The North Korea Mission has involved one of the most strenuous efforts in the contemporary world missionary movement, but also one of the most futile and least understood. Bearing in mind the evolution of the policy of South Korean governments on North Korea, this study aims to clarify the change and challenges of two different ministries concerning North Korea: the North Korea Mission itself and the South-North Korea peace and reunification movement. Both ministries are multifaceted, showing differences in ideas, strategies, and parties concerned. They can be implemented, however, by the synergic effort of evangelical and ecumenical mission.


The North Korea Mission has involved one of the most strenuous efforts in the contemporary world missionary movement, and as a mission it has also proven to be one of the most futile and least understood. It is necessary to put the North Korea Mission in perspective to help understand it and facilitate future missionary endeavors concerning North Korea. At present, North Korea is hostile to Christianity, despite rapid church growth during the period prior to the liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, when Pyongyang was dubbed the Jerusalem of Asia. This memory is still a major driving force in the North Korea Mission of the South Korean church. Since the liberation period, however, antagonism against Christianity has been deeply embedded in socialist North Korea’s sociopolitical identity. Moreover, people in South and North Korea are still suffering from the scars of the Korean War (1950–53), the first hot war of the Cold War era.

Considering that North Korea still belongs to the world of the Cold War and is situated in Northeast Asia, a hotbed of international tension, it is necessary to approach the theme of the North Korea Mission from both missionary and political viewpoints. Bearing in mind also the evolution of the policy of South Korean governments toward North Korea, this study aims to clarify the change and challenges of two different ministries concerning North Korea: the North Korea Mission itself and the South-North Korea peace and reunification movement (hereafter the reunification movement). To this end, I divide the period under consideration into three parts, according to political changes in and around the Korean Peninsula at the global and national levels: the Cold War period (1945–72), the détente period (1972–89), and the post-Communist period (1989–present).[1]

The Cold War period (1945–72)

From liberation to the establishment of the South Korean government (1945–48). In 1945, after almost four decades of Japanese colonial rule, the dream of independence came true, and yet its price was high: national division. In the immediate aftermath of liberation, the political agenda of nation-state building competed with the ethnic/nationalistic goal of reunification. During the ensuing military government, however, the Korean people had little, if any, power to decide the matter themselves. Through international Realpolitik and domestic political feuding, the chaos of postwar Korea developed into the divided and mutually antagonistic national governments in South and North Korea.

In the meantime, the Christians from North Korea, who had composed the majority of Korean Christians in the preliberation years, began to escape to the South and gradually transformed the landscape of the South Korean church, increasing their influence in their new home. In South Korea, where they thought to stay temporarily but remained permanently, they felt torn between two irreconcilable aspirations: reunification and survival. Although both aspirations were strong, they were not ready to pursue the former at the price of the latter. Furthermore, being refugees from North Korea (now the enemy of South Korea), their room for maneuver was fundamentally reduced: they were a special-interest group concerning reunification, but at the same time they were vulnerable to the allegation of complicity with Communism. Not surprisingly, it was easier and safer for them to side with anti-Communism. In short, their deep longing for reunification was overshadowed by their limited and cautious involvement in the cause.

The first wave of North Korean Christian defectors (in Korean, Wolnammin) in the South, however, did begin a ministry of their own making, best described as a mission for the North Korean Christians in the South. First, pastors from North Korea started an organization called the Committee of the Representatives of North Korean Christians. This group was organized at Bethany Church (now the Youngnak Presbyterian Church) in Seoul on August 15, 1947. The resolution of the first meeting was twofold: (1) that churches for North Korean Christians should be planted by North Korean pastors and (2) that secondary schools for the children of North Korean Christians should be established. To this end, the organization proposed a project to loan the funds reserved for North Korea of the American Presbyterian church (PC[USA]), with the intention of repaying it for the reconstruction of churches in North Korea in the future. The responsibility to secure funds was laid on the Reverend Han Kyung-Chik.[2] And the so-called evangelical North Korea Mission was initiated as an ecumenical mission effort.

The organization benefited from missionary resources as seed money, allowing North Korean Christians to successfully relocate in the South, where they even found themselves able to be the core of the Korean church once again. Furthermore, they began to be involved in the ideological strife in the South between the Left and the Right, and thus the North Korea Mission from the very beginning tended to be politicized. The titles of the seven subcommittees of the organization in 1949 describe clearly the key areas of ministry: church planting, church consciousness, army enlightenment, youth group guidance, propaganda against the North, immediate political issues, and student relief. In 1950 a sister organization was established, the Assembly of North Korean Christians, which adopted a fivefold resolution including issues such as patriotism, faith, reunification, and evangelization. In late 1950, when the UN forces crossed into the North, the organization began to discuss the agenda of the reconstruction of churches in the North.[3] In the aftermath of the war, however, the organization lost momentum and faded out, only to be reestablished in 1980, when the churches sponsored by the fund had already grown large and there was no need to repay the fund, which ironically means that the South Korean church at that time in effect gave up the prospect of recovering the North Korean church.[4] At any rate, the North Korea Mission gradually underwent an evolution from mission for the North Koreans in the South to mission for the North. Unfortunately, during these years, the voice of the reunification movement was rarely heard.

On the other side of the inter-Korean divide following the end of colonial rule, Christianity was in crisis under the emerging Communist government in North Korea. The church was domesticated, and in 1946 a new government-controlled Christian organization called the North Joseon Christian Fellowship came into being. In the aftermath of the Korean War, the already exhausted church was finally dissolved and had a long latent period until the early 1970s. This demise of the North Korean church led to the hollowing out of Christianity in the North and the shift of the gravity of Christianity on the peninsula from North to South, which had already begun in the late 1940s.

From the establishment of the South Korean government to the 7.4 South-North (North-South) Joint Statement (1948–72). The first president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, was a shrewd politician who put nation-state building ahead of reunification. Under his leadership the agenda of reunification came to be seen as dangerous and even antigovernmental. Given the circumstances, the Korean Christians in general took a progovernmental stance, echoing the government’s policy on reunification. This alignment signaled the beginning of the persecution of the advocates of the nongovernmental and/or civil reunification movement and the monopolization of the reunification issue by the government. As late as 1986, a member of the National Assembly, which supposedly granted its members immunity, was arrested at home because he asked in session whether reunification was the national policy.

Nevertheless, as the Syngman Rhee administration, the first indigenous government, could not totally ignore the necessity and legitimacy of the agenda of reunification, it paid lip service to the reunification issue, insisting on the belligerent policy of “reunification by conquering North Korea,” which was unlikely to be realized, given South Korea’s limited military capacity at the time. Meanwhile, North Korea also asserted an equally violent policy of “reunification by Bolshevizing of South Korea.” The heated battle between two aggressive policies of reunification soon developed into a real war—the first civil and international war in the Cold War era, which resulted in irreparable loss to the entire peninsula.

Although regime change continued in South Korea in the postwar period, including the administrations of Syngman Rhee, Yun Bo-seon, and Park Chung-hee, there was virtually no difference in the stances of the governments on North Korea. The young people and the elite did ignite the reunification movement time and again, but in every case the flame was quickly extinguished. In short, both the North Korea Mission and the reunification movement existed in relative hibernation during this period. The mission was in reality deactivated, given that there was no way to reach out to the North; and even those who opted for the democratization movement tended to evade the reunification movement, since their complicity in it would be fatal to them in that the government at that time equated the unauthorized reunification movement with pro-Communist activities.

Meanwhile, interest in the North Korea Mission gradually began to develop from the mid-twentieth century in various ways. In 1969 Rev. Kang Sin-Myung recommended the establishment of the Standing Committee for the North Korean Church at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, and in 1971 the denomination organized the Committee for North Korea Mission, which was the first of its kind. The committee changed its name to the Committee for South-North Korea Mission Cooperation in 1991 to ease the relationship between the South Korean church and the reemerging North Korean church, and then again to the Committee for South-North Korea Mission and Reunification in 1996 to harmonize the two issues of mission and reunification. In 1971 united worship for the liberation of North Korea was held in the Youngnak Presbyterian Church. In 1972 the above-mentioned committee began to broadcast to North Korea through the Christian Broadcasting Service and the Far East Broadcasting Company. It is interesting that the establishment of the committee predated the landmark 7.4 South-North (North-South) Joint Statement by one year.

The joint statement trumpeted the arrival of the détente and seemingly gave hope to the Koreans, but ultimately it achieved nothing. Betraying the expectations of the Korean people, the authoritative regimes in both South and North exploited the joint statement for the consolidation of dictatorship—the Yusin System in the South and the Yuil System in the North—thus maintaining the status quo of dangerous coexistence. Nonetheless, the joint statement bequeathed a legacy in its own way. First, a Unification Provision was for the first time included in the South Korean Constitution (the Yusin Constitution in 1972), and second, the joint statement summarized the essence of reunification in three concepts: independence, peace, and national unity.

The détente period (1972–89)

During the détente period, the relationship between South and North Korea was in deadlock because of their rivalry. However, there were also signs of changes. The North Korean church reemerged in the 1970s, together with the reestablishment of the Joseon Christian Fellowship, and frequently appeared on the international stage, particularly at the peace conferences organized by the European churches.[5] Meanwhile, the world churches and ecumenical bodies, particularly the World Council of Churches, helped launch a visit to North Korea. The overseas Korean Christians such as the Korean Christian Church in Japan took the lead in developing a relationship with the North. This connection paved the way for numerous international meetings among the South, North, and overseas Korean Christians such as at the Dozanso and Glion meetings in the 1980s. In particular, at the Glion meeting in 1986, South and North Korean Christians gathered together for the first time since the division of the nation. In the meantime, the Joseon Christian Fellowship began various areas of work: the publication of the Bible and the hymnal in 1983 and 1984, and the construction of the Bongsu Church and the Chilgok Church in Pyongyang in 1988 and 1992. Among South Koreans at that time, however, these efforts were often regarded with doubt and suspicion as being merely North Korean attempts at advancing their international network and united front activities.

Meanwhile, the 5.18 Gwangju Democratization Movement in 1980, which took place in the aftermath of the assassination of Park Chung-hee and during which Chun Doo-hwan rose to power by suppressing the uprising, turned out to be a watershed for the reunification movement, marking the rise of anti-Americanism because of alleged American support for the dictator. At this time the belief that democratization could not be completed without reunification became an established idea. This concept made a breakthrough; together with the international meetings among the elite usually held outside of the Korean Peninsula, the youth and the religious dared to employ shock therapy, such as making an illegal visit to North Korea. On their return from the North, the visitors soon found themselves behind bars. This was a particularly challenging time for the reunification movement.

During this period, there were diverse quarrels over the North Korea Mission and the reunification movement, including competition and conflict over initiatives between the overseas and the South Korean Christians, between the partner churches, and between government and civil sectors. Moreover, the reemergence of the church in North Korea raised questions of ecclesiology and missiology among South Korean Christian minds, namely, whether the Joseon Christian Fellowship of North Korea was genuine, and thus whether cooperation with it was necessary and worthwhile. One way this problem may be addressed going forward is through a process of “change through contact,” as other contributors in this special issue suggest. Such continued contact has facilitated an improved view in the South Korean church of post-Communist churches in Germany, and of the church in mainland China over the last several decades.

The détente period began with the 7.4 Joint Statement and ended with the historical Declaration of the Churches of Korea on National Unification and Peace of the National Council of Churches in Korea in 1988. The declaration in general is regarded as one of the most important and sophisticated documents on reunification, which increased the essential aspects of reunification from three to five, adding the concepts of humanitarianism and democratic participation. However, sensitive issues such as the confession of culpability for the division of the nation occasioned conflict among South Korean Christians.[6] Along with the different stance on mission and North Korea, the ministry for North Korea divided into two groups: the conservatives for the North Korea Mission, and the moderates and progressives for the reunification movement. Because of limited exchange between South and North Korea, however, both groups were restricted in what they could achieve and thus in effect were not far from each other in practice. Against this historical background the Christian Council of Korea, an indigenous ecumenical body, was established by conservative Christians in 1989, fearing that the National Council of Churches in Korea might otherwise monopolize the issue of reunification.

The post-Communist period (1989–present)

The downfall of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, shook the world, and it also affected relations between South and North Korea. The Roh Tae-Woo administration’s Nordpolitik—a Korean version of German chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik—challenged the Korean church to begin the ministry for North Korea in earnest, and reportedly the administration even adopted some ideas from the above-mentioned 1988 Declaration. Although the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994 consistently raised people’s expectations of North Korea’s sudden collapse, the North Korean government has proved remarkably resilient over the last three decades. Because of the strained relationship between South and North Korea, no policy on North Korea has proved to be effective in achieving unification. Instead, missions to post-Communist countries were in the spotlight, and since that time the idea of the North Korea Mission using missionaries from post-Communist countries had been entertained.[7]

In the meantime, the Korean church began a worldwide relief ministry called the Loving Drive to Share Rice movement, aimed especially at poor post-Communist countries such as Mongolia, and it hoped to extend the movement to North Korea. The ecumenicals eased South-North Korean relations after many years of efforts, and the evangelicals followed suit, applying a strategy of differentiating the North Korean people from their government in a bid to overcome evangelicals’ animosity against the North.[8] The evangelicals also began to join ecumenical international meetings such as the conference hosted by the Korean Christian Church in Japan, which provided an opportunity to meet the North Korean church; and together with the ecumenicals, the evangelicals organized the Seven Denominations’ Council for Peace and Reunification to facilitate their North Korea Mission agenda in an ecumenical setting.[9] The hardline conservative denominations such as the General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in Korea, which joined the council, would have never carried out such a radical ecumenical experiment within Korea at the time. In the mid-1990s crises such as the famine in North Korea provided both ministries with the common ground to cooperate, mainly in relief ministry. The experience of cooperation led to the establishment of a joint organization by the conservatives and progressives in 2000.

Moreover, the period of famine triggered a mass exodus of North Korean defectors (in Korean: Talbukja, or Bukhanitaljumin, the second wave of North Korean defectors) into China and thence into third countries, including South Korea. This phenomenon gave us a new perspective of mission and reunification: mission and reunification by North Korean defectors, and mission for North Korean defectors. North Korean defectors tended to be conservative and to favor North Korea Mission rather than the reunification movement. At present, the South Korean churches seek an innovative way of mobilizing North Korean defectors for mission and reunification. However, North Korean defectors are treated as domestic migrants rather than asylum seekers in South Korea because of the South’s constitutional claim to governance of the entire peninsula. However, since mission for North Korean defectors is a work that crosses borders, it soon transformed the North Korea Mission into a new form of international mission.

In the new millennium, the future does not look bright for either movement. The inter-Korean stalemate shows no sign of reaching a settlement, despite periods of progress on inter-Korean cooperation such as that which occurred during the era of progressive government between 1998 and 2007, when the Sunshine Policy of engagement was in force. Regardless of the ebb and flow of inter-Korean cooperation, both the North Korea Mission and the reunification movement ministries continued to be eclipsed by government policies, which fluctuate depending on the degree of tension present.

Since the beginning of the third millennium, the reunification movement has assumed a new aspect: that of peace, in light of the ever-heightening tensions. A result is that peace now takes priority over unification. With a new framework of unification as a profit-seeking exercise and an increasing disinterest in unification in South Korea, particularly among the younger generations,[10] there is a growing realization that achieving unity is becoming only more challenging. Furthermore, South Korea is undergoing a radical social transformation from a homogenous to a multiethnic society that puts prosperity before reunification.

In contrast, the North Korea Mission has sought to emphasize what we might call the spiritual unification jackpot that awaits the Korean people after the fall of the North Korean regime, namely, that reunification (so it is hoped) will bring about a Christianized North Korea and the recovery of past glory. Research shows, however, that people in post-Communist countries typically search for economic prosperity rather than God, opting for secularism rather than Christian faith.[11] In short, missions to post-Communist countries has not brought about what it had promised, and there is no guarantee that North Korea would be any different.


This article demonstrates that the North Korea Mission and the reunification movement are complex and multifaceted, showing differences in ideas, strategies, parties concerned, and initiatives, and that both ministries could be implemented by the synergic effort of evangelical and ecumenical mission. It was shown that both ministries are in need sophistication, longer-term prospects, and total dedication.

The outlook for the ministries is not bright, although the Korean people in general show interest in the issues. The newer Koreans—the younger generation and new immigrants—are showing less interest in the agenda than are the more ideologically and ethnically homogenous, older Koreans. There is no vast distance between the evangelicals and the ecumenicals in practice; in fact, there has been more interaction between the two groups than is generally assumed. The prospects for the evangelization of North Korea remain uncertain, since the effectiveness of mission to post-Communist countries has been far below what people had imagined. There is no doubt that both ministries are part of a nationalistic agenda, and yet they have also have an international component.

There is still a long way to go in implementing the work for North Korea. Domestically, many gaps need to be bridged: generational, ideological, ethnic, and even that between the first and second waves of North Korean defectors. Internationally, there is a need to boost the spirit of peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas and among the countries surrounding the Korean Peninsula, by providing an agreeable blueprint for reunification that those countries can support rather than inhibit.


  1. This article is supported by the Research Fund of the Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary, 2018. For the Romanization of the Korean language, I follow the “Romanization regulation of the Korean language” (July 7, 2000; Ministry of Culture and Tourism). Except in footnotes, names appear in the normal Korean sequence: family name, followed by given name.
  2. The Editorial Committee of the Committee of the Representatives of the North Korean Christians, The Anthology of the North Korean Christians (in Korean) ([Seoul]: The Editorial Committee, 1984), 13. According to the minutes of the inaugural meeting of the organization, Reverend Han had come to realize that there were funds available for their plan when he participated in the Lake Mohonk Consultation, a landmark mission conference, which was organized by the PC(USA) in 1956 to boost the spirit of ecumenical mission among partner churches. However, considering that the inaugural meeting was held in 1947 and the Consultation in 1956, the record seems to be chronologically incorrect. Among the South Korean churches, Presbyterians are predominant in mission and reunification ministries.
  3. Ibid., 23, 26–29. During that time, American Presbyterian missionaries temporarily visited their former mission field.
  4. Ibid., 46.
  5. The organization changed its name from North Joseon Christian Fellowship (1946) to Joseon Christian Fellowship (1970s), and then to Korean Christian Federation (1999).
  6. The Committee of Reunification of the National Council of Churches in Korea, ed., The Compilation of the Peace and Reunification Movement of the Korean Church, 1980–2000 (in Korean) (Seoul: National Council of Churches in Korea, 2000), 102–51.
  7. Sawa Masahiko suggested a similar idea as early as in 1978. See his Study on the History of the North and South Korean Church, trans. Suk-ja Kim and Mun-gu Kang (Seoul: Minjungsa, 1997), 198–202. The Japanese version was originally published in 1982, and the article in the book in 1978.
  8. Chung-Yoube Ha, “North Korea Missionary Work of Rev. Kyung-Chik Han,” in Kyung-Chik Han Collection 10: Theses 2, ed. Eun-seop Kim (Seoul: Kyung-chik Han Foundation, 2010), 528.
  9. The Seven Denominations’ Council for Peace and Reunification, The Compilation of the Fifth Christian Conference for the Peace and Reunification and Mission of the Fatherland in Tokyo (in Korean) (Tokyo: Seven Denominations’ Council for the Peace and Reunification, 1996).
  10. Sung-bihn Yim, “A Theological Reflection on the Generation Gap and the Perception of the Reunification,” Korea Presbyterian Journal of Theology 46, no. 2 (2014): 247–70.
  11. Pavol Bargár, “The Problem of Consumerism in the Context of Churches in Former Czechoslovakia after 1989,” in Crisis Situations in the Czecho-Slovak Context after 1989, ed. Zuzana Jurechová and Pavol Bargár (Prague: Central European Centre for Mission Studies, 2011), 108–25; Young-dong Kim, “A Study on the Direction of the Participation of the Church for the Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula,” in The German Experience of Reunification and the Prospect for the Korean Reunification (in Korean), ed. Kyo Seong Ahn (Seoul: Nanumsa, 2016), 77–80.

This is the author-accepted manuscript. The fully-published article can be found here.

Kyo Seong Ahn, North Korea Mission in Historical Perspective. International Bulletin of Mission Research,  42 (2), pp. 116-124. Copyright © 2018 by the Author(s). Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.

Kyo Seong Ahn teaches church history at the Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary in Seoul. He coedited Korean Church, God’s Mission, Global Christianity (Regnum Books International, 2015).