Preaching the Gospel in the Hermit Kingdom

Can Christian evangelicals save North Korea?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

North Korea is a difficult place to spread the Gospel. In the last year, at least three Christian activists working on the border have been stabbed by poisoned needles, likely wielded by North Korean assassins; one, a South Korean pastor who helped smuggle North Koreans out of China, died by the time he reached the hospital. Dozens of missionaries have languished in Chinese prisons, arrested after leaving North Korea or while attempting to enter.

Despite the perception of North Korea as a country hermetically sealed to the outside — and despite the very real risks — dozens, if not hundreds, of Christian missionaries operate inside the country, sometimes living there for months at a stretch, in the capital, Pyongyang, or in the Rason region, near the country’s Chinese border. Some run factories, distributing bread and soy milk to the poor. Others work for NGOs or universities, like the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, North Korea’s first privately funded university (launched in 2010), which is bankrolled mostly by evangelical Christian movements. Its founder James Kim, who has spent prison time in North Korea for proselytizing, likes to say that he has "unlimited credit at the bank of heaven."

Of the five NGOs that formed the consortium that the U.S. government worked with to deliver food aid to North Korea until 2009, four are evangelical Christian organizations. One of them, World Vision, only hires candidates who believe in Jesus. Heidi Linton runs Christian Friends of Korea, an organization that has sent more than $55 million dollars in food, supplies, and medical equipment throughout the country since 1995. Linton explains to North Korean patients and hospital staff that the donors give out of their love for God. "You don’t go into a lot of detail at that point, but we love because God first loved us," says Linton. "No, we cannot give Bibles, we cannot give tracts, but we can live out for them what it means to be a Christian." Asked how many people have been converted, she demurs: "We plant the seed and God brings in the harvest, in his time and in his way."

So how do you bring the morals and values of Christianity to the world’s most closed country? With infinite patience. A missionary from the United States with almost 20 years of experience working with North Korea explains: "We’re not allowed to visibly pray. You can’t bow your head, and you can’t close your eyes. But when you’re praying you’re talking to God," she says. "All the education we’re giving them is designed to make them think the truth — of all sorts." Linton brought four ambulances into North Korea emblazoned with the Christian Friends of Korea logo, which includes a prominent cross. "They’ve told us multiple times that we need to change our name and our logo," she says. "And we said, ‘No, that’s why we’re here.’" Proselytizing inside North Korea "has to be done almost exclusively in a one-on-one setting, where you talk to someone, typically someone you know very well, about faith," says Todd Nettleton, director of media development at Voice of the Martyrs USA, who says that the organization and its partners dropped 1,467,600 Gospel fliers via balloons into North Korea in 2011.

"The picture we have of missionary work, where you go and try to talk to as many people as possible, or where you’re on a street corner handing out missionary tracts, is so far from [what is allowed in North Korea] it’s not even on the same planet. It’s painstaking, risky work."

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Part of the allure to missionaries is that Pyongyang used to be one of the great seats of Christianity in Asia and an example of successful proselytizing. "We harken back to the late 19th century when missionaries were being stoned out of Pyongyang, literally, and it took years of work before they were allowed to do actual evangelism," says Linton. Known in the 1920s as the Jerusalem of the East, Pyongyang had a flourishing evangelical community; Billy Graham’s wife* spent three years in missionary school there. In the 1940s, an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the adult population of Pyongyang was composed of church-going Christians. Missionaries also worked in South Korea, planting the seeds for Christianity that thrived under its military dictatorship and after the democracy movement succeeded in the late 1980s. Today South Korea is one of the world’s most Christian countries; as of 2008, Seoul boasted 11 out of 12 of the world’s largest Christian congregations, and South Korea is second only to the United States in the number of missionaries it sends overseas.

Not so in North Korea. When Kim Il Sung, the first president of independent North Korea, consolidated his power in the early 1950s after the Korean War, he decimated the Christian population, which he saw as an independent power source and a threat to his rule. By the time of his death in 1994, there were few Christians in North Korea, if any. Comic books featured stories of Christian missionaries injecting North Korean children with deadly infections.

Little is known about Christianity in North Korea under Kim Il Sung, because so few North Koreans defected. When his son, Kim Jong Il, took power in 1994 and famine hit, hundreds of North Koreans fled to South Korea; thousands more began traveling back and forth across the Chinese border searching for food, acting as conduits of information between North Korea and the outside world. The famine and the death of Kim Il Sung also "coincided with the opening of North Korea to NGOs, hence the increased presence of missionaries" eager for a chance to preach the Gospel in the closed country, says Marie-Laure Verdier, a Ph.D. student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London who is studying Christian organizations working in North Korea.

But Pyongyang didn’t go soft all of a sudden. Under Kim Jong Il, persecution of Christians likely worsened "because of increased efforts of evangelization by missionaries on the border," says Verdier. "From the viewpoint of the Kim regime, Christianity is seen as a great challenge and a great danger, an alternate order of things," says Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Take Je Yell Kim, a Canadian dentist who spent a decade in Rason and set up a church service for expats in the region; he was sentenced to three months in a North Korean prison in November 2007 for charges related to "national security." Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a teacher from Massachusetts, walked across the North Korean border in January 2010. He spent eight months in prison, where he reportedly attempted suicide, until former U.S. President Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang and secured his release. Often, cases go unreported to avoid jeopardizing the delicate diplomacy among North Korea, the Christian organizations, and the imprisoned aid workers’ home governments. A letter sent out to a missionary email network in late 2007 announcing Je Yell Kim’s arrest asked members to refrain from speaking to the press. They did refrain, and his arrest wasn’t reported until his release.

Missionary Robert Park, who worshipped at the same church as Gomes in South Korea, walked across the border in December 2009 shouting "God loves you and God bless you" while carrying a Bible and a letter beseeching Kim Jong Il to relinquish power. The government released him 43 days later, claiming via the Korean Central News Agency that Park was now "ashamed" of his biased views and was now convinced "there’s complete religious freedom for all people everywhere" in North Korea. Park now lives in Seoul and advocates for North Korea’s human rights situation to be labeled genocide. He has spoken of sexual abuse at the hands of his captors and says, "What I suffered as a human being I would never recommend for anyone else."

The threat of violence or imprisonment hasn’t stopped the evangelical movement; it has just made them more cautious. Chinese border cities like Yanji, the capital of China’s Korean autonomous region, and Dandong, through which most of the official trade between China and North Korea passes, act as bases for hundreds of American and South Korean evangelical Christians who help North Koreans get out of the country and who attempt to get themselves inside. One missionary living on the border spoke off the record because he didn’t want to upset the Chinese regional authorities, which he likened to "a sleeping dog." Proselytizing is illegal in China, too, and the Chinese government, at least publicly, supports North Korea’s effort to forcibly repatriate defectors. In March 2011, I visited a Western cafe in Yanji where missionaries congregate and saw a woman wearing a sweatshirt from Wheaton College, the evangelical Protestant liberal arts university outside Chicago. I asked one of her tablemates whether that’s what had brought them to Yanji. "Food’s great here, isn’t it?" he replied.

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Despite the danger missionaries face, it’s far more dangerous for North Koreans who come into contact with Christians or evangelical paraphernalia. Defectors have spoken about seeing friends and neighbors executed for the crime of simply owning a Bible. North Koreans themselves are often converted or co-opted to smuggle the Gospel into North Korea at great personal risk. On a 2011 visit to the border, I saw food packaged with a Christian symbol for delivery into North Korea. "People come across the border, we make them Christian, and then we send them back," said the missionary associated with the food distribution. "We had a North Korean Christian several years ago who took five Bibles in with him, and he was beaten, literarily to death, when they found out that he had the Bibles on him," says Nettleton.

But the majority of the missionaries involved with North Koreans work with them only when they’re safely outside the country. "For the ones who come out, Christianity can do a lot more for them because they need so much healing," says a Christian activist in South Korea. Tim Peters runs Helping Hands Korea, an organization that helps North Korean women and children who have already crossed into China flee to other countries. He told a story of a man in North Korea who, in late December after the death of Kim Jong Il, became interested in Christianity. But after speaking about it in his community, he raised the suspicion of security forces. He and his family fled North Korea the next day, and Peters’s team near the Chinese border is now helping them. "Because they were discovered listening to Christian radio, if they were to be repatriated the punishment would be extraordinarily harsh," says Peters. In a way, they’ve succeeded: More than half of the roughly 20,000 defectors in South Korea identify as Christians. "North Korean defectors associate Christianity with democracy," says Verdier.

Rights groups estimate that of the 24 million North Koreans, there are only tens of thousands of Christians there today, though the exact number is unknowable. "My understanding is that the underground church is extremely underground," says Peters. South Korean churches have amassed war chests of millions of dollars to bring Christianity to — and build thousands of churches for — their "brothers in the North" when the regime falls. Ben Torrey, raised in South Korea by missionary parents, runs the Fourth River movement, an organization that enhances preparedness among South Koreans and North Korean defectors, training them "as agents of reconciliation, healing, and problem solving" so that they can eventually enter North Korea and "rebuild the country on a foundation of biblical principles."

Is the death of Kim Jong Il a propitious time, though, for missionaries and Christian organizations working inside North Korea? One spokesman at a Christian group that does extensive work in North Korea said hopefully, "We don’t have any contingency plans [for the regime falling], but the wheels could fly off the wagon and the structure could disintegrate. Who knows?" Many Christians who work with North Korea are worried that new leader Kim Jong Un, in a desire to reinforce his new mandate, will be even more hostile to them than his father. "We understand that [the North Korean underground church] is being even more cautious at present," says Peters.

Although no one interviewed for this article thinks the country will collapse in the next year, the death of Kim Jong Il has led many missionaries to think that change could be near. "They seem to be amazing masters of keeping broken things going, whether it’s in engineering or institutions," says Torrey.  Things won’t quickly implode but "the foundations are shaking and cracking," he says. Steve Chang, a Virginia-based preacher who sits on the board of several missionary organizations including the Pyongyang Institute of Science and Technology, says he prays that in the next five to 10 years North Korea will unify or open to the outside world without a major shock or catastrophe. He is a "key supporter" of an organization that "has a very detailed and elaborate contingency plan to quickly establish 3,000 churches" when the country opens.

But until that time comes, there’s work to be done. "For us, [the death of Kim Jong Il] has been business as usual," says Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs. "North Koreans needed the Bible before he died, and they need it today."


*Correction: Billy Graham’s wife, not mother, spent three years in school in Pyongyang. 

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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