Inside the Persecuted Church of North Korea - Radical

Inside the Persecuted Church of North Korea

How is the church in North Korea growing amidst persecution? In this episode of Neighborhoods and Nations, Steven Morales talks with Eric Foley, the CEO of Voice of Martyrs Korea, to learn how the North Korean church is not only growing, but has played a role in missionary work in some of the hardest places on earth. Then, we hear from Luke, an Afghan pastor, who first heard the gospel from Korean Christians who bravely shared the gospel with him in Afghanistan.

I’m in Seoul. About 35 miles away from the North Korea border, and… It’s Sunday here is South Korea. So we’re going to church.

But this church… It’s a little different than any other church I’ve been to.

This is Saemoonan Presbyterian Church, and it’s beautiful. The architects designed it to represent Saemoonan’s significance as the mother of all churches in Seoul. 

This building opened in 2019, on the 132nd anniversary of the church, and it’s high on the list of “churches to visit” here in Seoul. And I know, “a list of churches to visit” might sound weird, but hear me out.

Today, in a country that’s smaller than many states in the US, there are hundreds of churches with over a thousand members. 

There are three times more churches than convenience stores. 

There are more than 80,000 protestant churches here in South Korea. That’s more than 1 church per 650 people.

Today millions of South Koreans identify as Christians. And this building, this Church, is a testimony to how different things are today than in the past.

When missionaries first got to Korea, they were met with resistance from both the government and the people. Christians were thought of as alien invaders, and they were persecuted, stoned even, and forced out.

Things look obviously very, very different today.

But there’s a case to be made that things could actually be getting worse.

Despite its incredible growth, the South Korean Church is facing a major crisis. Only 13% of the younger generation considers Christians trustworthy, and only 21% of the general population thinks Christianity is credible. 

Another report shows that more than 69% percent of those in their twenties have no religious beliefs. 

I never would have guessed, but it’s kind of crazy to think that of the two Koreas, it’s the church in the south that’s in decline.

Because in the north, where Christianity is outlawed, there’s a whole different story taking place.

Christians Under the Kims

So what does it look like to be a Christian in North Korea anyway?

Since its very foundation, the North Korean regime has treated Christianity as an issue of national security. North Korean society is split into three main classes, or castes, according to how politically safe or risky they might be. Protestants are categorized as the Hostile Class 37, to be sentenced to life in Kwanliso, political prison camps where they face the harshest conditions.

The U.S. Department of State report on the conditions of Christians in North Korea gives a picture that’s honestly heartbreaking, with children being arrested and whole families being taken away just for being found with a cross. For as long as we have persecution lists, North Korea has been at the very top.

And yet, Christianity keeps making a way.

Eric Foley: In the year 2000, essentially 0% of North Koreans inside North Korea had seen a Bible with their own eyes. But today, as of the 2020 data, now more than 8% of North Koreans have seen a Bible with their own eyes…

We’re at a point in time in history where more, more North Koreans are reading the Bible than at any other point in history where the church in North Korea is growing faster than the church in the West and the church in South Korea. And yet the mindset we still have is what can I do to make a difference there?

What can I do to bring the gospel there? And my response is, Brother, you kind of waited too long!

Steven: “Things are happening” — Yeah!

This is Eric Foley. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, and he’s been serving the North Korean Church for decades, learning and serving alongside the church on the ground in Pyongyang and with defectors all over the world.

Eric Foley: In South Korea and the West, the church still holds on tightly to its forms. But in North Korea, the North Korean underground church holds loosely to the form and tightly to the Word of God.

So we think they must gather together and hide under blankets and so forth. But man, North Koreans love to belt out hymns. They get on a railroad track. You know, North Korea is 70% mountains and near a railroad spot in the mountain pass.

You can look around, see, nobody’s around and, man, you just belt out a song. So it’s North Koreans when they pray, you know, they’re not sitting there whispering, you know, hiding out under a blanket. 

They figured out how to pray, even with the state security agents sitting right there. Because I could say to you, man, my sister has been so sick, but we’re so blessed to live here.

You know, where the great leader knows and cares about each one of us who are sick. And so I just would want to bring to the great leader’s attention my sister’s illness, because I know that he would be able to cure it instantly. So we would say, what is that about? We’d say, “That’s a prayer.”

And so in other words, by using language that doesn’t even raise an eyebrow, North Koreans pray wherever they are.

Even while facing the harshest conditions, North Korean Christians are finding ways to be faithful to Jesus. It definitely involves a lot of secrecy and, usually, it means hiding Christ from their own children. 

Eric Foley: In North Korea, schoolteachers, you know, all of the officials in a city, they’re specially trained to know how to ask questions to children, to cause children to betray things about their family.

And so they ask questions like, you know, does your family sing the song with different words, understand it? Because again, many of the songs that Christians would sing are the same songs you’d sing in Juche, the North Korean ideology, and Juche worship services. Does your family have a special book? Do your parents ever look like they’re sleeping and do this kind of a thing, which is, you know, like a prayer posture.

So one of my favorite stories, it’s one that really dispels a lot of the romance people have about North Korean underground Christians. And that’s why I like to tell the story. There was this girl when she was seven years old and her parents were Christian, she didn’t know it. And so she found in their home she found the Bible.

And her immediate thought was, I need to inform my teacher. Right. Because I think about that. Her thought wasn’t, Mommy, Daddy, please, I don’t want you to get in trouble. Her thought is I need to go tell my teacher. And so her parents tied her up in a chair until they could properly evangelize her and she could testify to the Lord.

So evangelism through tie to chair may not sound like the most romantic form of evangelism, but in North Korea, there is no such thing as a normal way of evangelism. 

So interestingly, that girl grew up and today is associated with one of the most dynamic and effective Christian ministries in North Korea. So she’s done okay for herself.

Estimates are that today, there are anywhere between 100,000 and 400,000 Christians. Tens of thousands of those are in prison, which made me wonder, how does anybody become a Christian in North Korea?

Eric Foley: Basically a person is going to become a Christian in North Korea through hearing the Word of God. And this is the thing that I think is amazing is that I have known Christians in North Korea who died for their faith, knowing literally only a few verses of Scripture and a few stories from the Bible because they know they treasure it as holy, and they rely on it so completely.

It tells them who they are and they rely on it. And so that’s how Christians become Christian in North Korea, through hearing the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit grants them the faith to be weak towards the Lord, strong towards Kim Il Sung but weak towards the Lord…

A lot of times, you know, you hear stories in the Middle East about people becoming Christian because Jesus shows up in their dreams. You know, we don’t hear many of those among North Korean Christians, but we do hear stories of miraculous healings where, for whatever reason, the Lord delights in bringing healing to people and often that is their first experience of saying, okay, that doesn’t make sense. 

In their world, the only thing that exists is the material world. So when stuff happens that you can’t explain, that’s what invites an inquiry. But always what’s going to bring them to faith is, is that someone, someone gives them that faith. A witness about the Lord Jesus.

That to me is the most encouraging thing God is just God. He’s not waiting for anybody. There’s nothing that still has to happen. There’s no other foot that has to fall. There’s nobody that has to get up and do something.

The only question is whether you’re going to join in the privilege of seeing this happen. So that’s entirely up to you. But as for God, as for the Lord Jesus Christ, he’s made his decision about North Korea. He’s called his Saints. So he’s equipped and he’s withholding from them no good thing. And in light of eternity, we will realize that they experienced God in ways that we could never imagine because we are so easily distracted by all the other stuff that we thought we needed to have.

They have only Christ revealed through his Word and sometimes even just a few words here and a few words there. And for them it is sufficient. That to me is what’s exciting, you know? 

SM: Thank you.

Eric Foley: Yeah, that’s true. That is exciting. That’s worth going to jail for.

Those Blue and Yellow Korean Hills

At the turn of the 20th Century, Korea’s future was on the line. Christianity was on the rise, missionaries were opening hospitals and schools, and Christ was proclaimed in churches and the streets. But Japan had also arrived and was threatening to not just destroy the church, but all of the Korean identity and way of life.

So a group of missionaries began to gather for prayer. They wanted to see even more of Jesus in the land. 

They’d been doing it for months, and started to think about quitting since, in their own words, “nothing unusual had come of it.”

Soon after, however, as they gathered in a prayer service one night, many of those present started weeping and confessing their sins. 

As the missionaries tried to take control of the room, they “realized that Another was managing that meeting,” and they got out of the way. 

A Korean minister said at the time:

“It was a great sign and wonder. . . . I saw some struggling to get up, then falling back in agony. Others again bounded to their feet to rid their souls of some long-covered sin. It seemed unwise that such confessions be made. . . . But there was no help for it. We were under a mysterious and awful power, helpless—missionaries as well as Koreans.”

While the initial service had about 1500 people gathered, that year the churches grew to 79,221 members. Over the next five years, Korea would have over 300,000 reported Christians. 

This was astonishing, even more so when you think that just a generation before, that number was zero.

The revival services went on for days, but it didn’t stop at the churches. Christians went from house to house confessing their sins to those whom they had wronged. 

Even schools had to close down in Pyongyang, with reports of children confessing their wrongdoings to their teachers and classmates. Korea was flooded with a widespread sense of forgiveness and repentance.

From that outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the first Korean Presbytery was organized, and the first seven Korean ministers were ordained and prepared to serve Korea.

But it didn’t stop there. Samuel Moffet, a historian born in North Korea, and whose father was present in the Pyongyang Revival, tells it this way:

Just as they were about to come into the meeting, one of them said, “We will be the first Korean ministers of the Korean church. But a real church has more than ministers. It has missionaries.” And they looked…at young man who had come a little late into their class at the seminary. “You stoned the first missionary you ever saw, didn’t you,” they said.  “Then you are going to be our first missionary,”… 

And the moderator of the presbytery, my father, who happened to be the missionary that man had stoned sixteen years before, ordained the man who had stoned him, and the church sent him off as their own first missionary, to a strange island off the southern coast where he in turn was stoned when he first stood up to preach the gospel.”

There’s something so powerful here—the greatest revival Korea’s ever seen resulted in the sending of its first missionary. 

A true Saul-to-Paul Christian called pastor Lee Ki Poong, who started 17 congregations in Jeju island, far away from Pyongyang.

And that’s generally been true of Korean Christians–wherever they go, their faith goes with them.

Luke: I did not come from a very religious family, and my parents were Muslims, but they were not very strict religious. But when the Taliban took over, then of course attending the school and attending the mosque, you’re pretty much encouraged to that. So I was very jealous about the religion and I wanted to join the Taliban.

I saw four regime changes went through a very deadly civil war

This is Luke. He grew up in Afghanistan in the midst of multiple Islamic regime takeovers of the government. When he was in college, he started having doubts about Islam, and that’s when he met a Korean Christian couple living in Afghanistan who invited him into their home.

Luke: They printed one page of paper and it was a Gospel of John chapter one. They were nervous about it as well because obviously looking at my face that I was very nervous. They had to really think about it. On the other hand that they were working for the embassy, then that would make their job very difficult. 

I have three years of reading the Bible and hearing from them and talking to that point, I don’t meet any other Christians besides this Korean couple. I don’t know any other Korean Christians. I don’t know any other foreign Christians. I don’t know any other Afghan Christians

I just saw their life. Not just going there and getting the knowledge and understanding of the Bible. I saw their lives. 

Luke received Christ and currently serves as a pastor and Church planter among Afghan refugees. He needed to leave his country a few years ago, but he credits the faithfulness of Korean missionaries for the fruitfulness of his own life.

Luke: In the North of Afghanistan there was a Korean road construction company, an unknown man attacked and killed two of the Koreans. And the statement that came was that they were trying to convert Afghans to Christianity. And I remember that our Korean friends were very upset about that. It was very sad. But they said as a Christian, this is what they choose. They said they don’t know them personally, but they know their company that’s working there. They said their entire purpose wasn’t here to just come and build roads, but they were also here to speak about the truth that they knew to others. And as Christians, this is very much we are to take the suffering and even at the point that we would be killed for our faith, and it’s okay, we’re not going to mourn for that, but we will see them, we will rejoice that this happened. And those days, Koreans, they come, they start learning the Dari language. There was hundreds of them around Afghanistan. They went village by village to share the gospel.

This is what makes this story, and Korea, so incredibly relevant to the global church today. As amazing as Luke’s story is, there are hundreds more Koreans serving in Afghanistan. Since the times when it was known as Jerusalem of the East, Korea has been a missionary powerhouse. As we wonder and pray for the future of the Church in South Korea, we need to remember that this missionary zeal isn’t limited to the Christians in the South:

Eric Foley: We found that we could work with North Koreans here in South Korea to train them, not according to Western ways of mission or South Korean ways of doing mission, but according to the traditional North Korean underground ways of doing evangelism discipleship. When we train them, we take them out wherever North Koreans are found, which is North Korea, China, Russia, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and even in Libya, and Eastern Europe. 

Our best missionary, in fact, she’s a woman who’s pushing 90 years old and she’s getting ready to go back inside North Korea and we’re like, hey, you know, that’s a one-way trip. And she says, “Look, I spent my whole life laying down my life for Kim Il-sung. Why wouldn’t I lay down my life for the Lord Jesus.”

When Billy Graham came to Seoul in 1973, the North Korean regime was not happy. They reportedly called Billy Graham “the witch doctor from America.” And you might think, well, even though Billy’s been all over the world, North Korea is probably the place he’d never reach. 

But 20 years later, he was actually invited to visit North Korea and meet directly with Kim Il Sung. 

Graham wanted to hold a crusade in Pyongyang but he wasn’t allowed. However, he was able to preach one message in their government-sanctioned house of worship and give the ruler of North Korea a Bible.

In a country where simply owning a copy could send a person and their entire family to a prison camp, here comes a foreign pastor who hands one right to the man responsible for these atrocities.

Even though North Korea has been at the top of persecution watch lists for decades, it doesn’t mean God isn’t at work in this hard-to-reach place. To believe that there is a place too hard or a people group too lost is to believe in a God that can only do easy things. 

And we don’t believe in a weak god, we believe in the God of hard-to-reach people.

One thing I learned from the Korean church is their discipline for prayer. There’s a tradition called Seh Byuk Gi Do—early morning prayer. Every morning at 5 AM, you can find people praying in church every morning at 5 am all over Korea.

Perhaps we can join them in praying for the people in North Korea and the Church in South Korea and maybe, a glorious revival is just around the corner.

Steven Morales

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

Eric Foley

Dr. Eric Foley is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Voice of the Martyrs Korea.

Luke Anwari, living in exile from Afghanistan, is a leader of the Afghan House Church Network.


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