This article is a part of the September 2013 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis. Access other articles from this issue or download the full issue as a free PDF download
For the last 70 years, Christianity has not been tolerated in North Korea (DPRK), and for at least 30 years before that there was persistent persecution during the Japanese occupation of Korea. There are regular reports of great persecution for the known Christians in DPRK—believers are not allowed to meet together for worship or even to own a Bible.
While the rest of the world is mainly focused on the issue of DPRK’s nuclear programme, there is great interest among Christians globally in the much more significant but largely untold story of what God is doing in a part of the Korean peninsula that formerly was known as the ‘Judaea of the East’, while its capital, Pyongyang, was known as the ‘Jerusalem of the East’.
Outreach through aid
For many years, church groups and Christian organizations have been very concerned for their brothers and sisters in DPRK and the generations of others there who have been growing up with no knowledge of God’s love for them. Most attempts to provide aid through normal administrative channels have been rejected by the government, but a few groups have had a little success:
- The outreach division of one of the main denominations in the United States negotiated over several years and received permission to assist the development of one of the open churches which has a seminary.
- This was a major development and it was a help, but very few such projects have been allowed.
- Most groups continue to work through humanitarian projects and special needs projects, like well-drilling and tuberculosis clinics.
Still there has been no real progress in meeting and working with known Christian groups in DPRK on a wider level.
Believers in DPRK
It is extremely difficult to verify the number of believers or where they are located, but reliable reports have come that there are many believers in DPRK. These faithful believers have had to remain so deeply hidden underground that it is hard to make contact with them. When ways can be found and communication begins, however, they are eager to interact and very grateful for any assistance that is offered, especially gifts of Bibles, hymnals or other materials to aid spiritual growth.
We wonder how these faithful believers could be growing under such difficult circumstances until we remember their Lord and Master. The church appears to be alive and growing in DPRK, despite all the persecution, and the believers seem even stronger because of the persecution. God is opening the doors to rebuild his church in the country.
Ministry in DPRK
God has chosen to use mostly non-institutional groups and often unlikely individuals to do his work. These individuals and groups are often not well organized, but they are probing to find the entry points, as God provides the open door:
- Some have worked to supply relief to simple human needs or to make a niche for themselves in some valid area of business or commerce.
- Still others have worked through education, such as the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (or PUST) project now in its third year. It is led and staffed by an avowed Christian faculty forbidden to speak about Jesus, but living the Christ-life before the students and depending on the Holy Spirit to use their lives as a witness.
The ministry to the hungry, the young and the poor is another approach that many groups have tried. Especially in the 1995-1998 period, when a series of droughts and floods left millions of people with little or no food and starvation may have claimed as many as 3 million lives, a number of groups used various doors of opportunity to transport food or foodstuffs to the country, usually with the assistance of some of the committed Korean-Chinese believers living in the Chinese border area along the Tumen River.
During this period, tens of thousands of North Koreans crossed the Chinese border to seek food or other assistance:
- They were usually given food, clothing, a safe place to a rest and an introduction to the Gospel.
- Many would receive sacks of food or other assistance and cross the river to return to their families on the other side of the river.
- Often there were Bibles in the center of the sacks of food.
As these same people came to get more food and to learn more about Jesus, they would bring news of the believers whom they had found in their communities. Some had been believers for many years—indeed a few had been quietly continuing their faith secretly since the country was divided.
Resourcing the church
As the believers in China heard about their brothers and sisters in DPRK and began to interact with them, international groups partnered with them to provide more resources:
- Bibles, hymnals and Bible study materials, including chronological Bible storying materials, have been carefully introduced into the country.
- Sometimes the North Korean brothers and sisters involved were discovered and were publicly executed or sent to the worst prison camps.
- The persecution seems only to have increased the growth. The people have been faithful and God has blessed with them with his presence.
House church seeds
When children whose parents had died formed part of this group of people who crossed the river, the churches began to form ‘shelters’ for these children that would provide a place to live, a loving caregiver, instruction in Chinese and an introduction to Jesus. Many international groups participated in providing for these shelters until the Chinese police began a crackdown in the mid-2000s.
At that time, many of the children who were in the shelters were discovered, as well as many adults, and even families who had been quietly living in China for some years. They were returned to North Korea and were sent to labor camps for ‘re-training’. Most had been exposed to Christian help and many had become Christians; so their punishment often was harsh and long.
Among the children who were apprehended at that time and sent back to North Korea, there were three young men who had been carefully tutored in the Bible and trained to lead Christian groups:
- Their time in the labor camps was not long because of their youth, and they were soon on the streets of their home town again.
- Their parents were dead and they were alone, but these three young men set up a business to support themselves and they began a small house church.
- They are one example of what we understand has happened in other areas as well.
Feeding children in care
One of the feeding projects that stands out is the one that Dr. James Chin Kyung Kim of Yanbian University of Science and Technology (or YUST) in Yanji, China, began over 20 years ago to supply food, medicine, and other needs to people in the northern provinces of DPRK where there were many reports of starvation and great need:
- Soon it developed into a feeding project for the children in these areas, primarily to children in the children’s homes.
- That project is funded by donations from people in churches around the world.
- It is now feeding about 40,000 children each month in areas all over the country.
The project does not control any of these homes, but it seeks in the Lord’s name to make them able to care for the children and provide good nutrition and health. The premise is that these children are the future citizens of Korea and they will remember that it was the Christians who fed, clothed and provided for them.
One of the graduates of YUST is the supervisor for this work now. As a Korean-Chinese, he enjoys relative freedom to travel in the country so that he can directly supervise the use of the materials or the funds he brings. He is also able to maintain a supervisory role with the workers who care for these children and to counsel them on teaching the children.
He is not able to teach the children openly in these homes, but this dedicated young man, a graduate also of a seminary in Seoul, is quietly ministering to the local workers who know that the food is given in the name of the Lord and by donations from Christians elsewhere. He has earned the trust and the affection of the people and is welcome whenever he goes.
Implications and suggested responses
The main point that should be noted here is that God is using the physical presence of his called-aside workers to live and work among people who do not know or understand. Some of these workers are internationals, but some are nationals whom he is enabling to minister to their own people. God’s approaches are not limited, and even though his believers may not see results immediately, they know the ground is being prepared and the seeds are being sown. A great harvest will come.
Christians around the world need to be aware of the quiet work that the Lord is doing in DPRK as he calls out workers and opens the doors for them to enter the country. No one knows when unification will come for the two Koreas or when the people in the northern half of the country will be free to worship openly, but we need to be prepared to assist without harming the quiet work that the Holy Spirit is now doing.
Assimilation will not be easy unless the Lord is at the heart of it. Believers who have been free must remember that these persecuted brothers and sisters will have much to teach us even as we work to help them to recover their spiritual heritage. They may well be the empowered ones who will take the Gospel into other persecuted areas and carry the message with great zeal and believability.
Christians globally can now be involved by praying for the willing servants he has sent, by supporting them or the organizations that send them or by seeking ways to join in this work as a participant. There are a number of groups who are openly involved in this work and who welcome volunteers or new partners. Anyone who desires to know how to reach one of these groups or to join as a participant may contact <[email protected]> for more information.
This article is being published anonymously to protect the author’s identity. She has been involved in work with Korean people in many locations for more than 40 years. The writer and her husband are still very active in this and are participants in a work that puts them in daily contact with people of the North. They are in awe of the wondrous things the Lord is doing for the Korean people.