Category Archives: Korea

North Korean Christians – Powerful and Prayerful Witness Emerging from the Trials

For the 12th straight year the Open Doors organization has ranked North Korea as the country in which the persecution of Christians is most severe. Its annual World Watch List, released in December, notes that an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 North Korean Christians are imprisoned in labor camps.

According to the report: “It is safe to say that nothing has improved for Christians since Kim Jong Un took over power….The God-like worship of the rulers leaves no room for any other religion. Any reverence not concentrated on the Kim dynasty will be seen as dangerous and state-threatening.

“Not only will the believers themselves be punished if they are discovered, but likely also their families. Immediate family members, even if they aren’t Christians themselves, will serve a sentence in a re-education camp. Christians are sent to political labor camps, from which there is no release possible.”

It was the third-century church father Tertullian who stated that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church, and certainly this is what we have witnessed in South Korea.

Korean Christians endured fierce persecution in the 19th century from their own government, and then in the early 20th century from the Japanese colonial rulers. Martyrs numbered in the many thousands.

But today Christians comprise some 30 per cent of the South Korean population, and a vibrant and dynamic Korean church is making its mark around the world.

Might we expect something similar from North Korea? This was the view of Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who experienced first-hand the brutality of life in North Korea when he worked there for 18 months.

“I am sure that once North Korea is free, Christianity will boom there in a way that will even dwarf its growth in the South,” he told a journalist in 2002.

Recently I interviewed Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, which works to help the persecuted Christians of North Korea. I noted that Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, was known in the early 20th century as “the Jerusalem of the East” for its strong and defiant Christian witness, and I asked him if Christianity might one day flourish there again.

“I do think such a phenomenon is a distinct possibility,” he told me.

“Just as the generation of persecuted Chinese believers grew into strong leaders when greater freedom came to China, I do feel that many North Korean believers will shine as purified gold once the Kim family regime is dethroned in the North.”

Then he added pointedly: “This would be all the more true because many South Korean Protestant churches are undergoing a serious crisis due to materialism and authoritarian leadership, among other challenges. North Korean Christians, in their simplicity, humility and utter dependence on God, could constitute just the antidote to the spiritual maladies in the South.”

No Christians in their right minds could wish on our North Korean brothers and sisters their present torment. But is it possible that from these trials will emerge a powerful and prayerful witness that could, eventually, shake up the very foundations of global Christendom?

North Korean Believers – Shining As Purified Gold

Last week I posted the first part of an interview with Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, which works to help the persecuted Christians of North Korea.

The group’s 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. 

The 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.

Here is the second part of my interview.

Pyongyang was once known as the Jerusalem of the East, for its strong Christian witness. Is there the possibility that a free North Korea could once again become a beacon of faith, perhaps seeded by the martyrs of today?

I do think such a phenomenon is a distinct possibility. Just as the generation of persecuted Chinese believers grew into strong leaders when greater freedom came to China, I do feel that many North Korean believers will shine as purified gold once the Kim family regime is dethroned in the North.

This would be all the more true because many South Korean Protestant churches are undergoing a serious crisis due to materialism and authoritarian leadership, among other challenges. North Korean Christians, in their simplicity, humility and utter dependence on God, could constitute just the antidote to the spiritual maladies in the South.

Could you please say a little about your own work in helping North Korean Christians.  

From the very beginning of our Helping Hands Korea_Catacombs work in 1996, we have placed a special emphasis on helping refugees fleeing the DPRK, including orphans, the sick, the persecuted, and victims of human trafficking in China. We have endeavored to share the gospel along with meeting their humanitarian needs.

In so many ways, North Koreans have become an unreached people after 67 years of a highly enforced anti-Christian political ideology. Often our work has been compared to that of Christian abolitionists in the mid-19th century who worked to help the slaves in the US Confederacy make their way to freedom in the North along the so-called underground railroad.

Another aspect of this work is helping and evangelizing the children of female North Korean victims of human trafficking who have been orphaned when their mothers have been forcibly repatriated by Chinese security officials to North Korea without their children.

In the past four to five years HHK_Catacombs has taken on the additional role of assisting underground believers who remain inside North Korea, with food, clothing and medicine. Locating an authentic, secure and sustainable channel to carry out this task took us 14 years of searching!

Western Christians can pray and give money to help our imprisoned brothers and sisters in North Korea. But is there more we can, or should, be doing?

Let me first briefly touch on your first two points: prayer IS surely important because without it, the challenges inherent in this kind of work can seem overwhelming. Fund-raising is also crucial since little in the way of practical help in any of our projects can go forward without material support. Activities such as raising awareness and advocating for the adoption by the UN Security Council of the resolutions in the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights are also important.

But ultimately, as the New Testament makes clear, the greatest need is not money or advocacy, but laborers. “The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few,” (Mt.9:37) Jesus said. What was true 2,000 years ago is also true today. And my prayer is Mt. 9:38: that He will send more laborers into the harvest. Not all can come to the field in East Asia, but each can take heed and answer His call to the station where he/she can be most effective. Are we willing to drop everything and do as the Master said? “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men!” (Mt. 4:19) I’ve never yet met a servant of the Lord who regretted giving his/her all to the King of kings!

Tim, thank you very much.

Learn more at Helping Hands Korea.

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.

The Chocolate Marshmallow Pies That Might Bring Reconciliation – Or Spark War – Between North And South Korea

My wife has just returned from visiting family in Seoul, and she brought back my favorite souvenir – choco pies. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy them.

Choco pies are a phenomenon. They are hugely popular in Korea itself – with various manufacturers and several varieties – and are much sought-after in other countries, particularly around Asia.

Each pie comprises a creamy marshmallow center, encased in an ultra-light, crumbly cookie and coated with chocolate. They remind me a little of the Easter eggs we ate as kids in New Zealand back in the 1950s, when there wasn’t much variety. These were just ovals of marshmallow coated in chocolate. Simple but delicious.

The choco pies are like that, but with the addition of a layer of cookie. Some also have a little extra flavor added, or perhaps a squirt of jam or syrup. Yet they retain an extreme lightness that makes you want to keep eating.

Choco pies became big news when it was revealed that South Korean companies were giving them to their North Korean employees at factories in a special economic zone created by the two countries.

Forbidden from paying bonuses, the South Koreans gave choco pies instead. This had apparently led to a black market in the delicacies, with North Koreans reportedly willing to pay around $10 for one pie.

Embarrassed that the pies were becoming too popular, the North Korean authorities have at times tried to ban them.

So a few months ago South Korean activists launched 50 balloons across the border bearing 10,000 of the treats, along with leaflets attacking the North Korean regime. In response, North Korea said it might attack the launch sites.

The choco pie has created enormous goodwill among North Koreans towards the South. Might it also spark war?

Are Koreans Anti-Semitic?

My wife is Korean and I have a Jewish heritage. Are Koreans anti-Jewish?

The question rises because of an article at the Tablet website titled “Seoul Mates: Are Jewish Stereotypes Among Koreans a Source of Hate, or Love?”

The article begins –

This May, a survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that South Korea was the third most anti-Semitic country in Asia, behind only Malaysia and Armenia.

I was surprised to read that. I lived in Japan for many years, and saw there a large degree of veiled anti-Semitism. There were hardly any Jews living in the country, yet there existed a surprising number of books that supposedly “explained” Jewish life and culture, while subtly denigrating these.

Certainly many Japanese would have told you that Jews secretly controlled the world’s finances and media.

But Korea seemed different. My wife actually seemed excited to learn that I was part-Jewish, through my father, a Jewish refugee to New Zealand. Koreans regard Jews as exceedingly clever and successful, she told me.

And that is also what the Tablet article is telling us.

When they arrive in the country, many Jews are often aghast at how, once they tell Koreans they are Jewish, they are treated as though they’re the lights of brilliance upon the world. “On two separate occasions, I’ve had Korean friends tell me that they had heard that Ashkenazi Jews and Koreans were statistically the most intelligent,” said Jesse Borison, 30, a U.S. Airman who has been stationed in Korea for seven years. 

…Zachary Green, 25, an English teacher from Pittsburgh, says his Jewish heritage gained him a certain cachet with Koreans. “Whenever I told a Korean that I was Jewish, that person almost always seemed very impressed. He or she assumed that I was very smart,” Green told me. “I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the respect, envy, and admiration that came with telling people I was Jewish.”

…Apart from being seen as highly intelligent, Jews are often told by Koreans they are good with money and occupy important positions in government and media—positions Koreans covet. This, perhaps, is where the disconnect between the ADL survey and Jewish perceptions in Korea occurred. “[The ADL] asked the question, ‘Do you think the Jews have too much power?’ ” [Seoul Rabbi Osher] Litzman said. “Everything was about ‘too much.’ What can you answer when everyone is asking about ‘too much’? If you say ‘no,’ what do you mean, it’s too little?”

“The questions were not clear for Koreans,” Litzman continued. “For them, ‘too much’ means ‘a lot.’ So, what’s wrong with it? There’s nothing wrong with it. They admire this and they want to be the same. One of the questions was, ‘Do the Jews control the media too much?’ or something like that. Koreans also want to [be influential in media]. They look at it as a model.”

The Joys and Dangers of Mission Work in North Korea

Online journal Slate has an article on the semi-covert attempts of Christian missionaries to get into North Korea. It discusses first the case of Kenneth Bae, now serving a 15-year prison term for his evangelism work, and then it looks at others who are trying the same.

There are risks:

One American minister in Seoul warns that as many as 70 percent of the supposedly underground North Korean Christians are actually government informants, looking to entrap adherents and those who help them.

But still the missionaries arrive:

At least five Americans have been arrested and imprisoned by North Korean authorities in recent years; according to the AP, at least three of those have been devout Christians. One American missionary, who also did not want to be identified because he still travels to North Korea, says he is prepared to die for his calling.

Any Christian hoping to spend extended periods of time in North Korea must come up with an officially acceptable reason for being there. In this instance, the missionary entered first with a business group then set out to establish his own. He and his organization have invested an amount he estimated at “more than several million” dollars in various North Korean ventures, including a number of factories. (The money comes primarily from donations from Korean-American Presbyterian congregations.)

He explained that he is usually supervised by the same North Korean minders when he visits the country. He claims they are fully aware of his religious beliefs, even going so far as to ask him to offer the occasional prayer at mealtime.

The missionary’s long-standing relationships still do not guarantee his safety, and he follows certain self-imposed rules. Though he has been asked, he refuses to assist North Koreans looking to escape the country; if he or any of his group were caught doing so, it would mean, at best, immediate expulsion.

American Jailed by North Koreans a Missionary?

By Martin Roth

The NK News organization says that Kenneth Bae – the American recently sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea after taking photos of starving children – was in fact a China-based missionary.

According to NK News, he was attached to YWAM, with a home church in St Louis. In China he had established a small travel agency aimed at promoting visits to North Korea.

Western media reports suggest that Bae’s arrest and imprisonment is aimed at enticing a high-ranking Western dignitary to visit North Korea, to boost the reputation of Kim Jong-Un.

Not The Best Time To Be In Korea

My wife is in Korea right now visiting her family. It’s not the best time to be in Korea, and I’ll be happy when she gets back, next Tuesday.

She says that the media are full of reports on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, and how to escape if Seoul is invaded. It’s all adding to the fear level, which is already high. Many foreign residents have left.

I’ve written several times in my novels about North Korea, rated by Open Doors in its World Watch List as the country where Christians endure the worst persecution.

Here is an excerpt from my novel Military Orders:

Sunhee witnessed her first public execution when she was nine years old. It was an exhilarating experience, like watching a movie in real life, and she recalled it often, especially when it came time for her own execution.

In a country where the primary entertainment was the cinema, mainly featuring movies about North Korea’s triumph over the imperialist United States, the Great Leader had added public executions as another means to keep his population docile. These provided drama while engendering fear.

Sunhee recalled that, a few days before the event, posters went up around town to announce that the condemned man had been convicted of stealing state property and had been sentenced to death. On the day itself kids skipped school, and Sunhee even spotted some of her teachers in the crowd. The location was a disused strip of rocky land between the railway station and the seafront.

First the man was paraded through the main thoroughfare of Kyongsong, the only paved street in the town. The excited crowd followed, growing larger as the time of the execution drew near. Sunhee recalled that at one time during the procession she was close enough to the man to look into his face. He was quite old. And in his eyes she saw not fear but indifference.

At the site a hole in the ground had been readied, and soldiers pushed a thick pole into this. The man was made to don a specially designed padded execution suit, intended to absorb his blood.

Then the soldiers tied the condemned man to the post in three places, at his eyes, chest and legs, and placed a large open body bag at his feet. Sunhee was near the front, with the other kids, hoping that after the soldiers had fired their rounds they might retrieve the spent shells as souvenirs.

Now the drama began. Three soldiers raised their rifles and aimed. Their commanding officer gave the order. They fired first at the eyes. The rope snapped and the man’s head collapsed, as if he were bowing to the crowd. At the same time his head exploded with a burst of steam and his brains cascaded into the body bag. A second volley at the chest sent him crashing head-first – or what remained of the head – towards the body bag. A final volley at the legs snapped the ropes there, and the entire body fell into the bag. A couple of young soldiers then swiftly dumped the bag onto the back of a truck, for later disposal in the mountains.

As intended, it was all quite theatrical. Sunhee’s two brothers later told her that this quick execution was reserved for relatively minor crimes. Those convicted of significant offenses against the state received a public hanging, which in North Korea meant a rope around the neck, then being hauled slowly upwards into the air and left to die a lingering, kicking, screaming death.