Everything freezes during the brutal North Korean winter season, and since most homes don’t have heat, families bury their food underground to keep it edible. It was in one of these small, rectangular holes that Choi Kwanghyuk’s underground church met. The small group of believers would quietly hum hymns in worship then study the book of Matthew. Just owning a Bible would send you to a North Korean prison camp. Being caught worshipping would send you there for life.
This is the threat for the unknown numbers of Christians hiding in the most hostile country to their faith on earth. Any act that catches the attention of a suspicious local official, nosy neighbor, or brainwashed son or daughter could lead to death. For many, the only option is fleeing, in hope of a better life.
But fleeing the country is difficult, and for many, ends in their being repatriated back to the merciless country, where they toil in prison camps for the rest of their lives. And yet in the middle of this spiritually frozen world, God is at work through missionaries, relief agencies, and in one woman’s story, a dead Russian novelist.
“After my uncle was killed for his faith, I wanted life to go back to normal” Myoung-Hee remembers. “So I focused on school. In my free time, I read. I particularly liked Leo Tolstoy. Back then, I didn’t know he was actually a Christian.”
During the height of Soviet oppression, anything resembling “Western” thought was outlawed from the country, but because writers like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky were celebrated notable Russian novelists, their works were allowed. Later some Russian citizens would say the works of these two authors—both Christians—were a part of their journey to faith. Decades later, Myoung-Hee became a part of this legacy. She began dreaming of a better life, a subversive act when citizens are brainwashed to believe they’re the most prosperous, free country in the world. She eventually swam the river dividing North Korea from China and went off in search of freedom. Instead, she found more slavery.
“I was caught by human traffickers and sold to a Chinese farmer. He wasn’t as bad as most Chinese men who buy North Korean women. I had a child with him. But still… I thought, I could never feel at home in this family.”
Although often viewed by Americans as an ally of North Korea, China has actually tightened restrictions on the country considerably, but one of the fallouts of this has been a far stricter policy of deporting refugees seeking help. For many North Koreans, getting out of their country is only the first step in a long, perilous journey toward freedom, and it’s here that the South Korean church has found one of its most effective ways of reaching their brothers and sisters to the north.
Grace Jo grew up in North Korea with her mother, father, maternal grandmother, and five siblings. Her father died in a prison camp; her grandmother, older brother, and youngest brother died of starvation. Her older sister disappeared crossing into China, Grace Jo, her mother, and sister managed to make it across the border, only to be thrown in jail (it’s illegal to flee to China without going through the proper channels). Grace Jo’s family was told they’d be deported back to North Korea.
Until a Korean-American pastor intervened.
“We were sentenced to go back to North Korea,” Grace Jo recently told New York Magazine, “but the Korean-American pastor had gone back to America, and he fundraised money—about $10,000—to help rescue my family. He sent brokers and money to bribe the North Korean agents to let us go. Money talks. It was a success. We got to safety in China again with the help of the pastor, who then worked with different activists and we got protected by United Nations officers as refugees. I was 16 years old when we came to the U.S., to Seattle.”
This theme—of a South Korean pastor coming to the aid of a desperate North Korean refugee—shows up often in the New York Magazine piece, and speaks to a shared history of war, pain, and faith between the two Koreas. For a short window of time in the early 1900s, Christianity in Korea was thriving. Chae Yoon-kwon, one of the foremost advocates for ministering to North Korea, shared the history this way in a 2000 edition of Horizons Magazine.
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 a climate where Kim Jong Un and President Trump are trading public insults and threatening nuclear war, it’s easy to think of North Korea solely as a threat. But as Chae shares his country’s history a new view snaps into view: A country ravaged by war, divided by enemy occupation, divided into two by foreign powers, but with a rich Christian heritage in its past and future. In this frozen country, believers are hiding in holes in the ground, planting seeds of faith, praying that God would make them grow.
In an article for World Magazine, Chae said he believes the divide between Korea will be healed soon and has plans the moment that happens to immediately plant a church in the country. “I will preach this gospel to the height of my voice, and to the last breath of my life,” Chae said.
“I know that this is the only hope for Korea, the only hope for the world.”