How this Peninsula Became Home to Megachurches and Labor Camps - Radical

How this Peninsula Became Home to Megachurches and Labor Camps

Why is North Korea so opposed to the gospel? What was life like before the Korean War? In this episode of Neighborhoods and Nations, Steven Morales visits Yoido Plaza in Seoul to explore the Korean Peninsula’s complicated relationship with Christianity.

A History of Silence

In 1947 Billy Graham set off to host his first evangelistic campaign. More than 6000 would gather in Michigan, in the United States, in what would mark the beginning of a once-in-a-generation movement.

He called these evangelistic campaigns “crusades” and he’d go on to do 417 of them, preaching in six continents, 185 countries, and, over the course of his life, to more than 200 million people. 

These events were massive, but one would stand out from the rest as his most attended crusade, with perhaps the most unlikely audience.

And it happened right where I’m standing. 

On Sunday, June 3rd, 1973, at around 3 in the afternoon, over 1.1 million people from all over Korea would come to Yeouido Plaza—this used to be an airstrip during the Korean War and a generation before Christians were being persecuted—and now they were coming for three days to hear the good news of Jesus.

People were ecstatic to be here and to hear this message. They stayed in tents, just so they wouldn’t have to go home. 

But take a moment to consider: we’re talking about roughly 3 million people over the course of 3 days, in a country of 30 million people. That’s 10% of the population all descending on one place… and by the way, that place is in Asia.

This isn’t Europe during the Reformation or The United States during the Great Awakening. 

And yet thousands responded to Graham’s call to repentance and to follow Jesus. Aware of the context, he made a very specific call: 

You have to give up all other gods and turn to Jesus Christ only as your Savior. Stand up and say today: “I want to receive Christ.” 

The Billy Graham Library reports that more than 12,000 people asked about receiving Christ that last day, with thousands more reaching out in the weeks that followed.

Last year was the 50th anniversary of that crusade, and the impact of Billy Graham’s sermon is still evident today. Seoul is an epicenter for Christianity. There are churches and crosses everywhere. 

Do you know where The World’s Largest Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Assemblies of God churches are? Right here in Korea. 

Which makes Korea’s neighbor to the north all the more staggering.

Today, just 15 miles away from here, where millions gathered to hear Billy Graham speak, and where some of the largest megachurches in the world stand, lies a place that tells a different story for Christians.

Having a Bible could lead to you and your family being sentenced to death in a labor camp. Even just expressing curiosity about Christianity could lead to life in prison. 

It’s hard to overstate North Korea’s intense desire to suffocate any and every gospel effort. 

So how is it that these two places on the same tiny peninsula in Eastern Asia respond so differently to the good news of Jesus?

My name is Steven Morales, I’m part of the team at Radical, and we’ve been documenting stories of God’s work around the world in difficult places. We’ve been to Iran, Colombia, Turkey, and Japan exploring questions and stories of God’s power to advance the gospel to the most difficult and unlikely of places.

We often think of places of persecution as so distant and foreign to us, but I want to invite you on a journey with me to the Korean peninsula, to a place where megachurches and labor camps exist just miles from each other, and ask: how did this happen? And what does that have to do with your church?

And how did one of the world’s largest hubs for the gospel grow right next door to the country that wants to extinguish it the most?

This is Hard to Reach: North Korea

The Hermit Kingdom

So what are we referring to when we say “Korea?” And why are there two of them?

Well, we’re talking about this peninsula.

After the end of World War II, the peninsula was divided into South and North Korea. The official name of the South is “the Republic of Korea”, and the North is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

We’re going to talk more about why Korea was split in two in a minute, but that divide is a relatively new development. 

Korea’s history stretches back at least five millennia and has survived foreign incursions from most of its neighboring countries, including different bouts with Mongolia, China, and Japan. They even fought against Genghis Khan.

The term “Hermit Kingdom” was first given to Korea centuries ago because they’ve always fought to maintain their identity as a nation in isolation from the rest of the world. 

Which makes it all the more surprising to discover how Christianity arrived at its door.

The first Westerner to ever set foot on Korean soil was a Spanish Priest named Gregorio Cespedes. He came to the southern part of the peninsula on a train in 1593 in an attempt to do missionary work among Koreans; but whatever progress he made, Korean authorities made sure to reverse it. This was a Hermit Kingdom after all, and it saw Christianity as a threat.

That is, until 1883. A Korean trader called Seo Sang-Ryun fell gravely ill in China, and he was treated by a Scottish missionary named John Ross. 

Ross had been praying for a way to serve Korea for years, and this was God’s answer. He shared the gospel with Seo and Seo believed. 

Together they translated The Gospel of Luke into Korean which Seo then smuggled into his homeland.

Not too long after, he gathered a group of new believers and transformed his own house into what was the first protestant church on the Korean Peninsula. 

They met secretly in a remote fishing village called Sorae, just across the border of present-day North Korea.

And even though they worshiped behind locked doors, the doors to the Korean peninsula were just opening up.

That house church was the first unofficial church on the Korean peninsula.

There were around 30 people here in Sorae Church, and they made up the majority of the entire protestant population in the country.

So Sorae Church was meeting in secret during a very unique time in Korean history. 

These were the last days of what is known as the Joseon Age, a time marked by political unrest and revolts.

And in one particular attempt to overthrow the government, Empress Myeongseong’s nephew was badly injured––he was almost killed. 

The Empress called on the best doctor she could find, Dr. Horace N. Allen, who had just arrived in Korea as a medical officer for the American legation. 

Dr. Allen was rushed across the city to care for the queen’s nephew, and he managed to treat the prince’s wound and nurse him back to health. 

In gratitude, Korean authorities allowed Allen to open the first Western hospital, making it the first Christian organization in all of Korea.

The doors were now wide open with foreign missionaries coming to work and eventually also building schools.

This hospital is now part of Yonsei University, one of the most prestigious institutions in all of Korea. And Christians were at the center of it all. 

In fact, Christianity began to spread more than ever.

And you might be surprised to hear that the first city to become a hub for Christian activity, so much so that it was nicknamed the Jerusalem of the East wasn’t Seoul. It was Pyongyang. 

Yes, the capital of North Korea today was once home to a revival and model for what God could accomplish through the mission efforts of foreign and local missionaries.

The Split

Now I wish I could tell you that after this, it was smooth sailing for Korean Christians.

But just as Christianity was expanding on the Korean peninsula, another major event changed the course of history.

While Christianity was making slow and steady progress, Korea was also in the middle of an all-out war between China and Japan. In 1895 Empress Myeongseong, the same one that was used by God to create a welcoming climate for Christianity, was assassinated. In the aftermath, of 1910 Korea was annexed by Japan.

And Japanese occupation proved callous to Christianity’s growth.

The newly formed Japanese Empire wanted to ensure all of its subjects were homogenized, and Christianity’s influence was far too Western for them. They made every effort to discredit or kick out Christian missionaries. They tortured Christians, burnt down churches, and brought fake charges against prominent Christians, alleging that theirs was a Western religion. 

When violence didn’t work, the Japanese built Shinto Shrines throughout all of Korea and forced people to participate in their ceremonies. Christian Schools were forced to close if they weren’t part of the ceremonies, and once the Japanese openly attacked America at Pearl Harbor, all foreign missionaries were forced out of Korea.

The whole world found itself on the brink of war, and Korea was right in the middle of it. It had been decades of struggle, Korea was still under Japanese occupation, and even in the midst of a World War, the Japanese Empire was doing what it could to erase Korean culture and their way of life. It seemed like the miraculous advances that Christianity had made were at risk of disappearing.

And then the bombs dropped.

By the end of World War II, Japan—along with the other Axis powers—was hit with fines and strict limitations, and was ultimately forced to surrender its territories.

Could this mean that Korea could be free once again?

While Korea finally obtained freedom from Japanese occupation, it would soon become more divided than ever before.

And while Christianity flourished in the South, North Korea would become an iron fortress, seemingly impenetrable by the outside world, especially Christians.

And yet, today, North Korea might just be the most religious place in the world; just not in the way you think.

Steven Morales

Steven Morales is the Content Director at Radical and hosts Neighborhood & Nations. He is based out of Guatemala City, Guatemala.


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