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Although North Korea seems impenetrable and impregnable, with no apparent religious freedom, there are signs of hope, both through its history and its present situation. Throughout the country’s history, God has used Christians, both foreign and indigenous, to woo the people of Korea with his irresistible grace.
North Korea is a nation that has attempted to eradicate the Christian faith for over 70 years. The Kim dynasty has gone through many changes, and each change has been accompanied by hopes for political and religious reforms, but to no avail. Throughout these years, those who have sought to engage with North Korea have encountered ‘donor fatigue’ and criticism of the engagement approach, while some of those involved have suffered burnout or left. However, both throughout history and current Christian engagement, God is not absent in North Korea—indeed the display of God’s irresistible grace is manifested inside, and at times outside, this nation.1
Christianity in Korea
North Korea is in fact no stranger to Christianity. Christian revival, modern medicine, education, and the Independence Movement have been used by God to draw this nation to himself. In 1907, Pyongyang was declared the ‘Jerusalem of the East’ due to the vigour of its Christian presence and activities.
Medicine played a monumental role in opening Korea to Christianity. Horace Allen, an American medical missionary, arrived in Korea in 1884 and providentially was able to heal the Queen’s brother. Through this benevolent work, missionaries were welcomed to Korea, and Christianity received a significant boost. Soon after, Allen was able to establish a medical hospital and a school, and missionaries were then given permission to establish educational institutions all over the nation; Christians started 293 schools and 40 universities.
Christianity was identified with the Independence Movement against Japanese colonialism, which helped gain respect and legitimacy. This was a movement of unity which transcended socio-religious backgrounds. However, the role that Christians played was prominent and is recognized in history:
- Out of the 33 Independence Movement Declaration signatories, 16 were Christian.
- According to the Japanese police report in 1919, of the 19,525 persons arrested, 3,371 were Christians and 489 were clergy.
- Of the 471 women arrested, Christians accounted for more than 309.2
These figures are impressive considering that Christians amounted to less than 2% of the population at the time. These contributions gave Christianity credibility and legitimacy as a religion of Korea.
Persecution in North Korea
From 1945 until the early 1980s, many Christians were persecuted for their faith as the ruling party attempted to eradicate Christianity from the face of North Korea. The persecution and extermination of Christians were so thorough that in the 1970s, Kim Il Sung and the government declared there were no Christians in North Korea. Then in the 1980s, Kim Il Sung welcomed prominent religious leaders such as Billy Graham, Sun Myung Moon, and other Korean pastors, and declared that there was religious freedom in North Korea. However, the persecution continued.
After Kim Il Sung’s death, many North Koreans went hungry due to the demise of the former Soviet Union and the consequent reduction in Russian assistance to the North. Millions of people died of starvation and malnutrition, and out of desperation, hundreds of thousands of people headed to China in search of food and help.
From personal accounts during this period, we know that many North Koreans came to know the love of God and returned to North Korea with this hope. Thousands of North Koreans became Christians and are now living in North Korea with their personal faith in God. When it was not possible to come to know God’s love inside North Korea, many became Christians after coming out to China.
Engaging as Christians
It is important to realize that North Korea, although a Communist country like China, is very different. Christianity does not have the same historically negative associations as it does in China, where it is associated with issues related with colonialism, the ‘Unequal Treaties’, and the Opium Wars. Although underlying Communist ideology holds that religion is the ‘opiate of the masses’, Korean history associates Christianity with progress, education, and liberation. As a result, the recommendation is for Christian organizations to engage North Korea transparently as Christian entities.
Since 1995, over 70 Christian organizations and churches such as World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, Christian Friends of Korea, and the Mennonite Church have been welcomed by the North Korean government. Information below has been provided by Jiehae Blackman’s research:3
- From 1995 to 2012, there were about 480 foreign entities working inside North Korea, of which 70 were Christian.
- Christian groups have operated in 85 out of 145 counties in the country, meaning that some 60% have had some exposure to Christian organizations.
- Christian groups have operated in 23 out of the 27 cities. The four cities where they have not operated are: Kanggye city in Jagang province, Kimchaek city in N Hamgyong, Sunchon city in S Phyongan, and Tanchon city in S Hamgyong. Of the 23 cities in which they have operated, Pyongyang is the largest with 19% of all Christian projects. Rason accounts for 7%, Wonsan 6%, Nampho 5%, and Sariwon 4%.
Moreover, many secular organizations employ Christians inside North Korea.
The North Korean government tolerates—and indeed welcomes—Christian organizations because of their integrity and benefit to the nation. In one of my trips, one minder commented to me: ‘Many of the people coming into our country want to take advantage of us, but you (Christians) want to help us.’
Therefore, a disproportionate percentage of people working inside North Korea (as well as with North Koreans outside the country) are Christians. These Christians are engaged in their respective areas because they love God and North Korea. As long as North Koreans perceive that Christians are helping them because of their love for them, Christianity will be viewed as a religion for Korea in both the North and the South.
In God’s sovereignty, Christianity will not leave North Korea alone. Through secular and Christian employment, Christians engage in North Korea to bless this great nation. In God’s sovereignty and timing, he will allow Christian goodwill to bring spiritual dividends to the nation in ways we cannot fathom.
Lausanne North Korea Consultation
In February this year, 80 professionals, ministry experts, and church leaders gathered in Pasadena, California, to pray and envision ways for the global church to be more involved. Through the meetings, Christians shared incredible stories of living and working inside North Korea in contrast to the negative international press coverage of detentions, nuclear proliferation, and sanctions. Businessmen, diplomats, educators, relief, and NGO workers from different continents and countries presented various projects.
Moreover, Christian professionals shared testimonies of their concern for the plight of North Koreans and of their willingness to go and work inside. Various challenges were discussed too, including fears of imprisonment as well as member care, financial, spiritual, and relational issues affecting such potential workers. How is the church preparing to equip these young professionals to be engaged in difficult and uncertain circumstances in North Korea?
The challenge of unity
Christian unity will be one of the major challenges as North Korea opens up to foreign investment and commercial enterprises, one of its key policies. Throughout recent history, Christians have not done well in exhibiting cooperation and unity. Christian divisions, manifested in unhealthy competition, make it difficult for the world to grasp the gospel message clearly and differentiate cults from legitimate mainstream denominations.
Unless Christians give priority to unity there, it will be difficult for North Koreans to differentiate cults working there (such as the Moonies) from orthodox Christians. Whether we are operating in more sensitive areas or working to improve the livelihood of North Koreans inside, it is imperative that we unite as the body of Christ. We are not engaged in competing or disparate enterprises. If Jesus is Lord of our organization and our purpose is to bless the people of North Korea, then we need to proclaim one unified message of God’s love.
Theoretically, all Christians stand for unity until they or their organizations have something to lose. However, in order for true unity that will win the world to Christ (John 17:23) to be established, sacrifice is an essential factor in the equation. Are we willing to let go of our preconceived ways in order to receive a new thing (Isaiah 43:19) that God desires to do in and through the church?
Lesslie Newbigin, a respected missionary and theologian, laments:
How can we, unreconciled to one another, proclaim one reconciliation for the world? How can we be heralds of the one Lord, calling all men to accept His Lordship, when we cannot ourselves live together under His one rule? (Newbigin 1959: 55)
May we be brought to complete unity so that the North Koreans will know (John 17:23). Soli Deo gloria!
2 Kim, Sung-t’ae, ‘Chonggyoin-ui 3.1 Undong Ch’amyo-wa Kidokkyo-ui Yokhwal’ [Religionists’ Participation in the March First Movement and the Role of Christianity], Han’guk Kidokkyo Yoksa Yong’gu [Journal of the Institute for the Study of Korean Church History], 25 (1989): 17-24. Referenced in Timothy Lee (see reference below), 451.
3 The foreign engagement map has been a brain child of Jiehae Blackman and lists many of the foreign entities which have been engaged with North Korea. It can be located at http://www.engagedprk.org/.
Kim, C H Sebastian, and Kirsteen Kim. A History of Korean Christianity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Newbigin, Lesslie. One Body, One Gospel, One World: The Christian Mission Today. London: Wm Carling & Co Ltd, 1959.
Lee, Timothy S. ‘A Political Factor in the Rise of Protestantism in Korea: Protestantism and the 1919 March First Movement’ in Critical Readings on Christianity in Korea, Donald Baker, ed. Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2014.