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Buddhists give North Korea food for thought

By Christian Oliver, FT.com, April 12, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- Inspiration comes easily to South Korea’s Buddhist abbots. The Venerable Bop Ta decided in the late 1990s he should build noodle factories in North Korea, and not just because of starvation in the secular dictatorship.

<< Buddhists at prayer in Seoul. Worshippers are in conflict with South Korea’s evangelical Protestants, hoping for gains after any unification

The factories could increase the role of Buddhism in inter-Korean rapprochement, clawing back ground from tenacious South Korean Protestant missionaries, who are eagerly seeking North Korean converts.

Religion is officially banned in North Korea and anyone who believes in any religion must practise in the utmost secrecy.

“I felt very uncomfortable the Protestants had set up so many North-South links, laying ground for unification. Buddhism has been a Korean religion for 1,500 years, while Protestantism has only been around for just over a century,” said the portly abbot, wearing the grey robes of the Jogye order.

South Korean Protestants, 18 per cent of the population, have put North Korea high on the agenda of their rich and politically influential churches, funding clandestine evangelical networks on the Chinese border. South Korean missionaries are famed for braving trouble spots and two were executed in Afghanistan in 2007.

Bop Ta, one of South Korea’s leading abbots, disapproved of such evangelists, who sometimes send North Korean converts back home to risk death as missionaries, depicted in state propaganda as child killers.

“Seducing people into defection is a business for Protestant missionaries but ultimately causes more conflict between North and South. It won’t undermine the regime. The families left behind by defectors suffer terribly,” he said in his office in Seoul. “The motivation for the noodle factory was that ideology should not matter. People just needed food.”

Anthropologists have said North Korean defectors, disillusioned with the personality cult dedicated to the founder of the nation, Kim Il-sung, yearn to fill the void with another faith. Jesus is beating Buddha.

“The difference when it comes to Christians and Buddhists approaching North Koreans is that the Christians are much more active and aggressive,” said Yoon Yeo-sang, president of a group collating data on North Korean human rights.

Bop Ta’s noodles form only one strand of Buddhist moves to make sure Christians do not monopolise the struggle for North Korea’s soul after unification. Buddhist monks are helping restore temples; only 60 of North Korea’s 500 shrines survived the 1950-1953 Korean war. The Venerable Jaseung, South Korea’s senior abbot, visited North Korea last year to arrange pilgrimages by thousands of South Korean Buddhists but Seoul, which has icy relations with Pyongyang after last year’s tests of an atomic warhead and long-range missile, vetoed them.

Bop Ta now runs two factories in North Korea, one in Pyongyang and one in Sariwon, a city 56km to the south. Sariwon has a strong Buddhist pedigree and is known across the peninsula for a song set there, “Night at Songbul temple”. Employing 70 staff, the factories import ingredients from South Korea before giving the noodles away.

During the “sunshine policy” of South Korea’s two previous leftwing presidents, Bop Ta sent 60 tonnes of ground wheat a month, feeding 7,700 people. Under President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who is cooler towards North Korea, that has dropped to 20 to 30 tonnes every two months. The missile test also reduced donations.

Bop Ta has visited North Korea almost 100 times, sometimes checking the recipients of handouts. Still, he admits he must largely trust the noodles are given to the needy and not to the military.

Bop Ta raises funds through a Buddhist charity, registered with South Korea’s unification ministry. Like many Buddhists, he has a prickly relationship with the government of Mr Lee, a Presbyterian accused of sidelining the country’s 23 per cent Buddhist population.

Suspicion of Bop Ta runs deep among conservatives. An activist against military dictatorship, he was arrested in the early 1990s for showing excessive sympathy for North Korea. More recently, the abbot was fined – he claims unfairly – over a construction contract.

Still, Mr Lee recently has called for better relations with the Buddhists.

Although North Koreans are unaware Bop Ta’s “Keumgang Noodles” hail from a Buddhist charity, South Korea’s Buddhists are also promoting cultural exchanges to bolster the old faith. While Christians were persecuted brutally under communism, Bop Ta said North Korean attitudes towards Buddhism were more ambivalent, with some 10,000 people (out of 24m) practising some kind of Buddhist rites.

“Buddhism is regarded as a patriotic institution in North Korea, associated with the nationalist movement and fighting Japanese colonial rule,” he said, but added temples were often tourist sites.

North Korean Buddhism is waning. Hwang Jang-yop, a former senior communist official and North Korea’s most high-profile defector, says the monks at temples there are “fakes”. Bop Ta said North Korea’s outlawing of Chinese script prevented proper study of ancient texts and that monks also defy tradition by marrying.

The Catholic Church has also responded to the challenge of Protestants dominating the landscape after unification, training priests to specialise in the North from Seoul.

Hwang Soon-il, a professor of Buddhist studies at Seoul’s Dongguk university, conceded Buddhists had not mobilised quickly on North Korea but argued Seoul’s cool relations with Pyongyang could not excuse inaction.

“If the government cannot do anything about it, we – the Buddhists – should.”

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