Why I Don’t Pray for North Korea to “Open to the Gospel”

As I travel to speak about North Korea, I frequently hear Christians say, “I have been praying for many years for North Korea to open to the Gospel.”

This is a very understandable sentiment due to how North Korea is portrayed in the news. Take for instance the recent Associated Press article, Missionaries at border spread Christianity to North Korea in which I am quoted (though not in relation to the point I am seeking to make here). The article opens:

To the North Koreans gathered beneath a crucifix in an apartment in this northeastern Chinese border region, she is known as “mom.” She feeds them, gives them a place to stay and, on occasion, money.

In return, the 69-year-old Korean-Chinese woman asks them to study the Bible, pray and sing hymns. She also has a more ambitious, and potentially dangerous, goal: She wants the most trusted of her converts to return to North Korea and spread Christianity there.

Along the North Korean border, dozens of such missionaries are engaged in work that puts them and their North Korean converts in danger.

The article is true as far as it goes, but it is what is omitted that is most crucial to understanding the relationship between North Korea and Christianity, namely:

An estimated 100,000 North Koreans are Christians.

In other words, Christianity does not merely stand outside the door of North Korea and knock. Like yeast, Christianity continues to leaven the North Korean loaf.

And as I shared in These are the Generations, a book I wrote with third generation underground North Korean Christians, the kind of Christianity that leavens the North Korean loaf is North Korean Christianity. That is because Christianity first took root among Koreans in what is today North Korea (Pyongyang, most dramatically) before it took root among other Korean speakers. And it has continued to be practiced in North Korea without interruption since it arrived more than one hundred thirty years ago (or two hundred thirty years ago, in the case of Catholicism).

It has continued to be practiced without interruption, that is, but not without cost. It takes a lot of Christians to make 100,000 Christians inside North Korea. In other words, it’s hardly a static group. A third are in concentration camps. Some defect. Some are killed. Some apostasy.

But by and large, underground North Korean Christians are not waiting for the present regime to blow over in order to resume their Christian activities. They continue to evangelize and disciple in the face–or perhaps more accurately, in the teeth–of some of the strongest opposition to the Gospel in human history.

And, as such, we can learn a lot from them, if (a) we recognize that they exist and (b) we are humble to admit that the church at present is in desperate need of such learning. In my opinion, North Korean underground Christians and other persecuted Christians around the world are likely Christianity’s last best hope, since unlike the church in South Korea and America, they have not compromised with their culture and are thus paying the price for their non-compromise with their own blood. As Paul Minear notes with concern about the church in the West,

The Church has so emasculated the Gospel that it threatens no other power-structure. The Church no longer arouses hostility among the same elites and to the same degree as in the first century, but this is due not so much to a change in the operation of power-structures as to the Church’s betrayal of the Gospel itself.

Not so in North Korea. And so while I continue to do evangelism and discipleship with underground North Korean Christians, I do so in robust partnership with them today, not in the hopes that North Korea may one day “open up” so that the Gospel may “go in”. It is not the Word of God that is ever bound, the Apostle Paul notes rather matter-of-factly in 2 Timothy 2:9. Instead, I would add, it is we Christians in so-called “free” nations who are bound: bound to an emasculated version of the Gospel that is stymied in the absence of government-granted freedom of religion and so pain-averse that it does not know how to pass through closed doors the way its resurrected Lord calls it to.


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On The Death Of Our North Korean Student, Mrs. Choi

Today, Holy Saturday, we are having the memorial service for our former student named Mrs. Choi. She was born February 10th, 1973. Her hometown was Chungjin, in North Hamgyeong Province. She was sold in China and lived near Harbin for some years, giving birth to a son. She came to Korea on April 21, 2017, as part of the 233rd class at the Hanawon Refugee Resettlement Center. She enrolled in our UT school October 14th, 2017. She lived in Daegu but came by train on Friday nights and stayed sometimes with some of our UU students and sometimes with her Hanawon friends in order to be here for class Saturday morning.

Why do we do this memorial service for Mrs. Choi today? Is it because she was such a good student? No. In truth, she was not a great student or a bad student. Is it because she followed Christ so well? No. In truth, there were many things about Christ that she did not know or understand. Is it because she was such a good person? No. Like all of us, she had many struggles. She sometimes had conflicts with her friends. She put all her efforts into bringing her son to South Korea. In order to earn the money to do that, she sometimes did wrong things. She ended up in trouble that resulted in her death earlier this month. She died within a month after she was able to bring her son to South Korea. Her body was cremated and placed at the Yongin Crematorium. This is a facility operated by the government for the disposal of the bodies of those who have no one. No newspaper reported her death. No one has called for a fuller accounting of how she died. None of her friends or family members or colleagues from Hanawon 233 have come today to participate in this memorial service.

But it is not complete to say that Mrs. Choi was born February 10th, 1973. Instead, we must say that on February 10th, 1973, the Lord Jesus Christ breathed life into a newborn baby whom he had formed in her mother’s womb, and he numbered every hair on her head.

It is not complete to say that her hometown was Chungjin, in North Hamgyeong Province. Instead, we must say that God in his infinite wisdom, in order to accomplish his perfect purposes in the universe and in her life, and in each of our lives, placed her in Chungjin, in North Hamgyeong Province at that particular day and time and moment in history.

It is not complete to say that she was sold in China and lived near Harbin for some years, giving birth to a son. Instead, we must say that God permitted her to be sold into slavery, for even though his ways are not our ways, he works all things together for our good, even when everything in our circumstances look bad. It was in that place that she came to know the Lord Jesus and even to receive Dr. Foley and other members of our team into her home. The Lord Jesus says that whoever opens their home to a servant of the Lord and welcomes them into their home, that person is actually receiving him, and he will not forget that. Not ever.

It is not complete to say that she came to Korea on April 21, 2017, as part of the 233rd class at Hanawon. We must say that God arranged for her to come, and to be a part of the 233rd class, not the 232nd class or the 234th class, for reasons that only he knows. And she came with her Bible and was able to contact us because of it, which was part of God’s gracious provision for her, too.

It is not complete to say that she enrolled in our UT school October 14th, 2017. We must say that Christ himself sent her to us, with specific instructions for us to treat her as his daughter, and to extend to her the same love and care that we would extend to him.

And it is not complete to say that in the process of working to bring her son to Korea she made bad choices and did bad things and ended up in trouble that resulted in her death earlier this month. And it is not complete to say that no newspaper reported her story. And it is not complete to say that her friends have left her. And it is not complete to say that the government had to cremate her body because she had no one. We must say that when every other hand gave way—her family, her friends, North Korea, South Korea, the church, us—Christ never let go of Mrs. Choi. He did not turn his back on her. He did not condemn her. On Holy Saturday he descended to the very depths of death in order to make sure that no one who came to him would ever be lost. His grip is firm. “I do not lose even one that was put in my hand.”

How little we know the character of Christ! How little credit we give him for the perfect, unfailing love he shows toward us! How much we focus on our fears, our sins, our own efforts, our own desires, our own goals, our own ways of thinking! How seldom we realize that he is the one who breathed life into us, the one who ordered our steps, the one who watches over every detail of every day to ensure that his perfect will towards us will be accomplished!

What does Christ want from us? How should we respond to his perfect love?

The answer is found in today’s Holy Saturday scripture reading, though if you do not read carefully you will miss it. It is in Matthew 27:61. Matthew writes:

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

What does Christ want from us? To sit and wait for him. Especially when he seems absent and circumstances are urgent. Especially when we fall into sin. Especially when we are afraid. Especially when we are lost. Especially when everyone else leaves us. Especially when our families need us and are in trouble, and we feel like we must act and do something and be their savior… Stop and sit. Wait on him. Show your respect and trust in the Lord of glory. Recognize that he, not you, not the Korean government, not money, not the church, is your savior. Put your faith and trust not in yourself or in your family or in your friends or in your church or in any earthly thing. Put all your faith and trust in the one who descended farther into death and sin than you ever have, or will, or could. He did that not just so that he could forgive your sins. He did that so that you would never need be separated from him.

It is not complete to say that Mrs. Choi’s life has ended. We must say that Mrs. Choi’s life is just now beginning, and will stretch on forever in perfect glory in the presence of God. We must say that Mrs. Choi was always directly and personally under Jesus’ care, but now she sees him face to face, and knows him as he has always known her. We must say that Jesus has drawn her death up into his own, that his eternal life is now hers as well.

Death will end. Life cannot.

Because of Christ, because of Holy Saturday, death will always end in resurrection. For those who reach out to Jesus, they can be certain that he has them in his grip, he will not them go, he will never leave them, he has prepared a place for them, he will take them there in his perfect timing.

And now, at last, Mrs. Choi is truly home.

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It’s now the post-missionary age of NK ministry, and its newest hero is Mrs. MG

People sometimes mistakenly label Dr. Foley and me as “missionaries to North Korea.” Actually, we are not missionaries but rather servants of the persecuted church of North Korea. Everything we do for North Koreans, we do in support of, in partnership with, and at the request of the North Korean church. They set the agenda, the projects, the understanding, and the methods. We act as their proxy and as their most eager students.

It is a good thing that we are not missionaries to North Korea, since it’s now the post-missionary age of North Korea ministry work. Since China’s new religious laws were implemented in February, China has intensified its crackdown on any form of Christianity that is not controlled by or subservient to the state. More than a thousand missionaries have been expelled from China in the past eighteen months. And even in the state controlled churches, crosses—and sometimes even whole church buildings—are torn down. Those who help North Koreans can be arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed.

As a result, many Chinese Churches have turned their backs away from the North Koreans in their midst. With missionaries gone, churches frightened, and true believers driven farther underground, it is tempting to grieve and worry about this new post-missionary age.

But to think like this would be to overlook 1 Corinthians 1:27-29:

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

Even though the Chinese government has the political power and economic strength to expel missionaries, the message of Cross nevertheless remains the wisdom of God and the power of God. That message is foolishness to the powerful but wisdom to the weak. And the Chinese government rarely stops to worry about the weak.

Who are the weak?

They are the North Koreans in China. They lack worldly power or freedom or wealth or even the ability to speak Chinese. They receive the gospel and experience every dimension of its power because it pleases God to reveal himself in this way to them. They do the word of God simply because he has called them, and they have responded in faith and trust. Most of them have no standing in China because they are there illegally, having been sold against their will into marriage with Chinese men.

One of these North Korean woman is named MG. If you met MG, you might be tempted to pity her. Like most sex-trafficked North Korean women, she is poor and suffers from several health problems. Her husband is a Chinese man who doesn’t speak Korean and thus isn’t sure how to interact with MG. He often treats her poorly.

But in her suffering and weakness, MG is a mighty warrior of Christ.

Although MG had no knowledge of Christ before coming to China, she came into contact with one of our discipleship bases and came to know and serve Christ. Through our base she was able to receive:

  1. A Bible in her own North Korean dialect;
  2. An MP3 player with the Faith Comes By Hearing dramatized New Testament, Korean hymns, and discipleship materials from the underground church;
  3. Personal discipleship through the base leader and the base leader’s family.

But none of these things in and of themselves makes a mighty warrior. That can come only through the personal tutelage of the Holy Spirit. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit loves the weak. Over time, people around MG were amazed by her spiritual growth. Although she had no formal education, the time at our discipleship base equipped her to take up her cross and follow Christ—and to encourage others to do the same.

Even though Chinese churches turn their backs on North Koreans seeking help, a Chinese church in her area sought her out to teach a Bible Study for young North Koreans in China, and to visit other North Koreans in Chinese hospitals.

Although a hospital visit may not sound difficult or impressive, hospital visits in MG’s region of China can be arduous: Villages are remote and so a visit to the hospital can take up an entire day! Often, North Korean women are not able to take public transportation, because they are in China illegally; if they are discovered, they will be returned to North Korea and its labor camps. When MG does her hospital visits, she doesn’t just tell fellow North Koreans to “get well soon.” MG preaches the word that she heard at our discipleship base and teaches them how to reach their husbands, children, and neighbors for Christ.

If MG had gone to a ministry other than VOM Korea, it is quite likely that they would have encouraged her to cut ties with the Chinese man who bought her and escape to South Korea.

But this would have extinguished one of the few remaining lights that Christ has in China. Rather than seeing MG as a victim in need of saving, we see her the way God sees her:

As a hero of the new post-missionary age of North Korean ministry, which is led by great, weak women of God like MG.


Thanks to Margaret Foley and our field team for helping me with this post–and, more importantly, for loving and supporting women like Mrs. MG with the same heart that has characterized VOM Korea for more than 17 years.

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