Total oppression, DMZ, refugees, propaganda, hunger, darkness, isolation.
In August 2015, Rev. We Chang spent eight days in North Korea. Before showing photos and talking about his experience, he asked people to share the words that come to mind when they think of North Korea (officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea).
The above were some of their answers.
He titled his talk "Come and See: Stories from North Korea." Seeing the reality of the nation and its people, he said, changed his perceptions, which had been not unlike those mentioned by his audience.
Rev. Chang, who is from South Korea (or the Republic of Korea), is pastor at Belmont-Watertown UMC in Massachusetts. Rev. Chang said he wanted to make it clear that he was not justifying the North Korean government, but the trip did alter his ideas about the country and its people.
“I learned the importance of seeing – especially in a country like this; you cannot experience or learn or reflect in the way that I was able to do (without having visited),” he said. “You couldn’t do that through books (or other second-hand sources).”
Rev. Chang is now an American citizen – otherwise he could not have made the trip. South Koreans are not allowed to travel to North Korea. The two countries are still officially at war. Most North Koreans are never allowed to leave their country at all.
“I always wanted to go there because my father is from the North and I am Korean. I had a desire to visit my homeland – where it was forbidden for me to go or even think well of or speak well of. We grew up conditioned to think of North Korea as as bad as you can.”
He traveled with six other pastors (six of the seven are Korean) who are officers of the Committee on Peace of the Korean UMC, which Rev. Chang chairs. They were among the 300 Koreans living abroad who were invited to the 70th anniversary celebration of Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation, which ended with the end of World War II on Aug. 15, 1945.
The goal of the trip for the pastors, he said, was to begin to establish relationships with the Federation of Christians of North Korea, which was formed by the government in the late 1980s as a way to reach out to the world community, and further United Methodist humanitarian and mission work in North Korea.
The committee developed a four-year peace plan in 2012, Rev. Chang said.
“Part of plan was visiting; to establish relationships and open the door to more contact, more trips,” he said, as well as bring people from North Korea to the U.S. He added the Council of Bishops is planning a visit in the coming year.
The United Methodist Church has helped fund missions in North Korea – including an orphanage that opened in April 2015 – but through a third party already working there. Doing the work directly, and being named as The United Methodist Church, are part of what he would like to see established. Rev. Chang said his dream is to see a United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) field office in North Korea.
The group spent much of their time in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital; among the other places they visited were Baekdu, the tallest mountain on the peninsula, and nearby Cheonji, a lake created by volcanic crater; the new orphanage, and the DMZ (the demilitarized zone between north and south).
Rev. Chang said the group told North Korean officials what they wanted to see and where they wanted to visit, and an itinerary was created for them; they were led by official guides. He said they were allowed to take photos – he took 800 on his phone – of everything except the military and close-ups of the North Korean people.
Audience members asked if he felt that what he saw was “the real North Korea.” In response he talked about the visit to the orphanage – where the children where the children seemed happy, healthy and well fed.
“Things are changing. The suffering is lessened; the famine (of the mid-1990s) is no more,” he said, adding that they wanted to bring food and clothing to the orphanage, but were turned down. “They no longer receive necessities. ‘We can take care of ourselves,’ they said.”
Rev. Chang did admit to feeling torn about the visit.
“There was a division inside of me. I had that question when we went to orphanage: (I thought) it’s too good. This must be fake,” he said. “Instead of celebrating their joy I was, inside, saying this can’t be true, as if North Korea should never have achieved something like that.”
“We talk about North Korean propaganda,” he said. “There’s another propaganda: Painting North Korea with one brush. That’s why I said ‘come and see.’”
The trip also had a very personal moment for him.
Rev. Chang’s father was chair of the Committee on Reconciliation and Peace for the National Council of Churches of Korea in late 80s early 90s. Rev. Chang had the chance to visit the Bongsu Protestant Church in Pyongyang, where his father had preached. He met some people, including a woman who worked as a translator, who recalled that visit.
“She was almost in tears. She was there 25 years ago, and remembered my dad. The pastor also remembered. They said how it was good to meet my father and what a good pastor he was. I felt like I was seeing my dad,” he said. “Some of the ties that bound us together are still not cut.”