Hey, New York Times: Maybe there's more to that Christian-backed school in North Korea

If there's a nation on this planet harder to understand than the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK, I don't know it -- and you probably don't, either.

More commonly known as North Korea, it's been a family-led Communist dynasty for longer than any other. It's secretive, wracked by poverty and the government keeps trying to launch a missile that is capable of hitting Japan, or Guam or even Hawaii.

There have been (and are) all sorts of religion-angle "ghosts" in news surrounding the DPRK. Our our own Ira Rifkin last year noted the missing elements when The New York Times examined the country's "Juche" philosophy.

Now, the Times's correspondent who skipped the spiritual "ghosts" in the Juche piece has, er, passed over some key faith-related questions in another story. Choe Sang-Hun tells us about a Christian-led university in the officially atheist DPRK, with only a passing glance at the religion angle. Read this multi-paragraph introduction to see what I mean:

Set on 250 sprawling acres in North Korea’s capital, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology abides by the cult of the Kim family.
Atop its main building, large red characters praise “General Kim Jong-un,” the country’s provocative young leader. At the front of lecture halls hang smiling portraits of his father and grandfather, who led the nation before him.
Yet the school is different in one striking way. In a country that bans religion, it is run by evangelical Christians.
Founded seven years ago by a South Korea-born American, the school has thrived because of a deal with the leadership. It provides children of the North Korean elite with an education they cannot get elsewhere — computer science, agriculture, international finance and management, all conducted in English by an international faculty. Its teachers, half of them American, are forbidden to preach.
But the school may offer the North Korean government something else as well: leverage. Since last month the government has arrested two of the school’s volunteers, both American citizens.

Yes, the arrests of two American volunteering in Pyongyang is news, for obvious reasons. But the really interesting hook here is the evangelical tie-in, not to mention the apparent accommodation of the DPRK's rules -- including an ironclad ban on proselytizing:

... the government tries to reinforce loyalty, requiring the students to take a class on the state ideology of juche, or self-reliance, every Saturday.
When Chancellor Park [Chan-mo] complained that the class would not give students enough time to do their homework, he said, a North Korean administrator had a pointed retort.
“Mr. Chancellor,” he said, “you yourself go to church every week, don’t you?”

As a rule here at GetReligion, we don't "call out" reporters by name. As veteran reporters, we all know that problems in stories are often not the work of the reporter with the byline. That's why we focus on news organizations, rather than individuals.

But when -- as in this case -- the reporter is (rightly) promoted as an expert on Korea, one can be forgiven for having higher expectations than one might for a two-year-resident freelancer.

Choe, it should be noted, claims a combined 23 years of reporting on the country for the Times and the Associated Press and a Korean studies fellowship at Stanford University. Also he has written or edited four books on Korea and received a Pulitzer Prize for Korean reporting.

That's an impressive background by any standard, and with such a level of knowledge, one might expect a bit more in this report.

Also, if this were the first-ever Western media report on PUST, as the school is also known, I would be less critical. But university founder Kim Chin-kyung, also known as James Kim, has been profiled as far back as 2010 in The Christian Science Monitor, and in 2014 by the BBC's "Panorama" program.

Neither of these earlier reports included extensive profiles of Kim's faith background, though the Monitor did mention he'd been attacked by North Korean troops during the war, and vowed before God that he, Kim, would repay his treatment with love and charity if the Deity pulled him through.

There was enough out there, however, that a highly experienced reporter such as Times man Choe should've been able to dig deeper. We know Kim raises funds from evangelical churches in Korea and the U.S., but which ones? What is Kim's affiliation? How does that affiliation (or, perhaps, non-affiliation) shape his work and his worldview? We get a hint -- Kim says he's neither a capitalist or a Communist, but a "love-ist," whatever that means -- but nothing more than a hint in this story.

We don't have these details from the Times, and more's the pity. There certainly is a "ghost" in this story, even if the subject is clearly identified as a Christian-backed school.

One other "ghost" here concerns the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the controversial (and affluent) Unification Church. Like James Kim, Moon had received ill-treatment at the hands of the North Koreans. And also like James Kim, Moon tried to reach out directly to North Korea's leadership -- in 1991, nearly 20 years before Kim began work on PUST.

At the time of Moon's death in 2009, The Atlantic ran a rather detailed piece on Moon's efforts, which failed to open up the "hermit kingdom." It would have been nice for Times readers to get even a slight mention of a previous religious leader's attempt to enter the DPRK's society. That's called historical context, isn't it?

INITIAL IMAGE: 2003 Nobel Chemistry laureate Peter Agre, right, visiting the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in 2009. (Wikimedia commons)

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