A Dangerous Mission

Christian evangelists are flocking to a special investment zone in North Korea:

For nearly two years, Kenneth Bae, an undercover missionary from Lynnwood, Wash., safely shuttled groups of Christians in and out of North Korea’s Rason Special Economic Zone. In November 2012, Bae’s crusade ended abruptly. The owner of Nations Tour, a China-based front company he formed as a cover to evangelize in the world’s last Stalinist state, Bae was arrested by North Korean agents as he passed through the Wonjong border crossing with a small group of European travelers. The 44-year-old Korean-American was charged with possession of “anti-DPRK literature,” convicted of encouraging foreigners to  “perpetrate hostile acts to bring down [the] government,” and sentenced to 15 years hard labor.

It is relatively rare that North Korea arrests a foreign national, even rarer when one considers that a company like Nations Tour is hardly unique.

The so-called “Business as Mission” movement, which instructs devout Christians to set up companies as vehicles for spiritual outreach, dates back to the 18th century but found new life at the beginning of the 21st. It’s a missionary model that, by definition, assumes a certain amount of risk for those setting out to reach the “unreached.”

But the risks haven’t dissuaded the faithful from taking up the cause. Today, there is an extensive, well-financed network of for-profit missions, using shadowy front companies to evangelize in North Korea. Though precise numbers are impossible to pin down, missionary-businesspeople have set up a staggering breadth of enterprises, including tour agencies, bakeries, factories, farms, even schools and orphanages, all in the name of spreading the Good Word.

Justin Rohrlich and Chad O’Carroll describe the 300-square-mile Rason Special Economic Zone as “ground zero for these modern apostles”:

Generations of central planning and Soviet-style inefficiencies have left North Korea in dire need of food, fuel, and just about everything else. The nation’s largest trading partner is neighboring China, from whom it buys much and sells little. With no rational person likely to accept Pyongyang’s terms for foreign direct investment, Kim Jong-un’s regime has few options. “The only people willing to do business in North Korea are ones who don’t really care if they make money or not, ones that have other reasons for being there,” says economist and investment strategist Patrick Chovanec, who has visited and analyzed North Korea extensively.