South Korean Christians Try To Help Struggling North

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South Korea's large Christian community is divided over how to help people in the North. A majority support efforts to send computers, cell phones and food clandestinely to the North. About 15 percent have pro-North Korean beliefs and favor dialogue with the government there.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You know, we've heard plenty of stories about foreigners who were arrested going into North Korea. This story we have next is a little different. It's the story of a Presbyterian pastor who went into North Korea and did fine. And then when he left, he was arrested when he returned to South Korea. Prosecutors are expected to charge the 60-year-old man with violating South Korea's national security law.

His unauthorized visited to the North reflects a division among Christians in the South, over how to help the people of North Korea.

From Seoul, Doualy Xaykaothao reports.

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DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: On the second floor of what looks like a wedding hall, this Christian band is rehearsing just before a prayer meeting for North Korea. The location and name of the church are being kept secret, because members in this group are involved in what could be deemed illegal activities.

This woman won't give her name, but she explains why she attends the gathering.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) We are praying for North Korean refugees and the people imprisoned in North Korea. We want that God will recover them, help them, and change North Korea.

XAYKAOTHAO: She's considered a conservative Christian because she is critical of North Korea, and favors underground operations to help rescue North Korean refugees. An organizer of this prayer meeting agrees to tell us more about helping North Koreans, but only if we use a false name, Ms. Lee. She hesitates, but then explains one of the group's missions.

Ms. LEE: (Through translator) We are sending the computer, as well as the cell phones, and in that way North Korean people can contact the outsiders, especially on the border side, so that they can meet the missionaries and other people from outside.

XAYKAOTHAO: Before the communist takeover, North Korea had a thriving protestant Christian community, and missionaries called Pyongyang the Jerusalem of the East. Today, only a handful of churches exist. Ms. Lee says they are not real Christian churches, and the North, she adds, is only using them as propaganda.

Ms. LEE: (Through translator) What they are doing is to just show the people outside that there are churches in North Korea. And I don't think they are the churches which serves God.

XAYKAOTHAO: But South Korean Christians who favor direct dialogue with the North might disagree. Pastor Han Sang-ryol, the clergyman recently arrested upon his return from North Korea, is known as a progressive Christian. South Korea's Ministry of Unification handles relations with the North. Its deputy spokeswoman, Lee Jong-joo, says Seoul wants to promote people to people contact between the North and South, but she points out people like Pastor Han must abide by the law.

Ms. LEE JONG-JOO (Deputy Spokeswoman, South Korea Ministry of Unification): We have a domestic law to regulate South Korean visit to North Korea. Pastor Han broke the law and he visit North Korea without any government permission.

XAYKAOTHAO: Pastor Changbum Kim is with a Seoul-based conservative group called Save North Korea.

Mr. CHANGBUM KIM (Pastor, Save North Korea): (Through translator) About 85 percent of Christians in Korea are conservative, and the rest - 15 percent -has progressive faith. Progressive faith is all good if it's based on sound faith, but what they are doing is really playing into North Korean strategies. What they are is North Korea followers.

XAYKAOTHAO: Pastor Kim says Save North Korea seeks to liberate the North by making its people aware of the realities of the South. One of the group's projects releases giant helium balloons that carry items across the DMZ border.

Mr. KIM: (Through translator) Basically, we are sending plastic bags, partly because even plastic bags are scarce in North Korea. And sometimes we would attach one dollar bill and DVDs or lighters, ball-point pens, and sometimes women's bras.

XAYKAOTHAO: North Korean analyst Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University says any humanitarian aid going to the North is having a serious impact on how North Koreans view their lives and the outside world.

Mr. ANDREI LANKOV (Kookmin University): For the North Koreans who will see it, it's becoming clear that their propaganda, their government media tells them lies about the life in South Korea.

XAYKAOTHAO: South Korean Christians, whether progressive or conservative, say they will continue to pray for a reunified Korea.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Seoul.

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