By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA (ANS – May 4, 2016) – A unique delegation comprising of an Israeli, a Briton, a Norwegian and a “tall European prince,” are visiting the mysterious and mainly closed land of North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The academics’ visit to North Korea has been organized by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation (IPF).
Those taking part are: Nobel laureate for economics Prof Finn Kydland from Norway, who works at the University of California in Santa Barbara; Nobel laureate for medicine Sir Richard Roberts from the UK, who is based at New England Biolabs in Ipswich, Massachusetts; and Nobel laureate for chemistry Prof Aaron Ciechanover from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel.
Also joining them is the “tall” Prince Alfred of Liechtenstein, who chairs the IPF’s advisory board, and IPF chairman Uwe Morawetz, who has visited North Korea six times in the past two years.
During their well-marshalled trip, they were invited to meet students at Kim Il-sung University to talk about medicine, economics and biology.
I have been following the visits by reading and watch the fascinating reports by Rupert Wingfield-Hayes of BBC News, and they have brought back many memories for me of the time I was part of a Christian delegation to North Korea shortly after the death of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder, who died unexpectedly on the afternoon of July 8, 1994, at age 82.
My North Korea visit came about after I received a phone call from Dr. Dale Kietzman, a founding board member of ASSIST, who had made several previous trips to North Korea, and was instrumental in getting Jimmy Carter and Billy Graham to later visit the country.
“Dan, I know you’ve been almost everywhere, but how would you now like to go to North Korea?” he asked.
I could hardly believe what I was hearing, and he continued by saying. “Dr. David Cho [a Korean-American Christian] has been invited to bring a delegation of Christians into the country after the funeral of Kim Il-sung and I think I can get you in as part of the team.”
Dr. Kietzman told me to “immediately book a flight to Beijing” and then go to a certain hotel where Dr. Cho, who was born in North Korea and had forged a unique friendship with Kim Il-sung after the “Great Leader” learned that Cho knew his Christian mother, was waiting with a group of people who all wanted to be part the team, which would be the first delegation allowed in after the death of Kim Il-sung.
I immediately contacted Bill Clough, a friend at the UPI Radio Network in Washington, DC, for whom I had been providing weekly commentaries for several years, and told him the news. He became excited said that he would “love me” to do “live updates” from inside North Korea, if I could get the necessary visa.
When I arrived at the hotel in the Chinese capital, I discovered that there were 10 people all trying to get visas for the trip. We trooped over to the North Korean embassy and there, only three of us were given visas — myself, Dr. David Cho, and Michael Little from the Christian Broadcasting Network. (A few days later, Dr. Charles “Chuck” Wickman, also an ASSIST board member, was able to get a visa and joined us, for this trip that I will always remember.
After a relatively short flight in a rather battered Russian jet from Beijing to Pyongyang, we were greeted at the airport by a team of North Korean journalists, and each of us were interviewed about why we were visiting the country.
As a cameraman recorded my comments, I said, “I’m here because I am a Christian and would like to know more about your country and also discover if there is a Christian church here.” I also shared my personal testimony, and after it was over, I was convinced that it wouldn’t be shown, but after we had all arrived at our hotel, and I switched on the TV, there I was being interviewed. I quickly took a photo off the screen, as I didn’t think many would believe that the “Christian interview” had been carried on State TV.
As we checked into the huge hotel, a door slid ajar and I glimpsed a group of men with reel-to-reel tapes whirring besides them. Each were wearing headphones, and so I gathered that they were monitoring what was being said by the few hotel guests, and so I warned the others to be careful what we said.
Each day, during the week we were there, I filed my daily reports from North Korea by phone, and was aware that everything I said was being listened to. Before I had left the US, I had arranged with Bill Clough to use the code words, “Say hello to Bill’s mother in Amarillo,” which meant to a UPI colleague, who was taping it in Beijing, “don’t ask any questions, but just record my feed”. As the week passed by, my reports got stronger and stronger, as I figured the worst that could happen to me, would be deportation back the to States. However, fortunately, nothing did happen!
It was quite surreal as we were each provided with a Mercedes Benz, a driver and a “minder” who constantly peppered us with questions about life in the West. There was no subtlety in his inquiries.
Because of my question at the airport, on that Sunday, we were ferried to a “church” in the capital. We took our places amongst the congregation and a Presbyterian-style service was soon in full swing, with a choir all dressed up their robes, and a sermon was given by the “pastor” that was interpreted for us. We never figured out if this was a real church, or one that had been assembled for us with lots of actors playing their roles, so as to show that there was religious freedom in the country.
Of course, we now know that, according to Open Doors, North Korea heads the World Watch List for the 14th consecutive year, as the “world’s worst country to be a Christian”.
A spokesperson for Open Doors said, “Christianity is not only seen as ‘opium for the people,’ as is normal for all communist states, it is also seen as deeply Western and despicable. Christians try to hide their faith as far as possible to avoid arrest and being sent to labor camps with horrific conditions. Thus, one’s Christian faith usually remains a well-protected secret, and most parents refrain from introducing their children to the Christian faith in order to make sure that nothing slips their tongue when they are asked.”
The spokesperson added, “Kim Jong-un has continued to consolidate his power, and no changes or improvements have been seen over the past year. Ideology again trumped everything as could be seen in the celebration of the ruling Korean Workers Party’s 70th anniversary in October 2015. North Korea remains an opaque state and it is difficult to make sense of most of the news pouring out of the country.”
During out visit, we were taken all over the country to meet especially-selected people who all “praised” North Korea as a “paradise”, and we finished up at the DMZ, which separates the two Koreas. There, we were taken to an anti-American museum where our soldier-guide told us that it was the United States that started the Korean War, and we were treated to a series of horrific photos showing how American soldiers had treated the North Korean people. There was little restraint in the presentation.
But at least, we got a glimpse inside the DPRK even though we knew it was all choreographed to show the country in a best light, and it wasn’t all bad. For instance, we saw the magnificent Pyongyang Metro, with its murals and chandeliers and consists of two lines. The daily ridership was then estimated to be between 300,000 and 700,000, as at the time, there were few cars in the country.
The Metro even has its own museum. A large portion of the collection is related to President Kim Il-sung’s providing “on the spot guidance“ to the workers constructing the system. Among the exhibits were a special funicular-like vehicle which the president had used to descend to a station under construction (it rode down the inclined tunnels that would eventually be used by the escalators), and a rail-bus in which he rode around the system.
All I can say, is that I will never forget that trip to North Korea, and a few months after the visit, I went to South Korea, where I met with a group of North Korean Christian escapees who told me that they believed that one day, North Korea would collapse, open up, and then they would be able return as missionaries and church planters.
One of them said, “I am willing to lay down my life for the North Korean people so that the gospel can again be preached there. It would be a small price for me to pay!”
Let’s pray that one day it will open up and these brave North Koreans can return and share the Good News with the people of their homeland.
Photo captions: 1) Michael Little and Dan Wooding at the birthplace of Kim Il-sung. 2) Outside of Kim Il-sung University. 3) Computer lab in Kim Il-sung University, but what sites than they access? 4) Dan Wooding appearing on North Korean TV (Photo take off the screen). 5) The delegation attending a “church” service in Pyongyang. 6) A North Korean execution. 7) Dan Wooding with Dr. David Cho besides the huge Kim Il-sung statue in the main square of the capital.
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 75, is an award-winning winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for nearly 53 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder and international director of the ASSIST News Service (ANS), and the author or co-author of some 45 books. Dan also has a radio show and two TV shows, all based in Southern California, and is one of a few Christian journalists ever allowed to report from inside of North Korea.
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