Chae praying at the border of China and North Korea
The following article was printed in the September 2000 issue of Horizons Magazine, published by Mission Services Organization, P O Box 13111, Knoxville, TN 37920 and is used by their permission.
CHRISTIANS IN NORTH KOREA
By Yoon Kwon Chae
Are there Christians in North Korea? The answer is YES. How many of them? We do not know exactly, But there are at least ten thousand Christians and fifty preachers.
In the first place, North Korea used to be very much a Christian country before the Communists took over in 1945. Pyung Yang, the Capital of North Korea, was once called the “Jerusalem of Asia.” That’s where the great revival took place in 1907 and 1932 by the great Korean Christian leaders such as Kil, Sun Joo and Kim, Eek Doo. That’s where the indigenous movement took place and the typical Korean church movements of home Bible study and dawn prayer meetings started. A church in Pyung Yang has a record of 6,000 in attendance for a five o’clock dawn prayer meeting. They sent missionaries to Jaejoo Island, Japan, China and Mongolia. Pyung Yang was also a center for the resistance movement against the Japanese occupation. In fact, many Christian leaders such as Sang Hyun Chae (father of Yoon Kwon Chae) were imprisoned, and leaders such as Joo, Kee Chul died in prison resisting the Japanese military government forcing the worship of the Japanese shrines. When the second World War ended, there were at least 600,000 Christians in North Korea.
In 1945, Korea was liberated from the Japanese occupation. And, in spite of the fact that Korea had fought against Japan, unfortunately, Korea was divided by the allied forces into South and North Korea. North Korea was again occupied by the Russian Army. Immediately the socialization of North Korea started, including the persecution of Christians. Thousands of Christians became refugees to South Korea to escape persecutions. It is estimated that at least two-thirds of them came down to the South during the years of 1945 to 1950. They started their own churches of refugees in South Korea, which eventually became some of the largest churches in South Korea, including Yung Rak Church with more than 20,000 members. The constitution of North Korea has freedom of religion, but it also has the freedom to oppose religions. It is ironic that North Korea is the most class-conscious society and anyone who is classified as someone with a religious background cannot get a recommendation to apply for anything.
In North Korea, the persecution progressed in several stages. The first stage was the confiscation of church properties beginning in 1946. Not only the churches, but also the properties of Christians were confiscated along with the properties of landlords. Secondly, Christian education of young people, especially young people under 17, was forbidden by law. Thirdly, Christian meetings were forbidden. And, finally, Christian leaders were secretly executed. Especially when they started the Korean War, they secretly executed at least 500 Christian leaders including Cho, Man Shik. Many South Korean Christian leaders, such as Chae, Sang Hyun (father of Yoon Kwon Chae) were also executed. However, Christians kept on worshiping their God.
Going back to the question, “Are there Christians in North Korea?” Again, the answer is YES. However, we must first understand communism or the socialistic system of life. It is totalitarianism where everything is controlled by the government. There is practically no personal property. Not only in politics and the economy, but also a Socialistic country like North Korea will try to control even what to think. The movement of people is controlled by the government. That is, whenever someone wants to go anywhere, they have to report and get permission first, including going to church. Education is controlled and no religion is to be taught to the students. TV and radio as well as newspapers are controlled. That is, people hear only what the government wants them to hear. Actually, what people hear most of the time is praise for their leader. In everything they have to praise their leader. Someone said that North Korea is the most religious nation in the world… the religion of their own leader. In addition to that, they have a cell system where someone among the family or group is a spy for the Labor Party (which is the only party they have in North Korea and is even more powerful than the government). Everything is reported to the government or the Labor Party. Under these circumstances, we can easily imagine that going to church or being a Christian is almost impossible.
However, as far as we know, there are Christians in North Korea. There are two officially permitted churches and at least 500 home churches totaling about ten to twelve thousand Christians. How many underground churches there are, we never know. But we know that they exist. We know it through secret communications through third countries. There are no communications whatsoever through the border. However, by the reports of foreign visitors who were thoroughly screened by the North Korean government, we are convinced of the existence of the underground churches. They cannot meet publicly, of course. They meet secretly and sing hymns without making sounds or by using the melody of government songs. They read the scriptures by memory and whisper sermons. We have a secretly delivered letter from a converted Christian which says, “I am no longer a Socialist, nor a Capitalist, but I am a Jesusist.”
There is a government-controlled organization called “Christian Federation,” which is actually a part of their Labor Party organization. They published their Bibles and hymn books in 1988. (The content had been partly changed to meet their Communistic doctrine) They operate a Theological Seminary where they train their Christian leaders. (They had ten students last year and about 70 graduates so far.) Kim Il Sung University (named after their deceased leader) also opened a department of religion a few years ago and started to study Biblical criticism. It is also reported that many people are interested in reading the books criticizing the Bible, but only for the sake of reading scriptures quoted in those books. Recently a movement of their leaders has increased and some accepted and attended some Christian meetings held in South Korea. Also, they have been trying to be accepted by interdenominational church organizations such as the World Council of Christian Churches. It must be mentioned also that North Koreans who defected to South Korea have mostly become enthusiastic Christians. (Seoul Christian University has several such students.) One good example is Kim,Hyun Hee who, as a North Korean agent, exploded a Korean Airline plane, killing more than one hundred people. After her capture and pardon, she became a devout Christian.
What will happen to the North Korean Christians? No one knows. However, these Christians will keep on meeting and will be increasing in number. Even from North Korean governmental reports, an increase of about 50 every year is apparent. The communistic government may be able to destroy freedom; they may be able to destroy democracy; but GOD THEY CANNOT DESTROY!
What can we do to help these Christians? Actually there is not much we can do presently, except to be prepared. What we, as Korean Christians, are doing is as follows: (1) sending Christian messages through radio, (2) sending small Bibles and Gospel tracts by balloons or through a third country, (3) sending humanitarian help such as rice, medicine, fertilizer, etc., and (4) training Christian evangelists in China who could go into North Korea.
However, we believe that God will open the door before long. One way of opening the door will be the unification of Korea. We believe that Korea will be united sooner or later. Whether the unification will come by negotiation or by military action (likely an invasion by the North Korean Army), we never know. But the unification will come and the door of evangelism will be opened. And, once again, North Korea may become the Jerusalem of Asia. Until then, we keep on praying, broadcasting, smuggling Bibles and working as long as our breath lasts.
[See the Archives of Bro. Chae's newsletters for more references to North Korea.]