I have been discussing the Danish election results with Christina this afternoon. For a small country, the results may not seem important, but they may be read as harbingers of the situation in Scandinavia more generally. Initially, the results may seem depressing for anyone with sympathies vaguely on the Left. The ‘blue block’ seems to to have won the election with the slimmest of margins, 90 seats to the ‘red block’s’ 89 seats. Why depressing? The Danish People’s Party (DF) has won more than 21 percent of the vote, becoming Denmark’s second largest party in the Folketing (parliament). This is the party that has campaigned on three issues for the last 20 years: anti-Muslim propaganda, a wider xenophobia and a rhetoric of watching out for the ‘little people’ who are ‘suffering’ from the EU’s policies. This party has now become the king-maker, nominating Lars Løkke Rasmussen of the centre-right Ventre Party as Prime Minister.

But let us look a little deeper into the election results. The Social-Democrats actually improved their standing, cementing their position as Denmark’s main party. They now command about 27% of the vote. However, their various allies in a conventional bourgeois democratic system did not get enough votes to get the ‘red block’ coalition over the line. The second most popular party is the Danish People’s Party (as I mentioned, with more than 21% of the vote), a kind of neo-fascist bunch with a populist appeal. The two main parties would seem to be the antithesis of one another. But at a deeper level, they have much in common. Both have played the xenophobia card. The Social-Democrats have pointed the finger at ‘Eastern Europeans’ as the bane of Denmark, while the People’s Party likes to target Arabs, Muslims and people with obvious skin colouring that is not white.

Why are they so close to one another? I suggest it has to do with the infamous Scandinavian welfare state. The Social Democrats have been the architects of the welfare state in Denmark (and also with similar parties in other Nordic states). The catch is that the welfare state can only function by means of strict controls as to who is eligible for its benefits. The boundaries have always been clear. The Danish People’s Party plays on that theme: they promise to care for those who have been disadvantaged by aggressive EU policies aimed at bringing in cheap labour to undermine the very structure of welfare state. In that sense, the Danish People’s Party is the child of the welfare state, laying bare its incipient xenophobia.

The upshot: the natural alliance should be between the Social Democrats and the Danish People’s Party, since the latter is the child of the former. In that way, they could easily form government (at more than 48% of the vote) with one of the other minor parties.

While I write my next story on the carefully guarded, if not manufactured, ‘secrecy’ of the DPRK in order to entice foreigners (such as the mythical fifth floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel), here are a few useful websites for anyone who may be interested.

The DPRK webpage: the website of the Korea Friendship Association, a group of politically sympathetic people.

The Korean Central News Agency:  for a truly DPRK view of the world.

North Korea Books: where you can get all you want on the DPRK (I bought about 15 books while there, mostly the writings of Kim Il-Sung). This site is currently under maintenance.

While on the subject of books, you can acquire Kim Il-Sung’s Memoirs as well, called With the Century. I am particularly interested in his sympathetic views on Christianity in this series.

A site dedicated to the Pyongyang Metro: I have a t-shirt on the metro, with the slogan ‘Take Me to Paradise’ (Rakwon means paradise and is one of the stations). I got hold of this gem at Koryo’s office in Beijing. It generated immense interest in the DPRK, since it is not available there as yet.

For anyone interested in the uniqueness of the DPRK, there is DPRK Retro, with some great archival stuff.

Tour operators. With more and more people going to the DPRK (now about 10,000 each year), new tour groups have sprung up. Young Pioneers offers budget tours, and they actually sell Stalin t-shirts. They offer some intriguing volunteer tours, working with farmers and so on. Another bunch, based in Beijing, is Koryo Tours. They are the ones with the most experience and probably have the best connections and ability to make things happen.

Most would hold that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) bans religion of all sorts, indeed that it has become a truly atheistic state. However, the various constitutions (1948, 1972, 1992) guarantee freedom of religion and non-religion. It may seem that such statements are not worth the paper on which they are written, but let us look at some facts.

To begin with, the local Chondoism – or ‘Religion of the Heavenly Way’ – is recognised and in fact favoured by the government. Based on the teachings of Choe Je-u (1824-1864), it melds Confucian influences and local religious traditions. It inspired the Donghak Peasant Revolution of 1894 and is seen by the current government as a revolutionary and thereby anti-imperialist movement. In an echo that will be familiar to many, this religion is characterised as minjung or ‘popular’. It has about 2.8 million adherents and 800 places of worship, and is led by Ryu Mi Yong, who ‘defected’ from south to north. Indeed, they even have a political party, called the Chondoist Chongu Party, or The Party of the Young Friends of the Heavenly Way.

But what about Christianity? Surely it is severely repressed. To be sure, its fortunes have been varied and its appeal has never been very strong. However, I am most intrigued by an article by Dae Young Ryu, ‘Fresh Wineskins for New Wine: A New Perspective on North Korean Christianity’, Journal of Church and State 48 (2006), pp. 659-75. It begins by noting a new openness of Christianity in the 1980s, with new churches built, a strengthened Protestant theological college in Pyongyang, and an increase in worshippers, now put at about 12,000. (This does not of course include foreign evangelical missionaries, who seem to want to spoil the party).

Is this a recent phenomenon, especially since the government itself has constructed the new churches? Not according to Ryu. He suggests it has a much longer history, going back to Christians of the 1950s who opted for Marxism-Leninism and supported the leadership of Kim Il-sung. This development is even more remarkable, since it took place in a context where Christianity was widely viewed as an imperialist, American phenomenon. Indeed, evidence indicates that the government tolerated about 200 pro-communist Christian churches during the 1960s. He writes:

Contrary to the common western view, it appears that North Korean leaders exhibited toleration to Christians who were supportive of Kim II Sung and his version of socialism. Presbyterian minister Gang Ryang Uk served as vice president of the DPRK from 1972 until his death in 1982, and Kim Chang Jun, an ordained Methodist minister, became vice chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly. They were buried in the exalted Patriots’ Cemetery, and many other church leaders received national honors and medals. It appears that the government allowed the house churches in recognition of Christians’ contribution to the building of the socialist nation (p. 673).

From this background, the role of the Korean Federation of Christians (a DPRK organisation) makes some sense. They established the Pyongyang theological college in 1972, published Bible translations and a hymnal in 1983, and oversaw the building of three new churches in 1988 with state funds. In all, five churches now exist in Pyongyang: three Protestant, one Roman Catholic and one Russian Orthodox (completed with state funds in 2006). The rise in numbers worshipping is attributed to the active search for Christians who are now enabled to worship openly. Even more, the Federation of Christians was crucial in enabling massive amounts of foreign aid into the north during the economic difficulties of the 1990s. Ryu writes that the ‘Federation has successfully established itself as a valuable organization that works for the greater good of North Korean society’.

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Above all, the Federation has been actively working with the south on a consistent campaign for reunification. Given that this is state policy in the north, it should be no surprise that the Federation has been seen in a positive light. Recently, on 15 August 2014, a worship service was held in Bongsu Protestant Church in Pyongyang, with prayers for peace and reunification. It was organised by the National Council of Churches of Korea (from the south) and the Korean Federation of Christians (from the north).

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DPR Korea, Pyongyang. 18 Oct. 2009 Visit to Bongsu Church with Secretary General Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia.

The lecture takes place tomorrow (Tuesday) at 19:40, as part of the series, ‘Perspectives: Lectures in Humanities’. And here is a lovely poster, produced by a very talented student:

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‘Brazen American imperialist aggressors’ – this is perhaps my favourite phrase from my first visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It appeared in a video shown at the museum of the Korean War. The video set out an alternative narrative, producing select pieces of evidence to show that the occupying US forces in the south had instigated the Korean War. Of course, each side in a conflict has its own narrative. The catch is that the US version has dominated accounts for the last 60 years, while that of the DPRK has not had the same privilege.

I was with a group of 20 people, all of us visiting the DPRK for the first time. They came from various countries in Europe, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In fact, one third of the group were Australians. Koryo Tours, based in Beijing, organised the tour, in conjunction with the Korean International Tourism Company based in the DPRK. We had one guide from Koryo and three from the Korean company. More details of that in another story, but I was struck by how many visitors come to the DPRK. Asking further, I was told by one of the guides with whom I had many discussions that more than 10,000 foreigners visit the north every year. Even more, many Koreans from the north travel internationally, mainly for study and business.

Our itinerary was packed from dawn to after dusk, with many sites visited in Pyongyang and then a trip along a bumpy road to Kaesong and the demilitarised zone between north and south. On the way, we often heard variations on my favourite phrase: ‘American imperialists’; ‘US aggressors’; ‘American colonisers’; ‘US occupation’. Some of the group became a little weary of the constant reiteration, preferring not to be reminded of the 70,000 US soldiers in the south, let alone the massive amount of military hardware and thousands of nuclear weapons.IMG_7412 (2) (320x203)

But the demilitarised zone itself was a real eye-opener. We were shown the place where the armistice was signed in 1953, the villages and farmers who live in the zone, and then taken to the 38th parallel. Here the feel was quite relaxed, with a smiling soldier telling us about the current situation and openly flirting with some of the women. We were free to photograph and joke.

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Looking out over the temporary border, we saw ten DPRK soldiers standing guard on one side. No foreign soldiers were present. However, on the other side only a couple of South Korean soldiers could be seen. The rest were clearly American soldiers. One soldier photographed us with a powerful lens as we photographed them all. But then, a small tour group from the other side appeared. They were led not by civilians, not by South Koreans, but by yet more swaggering US soldiers. Indeed, there were almost as many American GIs present as there were people in the group.

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The response in our group was palpable. They were clearly annoyed at the presence of so many American soldiers. Many spoke of the swagger, the arrogance of telling others what to do, the intervention in other countries. It seemed as though they had realised that the brazen imperialist aggressors were indeed present.

The Communist Party of China has launched a series of books, in English, explaining its functions and roles.

Understanding the CPC

More in the People’s Daily. Actually, I’ve been commissioned to write one or two articles for the People’s Daily, one on the sinification of Marxism and the other on the decline of bourgeois democracy in the United States.

The new issue of Critical Research on Religion is generating a good deal of debate, or at least the editorial is on the journal’s facebook page. The editorial is called ‘How Can Mainstream Approaches Become More Critical’ and was written by Warren Goldstein, Jonathan Boyarin, Rebekka King and me. We deal with studies in religion, theology, biblical criticism and sociology of religion. Here we develop a little further a key feature of the journal, which is that critical means not only careful ‘scientific’ analysis and self-criticism of the scholar (and discipline), but also discernment. On the second sense, we draw from the Greek kritikos, in which one discerns what is beneficial and harmful, or – as we interpret it – between what leads to human and natural flourishing and what does not. Some of the new ‘critical religion’ people seem to have taken exception to the second use of the term ‘critical’.

But I have been thinking a little more about this ‘critical religion’ approach, beyond the obvious turf war dimension, in which it attempts to sniff out yet another theological corpse beneath the floorboards or perhaps a ‘theo-sympathetic’ understanding of religion. I cannot help being reminded of the efforts by the nomothetic disciplines such as neoclassical economics, sociology and political science in the early twentieth century to divest themselves of ethical concerns, values and political agenda – so as not to be involved in any project that might improve the world even a little. They sought new homes, away from the arts and moral philosophy and among mathematics, physics and applied sciences. They saw themselves as doing no more than applying techniques, and thereby felt that they had become ‘professional’ and ‘scientific’. But the politics was not so much banished as redirected, so as to provide policy directions for the status quo under liberal democracies. I like Wallerstein’s observation on this process: such disciplines (and I would include the ‘critical religion’ approach here) take the form of university disciplines in which the ‘Western’ world studies itself, explaining its own functioning, the better to control what is happening. Obviously, there is something rather conservative about this, even forming the basis of a new kind of imperialism.

I am also somewhat bemused that such an approach seeks to remove religious concerns from the analysis of history, society, politics and economics – precisely when those disciplines have become acutely aware of the importance of religion. Practitioners in those areas are actively exploring religious questions and seeking the assistance of specialists in religion. Why? They divested their own approaches of religion some time ago, but now realise it was a mistake and often do not have the requisite skills to deal with it. On this matter, a ‘critical religion’ approach seems both unhelpful and somewhat behind the times, for it is trying to do to the study of religion what these disciplines did to themselves some decades ago.