Buddhists give North Korea food for thought


From the Financial Times. By Christian Oliver

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. 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...

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