PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — If Santa Claus stops in North Korea this year, he'll find some trees and lights and might even hear a Christmas song or two. But he won't encounter even a hint of what Christmas actually means — not under a regime that sees foreign religion a very real threat.
There are almost no practicing Christians in North Korea. But there used to be. And while the trappings of the holiday season they once celebrated haven't been completely expunged, any connections they had to the birth of Jesus have been thoroughly erased.
Take Christmas trees, for example.
They aren't especially hard to find in Pyongyang, especially in upscale restaurants or shops that cater to the local elite and the small community of resident foreigners. A waist-high tree was long a feature at the offices of the Koryolink mobile phone provider.
The trees are often decorated with colorful lights and shiny baubles, but none of the displays have explicitly religious associations. Many are up all year, further diluting their Christmas connotation.
Instrumental versions of "White Christmas" and "Let It Snow" have been in the rotation of mood music piped into the dining room of one of Pyongyang's ritziest hotels since at least last August. In the countryside, where such pockets of affluence are rare to nonexistent, so too, presumably, are any of these sorts of glitzy decorations.
This wasn't always the case.
Before the advent of the ruling Kim regime, North Korea was fertile ground for missionaries and Pyongyang had more Christians than any other city in Korea. It even had a seated Catholic bishop. Most of that presence was erased by the early 1950s, and the North has kept a tight lid on all Christian activities in the country since.
Article 68 of the North Korean constitution does give a nod to the freedom of religion — with the rather significant proviso that "religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order." A handful of Christian churches and other religious facilities are allowed to operate, but under tightly restricted conditions.
There are four state-approved Christian churches in Pyongyang — one Russian Orthodox, two Protestant and one Catholic.
Inside the Catholic cathedral are crosses, but no crucifixes. Weekly services feature hymns and prayers offered in a highly formalized manner, but there are no sacraments. State-appointed laymen lead the services, which are not sanctioned by the Vatican. The Protestant churches are reportedly largely unused.
The fact that Christmas-themed music and decorations are allowed at all and, in fact, generally taken for granted almost certainly signals how little association they evoke with the officially frowned-upon and subversive religion that spawned them.
Overt, unsanctioned religious activities are a very different matter.
As one American tourist found out not too long ago, merely leaving a Bible in a public space is enough to land you in jail for a potentially very long time: Jeffrey Fowle was sentenced to 15 years but ended up being released after six months. And Canadian Hyeon Soo Lim, a Christian pastor, was sentenced last year to life in prison with hard labor for alleged anti-state crimes inside the country.