A Crucible of Hardship and Suffering – The Church In North Korea

Seoul-based Christian activist and missionary pastor Tim Peters has a particular heart for the oppressed of North Korea. He is the founder of Helping Hands Korea, and of the Ton-A-Month Club, which provides food relief.

At present his work is largely concentrated on the Sino-North Korean border – the “underground railroad” – helping refugees, providing foster care to orphaned children of female North Korean human traffic victims in China who have been forcibly repatriated to the DPRK without their children, and sending food, clothing and medicine into the persecuted and underground North Korean church. 

His group’s “Catacombs” worship is held in a small rented art gallery in an undistinguished neighborhood in central Seoul. Every Tuesday an open forum is convened (open to all, not only Christians) in the Catacombs venue, during which the  plight of North Koreans, including the persecuted church, is openly discussed and debated, and strategies for more effective NGO projects and Christian ministry are discussed. 

As a forceful advocate for the rights of North Koreans Tim has also testified before the US Congress and has been featured in numerous international news reports.

He kindly agreed to answer some questions about his work. The second part of this interview will appear next week.

What do we know of the condition of the underground church in North Korea?

Given the totalitarian grip that the North Korean regime has on its society, communications and media, what we know is limited. Even so, the information we do have is sufficient to confirm that the persecuted church is alive, has endured for over six decades, and, to a large degree, remains in a crucible of hardship and suffering.

Is it growing? 

On the one hand, the fact there is church growth despite the tremendous official opposition is remarkable. On the other hand, I believe we should not be surprised that growth is occurring under persecution. To quote an early church father, Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Particularly in the case of returning North Korean border-crossers who’ve been evangelized in China, we see significant spiritual fervor, genuine sacrifice and bravery in the face of arrest and detention. I feel convinced that much of the new growth of  North Korean believers comes from what I call the “refugee church.”

How is it “fed” spiritually? 

Pastors, evangelists and lay brethren often share the Word verbally, through song, and by sharing precious pages of copied Scripture or exhortation that are taken out of hiding.  In recent years, Bibles and other Christian literature/media are increasingly smuggled in from outside either in printed form, or digitally via USB sticks, etc.

What sort of worship services take place?

As one would expect, services are held in secret: in homes, in remote wooded areas, etc. In urban areas, Christian worship may be as simple as two or three friends meeting in a park and carrying on what seems a normal conversation, but in fact is prayer and praise in subdued voices.

Some North Koreans who have access to a short-wave radio listen to overseas Christian services in Korean.

Many North Korean refugees in China participate in more formal worship services in ethnic Korean-Chinese churches that can be found along the border between North Korea and China.

In China a growing number of the urban elite are apparently becoming Christians. Is there any information on the demographic of North Korean Christians? For example, are they mainly older people, or are young people attracted too?

North Korea is far more difficult than China for collecting such data. Most information from inside North Korean is largely anecdotal. We do know that one of the barriers to child evangelism in North Korean society is fear by parents that spiritually unreceptive children may report their Bible reading or prayers to schoolteachers who are trained to probe their students for this type of information. Such a report can result in the entire family being committed to a prison facility or a labor camp. But once out of the grip of their highly controlled society, both young and old North Koreans very often manifest a noticeable hunger for the Bible and the Christian life.

Learn more at Helping Hands Korea. The second part of this interview will appear next week.

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