In this ‘travel journal,’ Dr. Mouw tells of warm welcomes received during four-day visit
Fuller President Richard J. Mouw traveled to North Korea in late summer of last year, prior to the passing of leader Kim Jong Il. The following is a recounting of his experiences.
We were in Pyongyang, North Korea, on a Saturday in late August of 2011—part of a four-day visit to that country—and we were spending most of the day in our hotel. Foreign visitors are not allowed to leave their hotels without being accompanied by a government-appointed guide, and after two very intense days we were getting some rest before an evening at a large stadium, where we would witness an amazing “arirang” performance, featuring a cast of thousands performing synchronized pageantry and acrobatics.
But the earlier part of the day was a quiet time, and at noon I went with Dave Bixby, a vice president at Azusa Pacific University and one of our four-person group of visitors, to the restaurant in our Pyongyang hotel for lunch.
Our waitress was a young Korean woman, probably about 18 years old. She showed no knowledge of any of the English words we used in trying to order lunch, and instead gave us menus with pictures of the dishes available. I pointed to a dumpling soup and held up two fingers. She nodded, and she soon brought us what we had ordered.
At the end of the meal, she brought us our check. Dave used one of the few Korean phrases he knew, expressing thanks to her. Her face up to that point had been quite non-expressive, but in response she flashed what struck me as a mischievous smile, and said in English: “No problem!” She quickly turned and walked away.
I once wrote something about what restaurant serving persons say in response to our food choices. There was a time when the common response was: “You got it!” Sometimes it is “Absolutely!” or “Wonderful choice!” I find the more recent “No problem!” to be even more irritating than the others—as if a serving person was expecting me to pose problems and was now pleasantly surprised that the worst-case scenario had not materialized.
In this case, however, “No problem!” was charming—a brief knowing signal between persons from very different cultural (to say nothing of political-economic) contexts.
“No problem!” was not exactly my overall verdict regarding what I saw and heard in North Korea. This visit was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see one of the remaining totalitarian societies firsthand. I knew ahead of time, for example, that my passport and cell phone would be taken away from me upon arrival—and returned only just before boarding the plane leaving the country—but it was still disconcerting when it happened. And, indeed, we were there precisely because of the very real problems of natural disasters, failed crops, and severe hunger. But in some cases, as I will explain here, the problems I expected to encounter did not materialize.
My opportunity to visit North Korea came because of Don (Do Won) Chang, a deeply committed Christian who is founder and CEO of the clothing chain Forever 21. When he became aware of the starvation caused by flooding and landslides that had devastated villages in the northern part of North Korea, he arranged to give 4,000 tons of food supplies—corn, flour, and cooking oil—to several of those villages. In negotiating the gift with the North Korean government, he insisted on two things. One, that each bag of flour and corn had to have a large cross on it, along with the words, in Korean, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The second was that he had to visit the villages to confirm that the supplies were actually being distributed to the desperately needy inhabitants. The government agreed on both counts.
On our pilgrimage we referred to Don as “Elder Chang.” Born in South Korea, he is a leader in a Korean-speaking Christian Reformed congregation in Los Angeles. He saw this outreach to North Korea as a mission activity of his congregation. His young pastor, Ken Choe (a Fuller graduate), accompanied him on the mission, and he invited me and the president of Azusa Pacific University to fill out the traveling group. Unable to make the trip, APU’s president sent his senior vice president, Dave Bixby, in his place.
The surprising—for me, at least—“No problem!” dimensions of the trip were that I had been told to expect three things: one, they will not let you see anything outside of Pyongyang, the capital city; two, if they would let you go beyond those boundaries you would see desperate poverty all around you; and three, the people of North Korea do not like Americans. None of these were the case in our visit.
We flew to North Korea on the country’s airline, Air Koryo, flying from Shenyang, China, to Pyongyang. We were met at the Pyongyang airport—a terminal about the size of a basketball court that is dominated by a huge portrait of the late Kim Il Sung, who established the present dictatorial regime.
Our primary host, Mr. Lee, greeted us on our arrival, and was our guide-driver throughout our four days of activities. He drove a Mercedes, with a license plate that signaled the fact that he was a top-ranking government official—likely something like a special assistant to then-ruler Kim Jong Il. When we passed through military and police posts uniformed personnel stood at attention, saluting.
Wherever we went, Mr. Lee’s three associates followed in another car. For the one long journey we took, they were in charge of our luggage and the necessary extra supply of fuel for the car—once we were out of Pyongyang we saw no gas stations.
And we did get well beyond Pyongyang, starting off on our first full day in the country on a ten-hour drive north to the villages that had received the supplies provided by Elder Chang. After three hours of driving, Mr. Lee told Bixby and me (always through the translating talents of our two Korean-American companions) that from this point on we would be the first non-Asians the residents along the way had ever seen.
I was pleasantly surprised by what we witnessed on our 20 hours of driving back and forth between Pyongyang and the northern regions. In terms of buildings and facilities, nothing was as bad as some of the rural regions I have visited in China. There were some roadside park areas, with families at picnic tables. The streets of several towns were crowded, with teenage couples strolling along holding hands. We saw no private automobiles, but many bicycles.
Visiting the northern villages was a moving experience. We would first stop to inspect the warehouses from which the food was being distributed. Workers were going about what appeared to be routine activities, loading trucks with the food supplies.
Driving along village streets we saw people carrying the large sacks with crosses prominently displayed.
The emotional part was when we arrived at gathering points where villagers—50 or more, mostly women with small children—were waiting to greet us.
Don Chang especially was surrounded by outstretched hands. Women were weeping—and they held out their children for us to hug.
Then they began to sing and dance, taking our hands and encouraging us to join in the movements—going from tears to joyful celebration. This would last for 10 or 15 minutes, and the pattern was the same at each of the stopping points.
This video clip shows just a bit of one of those celebrations.
We also visited homes in the villages, and in a couple of cases we were offered dishes prepared with the food supplied by Elder Chang.
The spirit of those whom we visited was one of deep gratitude, with much emotion shown when we departed.
We were able to walk freely in the residential areas—in many cases people opened doors to invite us in.
We also inspected local fields, seeing acres of corn crops ruined by floods.
The most dramatic scene we experienced was when we stood on a field of rocks and dirt at the base of a mountain, and were told that underneath us was an entire village destroyed by a major landslide.
At the end of our day of driving and visiting the villages, we drove a few hours to a provincial government guesthouse.
The next day we were driven back to Pyongyang. Friday was taken up with a guided tour of the city. A highlight was our visit to the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, which has become a national shrine. Crowds of citizens, along with large groups of school children, were lined up to visit the actual shed-like structure where he was born. It was clearly seen by the crowds as a kind of sacred space, not unlike what visiting the Bethlehem stable would be for us.
We talked much together about this. The North Korean culture has all the trappings of a religious system. The visage of a departed “savior” was omnipresent—almost everyone wore a small pin with the face of Kim Il Sung. The events of his life functioned as a sacred narrative, with visits to key places in that narrative providing the content of spiritual pilgrimages.
In one sense, all of that is obviously offensive to our Christian sensitivities. But, we remarked, it also creates—in an important way—an atmosphere in which the gospel could be received with enthusiasm. In our Western settings, turning to Jesus for salvation requires moving from a naturalistic secularism to the embrace of a spiritual orientation. In North Korea, the acknowledgment of the need for a savior who is viewed as a more-than-human reality is already there. The change that must take place in that setting is that of turning away from a would-be deliverer, one who will ultimately fail to satisfy our deepest longings, to the heaven-sent Savior who is in reality the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Pastor Ken Choe had a chance to address these issues on Sunday morning. He was invited to preach at what we were told is one of the four government sanctioned worship services in Pyongyang.
We were greeted at the attractive church by the pastor and his wife. Services are held in that sanctuary each week—this was confirmed for us by members of the diplomatic community, German and Canadian, who attend there regularly.
We were escorted to the front pews of a full church—it was difficult to count the number of worshippers, but I estimate about 90.
A robed choir of about 20 sang, and there were two excellent solos.
The pianist played with gospel-style skill. The four hymns sung by the congregation during the service were these: “Jesus Paid it All,” “I’ve Wandered Far away from God, Lord, I’m Coming Home,” “Tell Me the Old, Old Story, of Jesus and His Love,” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Pastor Ken preached a fine sermon on Psalm 145:8, and I was asked to bring a five-minute greeting.
The English speakers in the congregation told us that in their memory this was the first time a South Korean and a white American had ever taken part in a worship service there.
Two encounters on the way out of church were notable for me. One was a well-dressed young man who introduced himself as “Deputy Minister for Religion.” He greeted me with enthusiasm and said he hoped I would return to preach in that congregation in the future. The other was another young man who took me by the arm and said quietly: “I’m a Fuller graduate!” When I asked him what he was doing there, he said, “I hope I’ll get a chance to explain it to you sometime.”
My overall assessment of the visit: At one point, when we were in the northern villages and had just spent time with a group of occupants who had sung and danced with us, Mr. Lee said to Elder Chang: “They are rejoicing because you have brought them life.” Our little group of visitors came away with a new commitment to pray for the day when there can be an even greater rejoicing at the news that there is One who has come in order that we might have genuine Life, and that we might have it more abundantly.