North Korea has sent an official Christmas greetings to the churches of South Korea. The unprecedented video from the state-controlled North Korea Council of Religionists was broadcast at Seoul’s Anglican Cathedral on the Friday before Christmas at a service of lessons and carols.
The 98-second video has come under scrutiny from Korean security analysts, with some arguing it reflects the ease of tensions on the peninsula as a result of the talks between US President Donald Trump and NK leader Kim , while others suggest it is a ploy by the North Korean government to soften its image as a ruthless persecutor of Christians.
Joongang Ilbo reported the video was prepared for the Faith and Order Commission of the South Korean Council of Churches and was approved for broadcast by South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which received the message via diplomatic channels.
The film opens with images from the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and photos of April’s North-South Korean summit. Kang Ji-young, who is identified as the head of the NK Council of Religionists, then offers “congratulatory and peaceful greetings for Christmas to South Korean brothers and sisters.”
The video then cuts to scenes of Christian worship at Jangchung Cathedral and Bongsu Church, the state controlled Catholic and Protestant churches in Pyongyang. A printed message states: “The implementation of joint North-South declarations is a common mission and responsibility of religionists in the North and the South” followed by: “We hope North and South Korean religionists, who go hand in hand towards peace and unification, filled with blessings by Christ the Lord.”
Ryu Dong-ryeol of the Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy told Chosun Dol the film was “part of the North’s propaganda activities to dilute its bad reputation as a country that persecutes religious beliefs and to coax South Korean churches into supporting the joint declaration” adopted at the inter-Korean summit in April.
A November 2018 briefing from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom observed that in North Korea, “the United States has seldom faced a major adversary that respected its people’s inherent right to freedom of religion or belief.”
“In North Korea, the regime’s approach toward religion and belief is among the most repressive in the world. Put simply, freedom of religion or belief does not exist in North Korea. Although the North Korean constitution protects its people’s freedom of religion in principle, in practice the regime exerts absolute influence over a handful of state controlled houses of worship permitted to exist. This creates a facade of religious life maintained chiefly for propaganda purposes.”
“All religious activities occurring outside this heavily-regulated domain are severely restricted, and independent believers often face arrest, torture, beatings, and execution. The North Korean regime interprets all religion or belief, Christianity in particular, as a threat to its very existence. The North Korean government continues to perpetuate its longstanding record of systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.”