NORTH KOREA (BP)–Flicking ashes from his Chinese cigarette, Yong* contemplates a visitor’s question: Do North Koreans have lucky numbers?
As my husband Thomas* explains the significance of the No. 7 in gambling to Yong, I break out laughing. “Here you were thinking about casinos, and I was thinking about the No. 7 relating to religion and Christianity.”
“You’re a Christian?” Yong asks, swiveling his head in my direction.
“Yes,” my husband and I reply.
He quickly surveys the other foreigners in our tour group. Each answers with a resounding “No.”
“Do you believe in God?” I ask him.
“No,” he replies quickly. “Do you?”
It isn’t the conversation I’d envisioned having in P’yongyang, capital city of North Korea -– the isolated, communist country known officially as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Yet, as we shuttle from restaurants to monuments during our strictly guided tour, the impact of that short conversation colors my view of a nation one guard proudly calls “the last true socialist country in the world.”
On the second day of our three-day tour, I learn that my lifelong fear of heights is a gift from God. As the skies poured unrelentingly, I stare up at the 560-foot Juche Tower, yet another monument dedicated to the North Korean belief in a self-reliance ideology. I have no intention of riding a creaky elevator to the top of the tower.
As I lag at the back of the group, Yong sweeps out his arm in a gesture of gallantry for me to go ahead. When I explain my desire to stay rooted to the ground, he says, “I’ll stay with you.”
Yong pops open his umbrella and holds it over my head. My explanation of how my husband held an umbrella for me while we were dating leads to a discussion about dating practices in North Korea.
Yong and his wife had read a book, shared their opinions about it and then decided they would date. I smile and say that Thomas and I had done the same thing. We’d read the Bible and agreed on our opinions about it.
“The Bible?” he asks, leaning forward. “You’ve read the Bible?”
That simple question leads to an hour-long discussion. As rain sheets down around us, Yong asks question after question.
“Is it OK for religious and nonreligious people to marry?” “Did men really write the Bible?” “So you believe in God?”
I also ask questions. “How do you explain things in your life that you can’t control?” “Have you ever been curious about other religions?” “What is Juche?”
Yong explains that Juche is the belief that North Koreans are strong together, as comrades. They are given a political life in addition to their physical life. This second life comes from the Workers’ Party of Korea. When you die, he explains, your physical body dies, but your political life lives on.
“Is heaven, a physical place?” I ask.
“No, not heaven,” Yong replies. “You live on through your children and your children’s children.”
Good comrades work hard, have their basic needs provided for and depend on themselves. No extra expectations. No questioning authorities. And no God.
When I see the drenched members of our tour group returning, I look Yong in the eye and say, “Thank you for teaching me about Juche.”
He immediately nods, smiles and turns away without speaking.
During our brief interactions, our friendship grows. We bridge cultures and the distance created by more than 50 years of change outside the borders of his country. I watch him eat his first Oreo and hear him try out some Western slang, like “You owe me one.”
I also get to know his character and sense of humor. Beyond his approved, burred haircut and the red pin bearing the portrait of his “eternal leader” Kim Il Sung that hangs over his heart, I discover his everyday life.
He goes home each night to a government-supplied three-bedroom apartment that he shares with five family members. He attended college, where he learned about different religions, prompting his assessment that there is good in each.
I also learn to read his eyes.
Yet I can’t fathom what he wants when we stand together in the airport on our final day. In the midst of soldiers and security officers in an otherwise deserted lobby, I sit on my laundry bag. Yong looks down at me and asks, “What we discussed at Juche Tower, do you agree with me?”
“What?” I ask as I try to lift myself from the floor.
“What we discussed at Juche Tower, do you agree with me?” he repeats with intensity. “Do you believe we have a physical life and a political life?”
Sensing where the conversation is headed, Thomas steers our assigned guard and group members away with last-minute tourist questions.
Yes, I say, I believe we have two lives. But instead of physical and political lives, I believe they are physical and spiritual.
“Oh, you misunderstood me,” Yong says of my response. “When we say political, we mean spiritual. It’s the same thing.”
I explain the difference. Yong thoughtfully replies.
“[North] Korean people see the president as a god,” he says, a deviation from what most Koreans will admit. “They believe in two lives. It is very similar.”
His eyes don’t look like he believes it.
“Similar, but not the same,” I say. “I don’t want to disrespect your president, but imagine if you were God and created all mankind and the president. And you sent your Son to die for him, just like we’ve talked about.
“What if the man you made and love didn’t accept your gift? And instead made himself to be god, instead of you. I believe God still loved your president, but He was sad that the president set himself up as a god in God’s place.”
“Yes,” Yong replies seriously, as the corners of his mouth turned upward. A whoosh of breath expels from his lungs.
“Have I offended you?” I ask.
“No,” he replies.
I explain that if he chooses to accept Christ, the same God inside of us also will live inside him. Instead of comrades, we will be brothers and sisters of the same family. I also say I will pray for him, pray that God will bless his family and make Himself known to him, so he knows that God truly exists and loves him.
Yong has a look of desperation I’ve never witnessed before. He wants answers. He defies the generality one of his comrades made that “North Koreans don’t believe anything.” He defies theory that “you can’t share Christ with them.”
I hug Yong twice before we leave –- a move I’m certain rarely happens in the stoic culture. Yong grips Thomas and says, “I wish blessings on you and your family for a happy life.”
Yong stands, waving until we depart. It breaks my heart. It is one of the hardest steps I’ve ever taken.
One comment Yong made continues to echo in my mind. It brings me to tears on the airplane ride home. As we prepared to depart, Yong looked me in the face and said: “I’ve asked many foreigners, ‘Do you believe in God?’ They all said ‘No.’ You’re the first person that has ever said ‘Yes.'”
*Names changed for security reasons. Report released by BP international bureau.