Since yesterday’s post, I’ve had a chance to watch the interview with Thae Yong-ho. Thae said many interesting things, but none was so striking as the point when, about 9 minutes into the interview, he talked about the good fortune of getting his family to South Korea and said, “God help[ed] me.” Thae did not strike me as an emotional or spiritual man. He has spent his whole life shielded from religion. We know that his political conversion was a gradual one; therefore, it’s improbable that he has undergone a sudden religious conversion since his recent defection. His religious views will probably evolve, just as his political views evolved.
No doubt, Christians will seize on this statement as validation of their own beliefs. I’m not religious myself and felt no validation of my own beliefs, but I was deeply moved as a father who felt compassion and solidarity for another father. I’m also very interested in the political implications of Christianity’s appeal to North Koreans, especially in light of Thae’s explicit call for the North Korean people to rise against the state. Of course, to rise against such an oppressive state is to risk death, and worse. To resist such a state is in the collective self-interest, but strongly against the individual self-interest. Only fanatical* belief can motivate people to sacrifice one’s self for the collective interest, as Eric Hoffer put it in “The True Believer,” his classic work on the nature of mass movements:
The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice. When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine, propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and to means used to inculcate a readiness for self-sacrice. It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognized that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrice. To know the processes by which such a facility is engendered is to grasp the inner logic of most of the characteristic attitudes and practices of an active mass movement. With few exceptions, any group or organization which tries, for one reason or another, to create and maintain compact unity and a constant readiness for self-sacrifice usually manifests the peculiarities—both noble and base—of a mass movement.
If the validation Christians feel from Thae’s mention of God is that even the most persecuted people feel, and hunger for a connection with, God’s presence, I can acknowledge that they may have a point without necessarily adopting their spiritual views. We know that many North Korean refugees have become committed Christians. Surely there are multiple explanations for this. Initially, North Koreans contact Christianity because it’s usually only Christians who (at great individual risk, but in the collective interest of the church and humanity itself) care enough to help them. Perhaps they continue to attend church out of a sense of gratitude, or because it helps to meet their material needs. They may become believers because the church gives them a sense or community, or fills the spiritual void left by the false god they’ve rejected. Thae, however, didn’t rely on missionaries to feed him or smuggle him through China, and the South Korean government has obviously welcomed him with open arms. He doesn’t need a church to be his support network. His comment suggests that appeal of religion to North Koreans transcends songbun, and that one cannot explain its appeal in solely material terms.
The point I’m arriving at is this one: if North Koreans are to respond to Thae’s call to organize and rise against the state, religion — specifically Christianity — will play an essential role. In the same way that the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas built political movements on a foundation of social services in their dysfunctional societies, churches could use the strategies I described here to build clandestine social services inside North Korea itself. Only a religious belief so fanatical that it overcomes an individual’s self-interest and awakens the collective self-interest can cause people to take the risk that entails.
* I don’t use the term pejoratively, but as Hoffer did, to describe any belief strong enough to overcome the believer’s individual self-interest.