supplies. And the facilities outside the capital are far worse. At the People's Hospital in Kusong, some 30 miles north of Pyongyang, patients are X-rayed by a 40-year-old Hungarian-built fluoroscopy machine that emits dangerous levels of radiation. Orderlies fashion bandages from cotton grown on the hospital grounds, and intravenous drugs are administered with upended soda bottles. Conditions at Kusong would be even more desperate without donor groups like the Maryland-based Eugene Bell Foundation, which insists on delivering aid directly its final destination. If North Korean officials refuse, the foundation warehouses its aid until permission is given.

Regular site visits by donor representatives are basic to responsible NGO work, not only in North Korea but everywhere else, says Eugene Bell director Stephen Linton. "People who think otherwise are kidding themselves."(my bolding)

Seems I'm putting up the whole article. Let's see. A South Korea Christian group spent a million dollars (US or Canadian - they're the same now -Ha, Ha) to build a church that when completed, didn't have a cross (I guess that's bad - it was significant enough for the journalist to mention). The South Korean Jogye Buddhists rebuilt a temple at the Gumgang tourist area but it was seized by the North Korean branch of the order.

The SK government has had no luck in the construction, or supplying of hospitals and recommends against it. They supply doctors at a few hospitals in North Korea to help the citizens and teach the North Korean doctors and find that is the hardest thing for the NK government to profit from.

They also point out that Cho's church-funded hospital will provide surgery costing about $3000 in a country with a $760 per capita income.

Well, the GI and I agree that No M-hyun's government didn't treat North Korea with sufficient firmness. Although I can sympathize with the motivations of the Christian groups making donations, I don't think they are helping the situation either.


kangmi said...

Are you familiar with any aid groups that are in fact helping?

kwandongbrian said...

Hi Kangmi,

There was one group that made sure its supplies arrived:"...Maryland-based Eugene Bell Foundation... insists on delivering aid directly its final destination." Sounds like they are helping.

I guess a few NKoreans are being helped in the short term - keeping the NK Government funded is no help to its people, nor is it really to the SKorean people as the cost of re-unification only goes up.

Anonymous said...

“God Moves A Mission Field” North Korea is a heavily restricted and closed nation. Refugees flee to China to escape the economic hardship and religious persecution only to be forced to return to labour camps or execution. However, a South Korean Mission Agency reports that 14,000 refugees have been granted status in South Korea or America. 70% of these have become Christians. Now South Korean missionaries can reach at least some of the North Korean people without actually being in North Korea. BBN-Korean is supplying the spiritual support needed for many of these missionaries as they minister to the North Korean refugees.

kwandongbrian said...


Religious groups often try (and often succeed) in helping others.

I am not impressed with the groups that are described in the article: "southerners aren't competing for converts; proselytizing remains strictly forbidden in the atheist North. The real prizes (for now, at least) are trophy assets". They build stuff in NKorea to look good to their domestic supporters.

I cannot give support to missionaries working to convert refugees who have no outside help or resources - I fear they may feel refusing would jeopardize the support they receive. That would mean they are coerced to convert.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough... true Christians don't give for an earthly return anyway, but simply out of gratitude to God, for to be 'born again' is priceless.

kwandongbrian said...

One problem is that "true Christians" are hard to tell from the fake ones who give, again as the article says, to get "trophy assets". I would, mean-spiritedly, say that being born again is "value-less" rather than priceless, but again,I do accept that religious groups can and often do good works for the world's less fortunate people.
A clergyman gives a sermon describing all of us as 'nobody', meaning no one is all that important in the grand scheme of things. After the sermon, a a wealthy, self-important man came up to the clergyman and began talking to him. "Your sermon really moved me..."
Just then he was interrupted by some average guy and clean but ordinary clothes who told the clergyman, "Thank you reverend. I am nobody".

The first man chuckled and commented to the clergyman, pointing as he did, "Ha, ha. Look who thinks he's nothing!"

Anonymous said...

To the non-Christian all Christians are hypocrites!
Yes, actions speak louder than words, but the 'second birth' cannot be translated merely into good deeds. The world loves good deeds but hates God. Why? Because God is holy and we are not. And because God gives unlimited, unconditional grace to whomsoever He will, and this offends the natural wisdom of mankind, and makes a mockery out of all our attempts to punish and reward with our ever-shifting goalposts. Why do you think the religious and political world of the time crucified Jesus?

kwandongbrian said...

"The world loves good deeds but hates God. "

Wrong - I can't speak for the world, but I don't hate God, I have the same feelings for him as I do for any other god: Thor, Zeus, Odin and all the rest of the fairy tale characters.

Why they crucified Jesus? I really can't say. There are many currently-living 'prophets' and many of them belong behind bars, I don't about Jesus.

kwandongbrian said...

I am sorry, I skipped a word.
"...I don't about Jesus." Should be:
"...I don't know about Jesus."

GI Korea said...

The issue of aid to NK is one of nothing but bad choices because the aid will never primarily go where it should if you do give and people will suffer if no aid is given.

Food aid should be given even though most of it goes to the regime elite and military however, enough of it trickles down into the markets to at least prevent a famine like we saw in the mid-90s.

The aid I don't like is when truckloads of concrete go to NK as "aid" and then suddenly end up on NK export ships to Syria to be sold and used as cover for smuggling weapons technology.

Giving $60 million to NK as "aid" to test drive one train across the DMZ is more aid I think NK could live without because it is strictly going to the regime elite. Ironically Kim Jong-il would not even allow Roh to use the train to travel to Pyongyang on that he spent those millions for.

The UNDP was another aid program that became the regime's own personal ATM where millions were swindled including evidence that some of the money was used on their weapons programs.

The list of dubious aid programs goes on and on.

The Christian groups have done excellent work in China aiding NK refugees and should really be commended. They are also doing great work by breaking down the information blockade surrounding the NK people. I think you will see Christianity explode in NK after its collapse because of the work being done now in China.

skindleshanks said...

Personally, I strongly believe that Christians should be at the forefront of providing aid, going in when no one else will. I can't speak for all Christian groups (and I am personally very disillusioned with the wide majority of Korean Christian organizations), but I think the main theological basis for offering aid is NOT primarily to win converts, but is part of our more general mandate to "proclaim the Kingdom of God"; that is, to be God's instrument to administer justice, mercy and grace in the world.
History has taught us the pitfalls of working together with governments or organizations that have other agendas. It wasn't prudent for missionaries in the past to hitchhike on military or merchant vessels (not sure if there were any other economically viable options back then), and history has judged them harshly. I think for the most part, western Christian missions have learned this lesson and are more mature and careful in their approach.
It is important to be shrewd when offering aid, and doing whatever possible to make sure it reaches those who need it most, but on the other hand we also have to "do what we can" under the conditions, even if it means being more open-handed and vulnerable to being taken advantage of than we might like.
I don't think the "siege" strategy of dealing with NK is the wisest way to try to topple the regime, and trying to "starve them out" is definitely not a Christian thing to do. So I think it is good that Christian aid is heading north, and would like to be more personally involved if the opportunity/need arises.

kwandongbrian said...

GI Korea, your position is more nuanced than I described in the article. Thanks for correcting me.

I wanted to write more, commenting on GI and Skindleshanks' comments, but really, they described pretty much how I feel about aid to North Korea and its complexities so articulately that I should just let it go.