How many Christians are there in North Korea?

Generally, the most straightforward questions about North Korea are the hardest ones to answer—not only for the general public, but even for North Korean analysts and intelligence agencies. For years, North Korea has been called “the failure of the intelligence community,” because even major events (like the death of Kim Il Sung) often go undetected until North Korea chooses to announce them. And often the information that intelligence agencies release about North Korea proves to be exactly wrong.

Even the question “How many people are there in North Korea?” is a carefully guarded state secret. The answer usually given is, “Somewhere between 20 and 25 million.” That’s a lot of variability!

So when it comes to determining with precision a subset of that population—especially a subset that by definition must remain deep underground—the question is notoriously difficult. Underground Christians must remain undetected not only by their own government but also by their own neighbors, their co-workers, and even their family members. (You can read more about this in my book, These are the Generations, which is the testimony of third generation underground North Korean Christians. Mr. Bae, the third generation Christian, marries Mrs. Bae, who is not only not a Christian when they marry but is actually an ethics teacher at a North Korean school, responsible for teaching the students the one hundred stories of Kim Il Sung’s life that every North Korean must memorize. In the book, the Baes share the surprising way Mrs. Bae came to know Christ.)

North Korean underground Christians do not even reveal their Christian identity to their own children until the children reach the age of fifteen. That is because North Korean school teachers are tasked with the responsibility of getting children to inadvertently reveal that their families are Christian. They ask questions like, “Do your parents have a special book they hide in your home? Do they sing different songs than the ones we sing in school? Do they ever bow their head or close their eyes and mumble?” In this way more than a few children have been the cause of their own families (including themselves) ending up in concentration camps.

The story that best illustrates this situation was told to Dr. Foley and me by a woman who came from an underground Christian family in North Korea. When she was about seven years old, she found a Bible in her home. Without hesitation, she knew she needed to inform the police. Her parents, underground Christian leaders, tied her up in a chair in order to prevent her from going out. They shared the gospel with her, and she became a Christian (and later a church leader) rather than a government informer.

So with all of this secrecy, is there any hope that we can estimate with any degree of accuracy the number of Christians in North Korea?

The answer is, fortunately, yes. And for several reasons.

First, underground Christians typically keep detailed oral records of church life. Many can trace their heritage back to the beginning of the gospel arriving into North Korea. They even know what denomination they are—despite the fact that almost no denominational distinctives are practiced or maintained by underground North Korean Christians. This oral history allows us to reconstruct data like the spread of Christianity in North Korea, the persecutions, and the current status of the church in the local area. (Typically, North Korean Christians know nothing about the status of the church outside of their own area. They are unable to travel from town to town without special permits, and the church in North Korea is highly diffuse, not centralized.)

Second, there are now more than 30,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea. According to studies (which our own research and experience continue to confirm), 80 percent of North Korean defectors in South Korea maintain regular monthly contact with their relatives in North Korea. Sadly, many Christian ministries and churches do not build close relationships of trust with North Korean defectors, and so defectors share very little with them about their families inside of North Korea. But for organizations like VOM Korea, building relationships of trust with North Korean defectors has been the foundation of our ministry for more than fifteen years. As a result, we sit amidst rich data resources about what is happening in local areas across North Korea. This has allowed us to make increasingly accurate observations and predictions over the years as relates to the current status of Christianity inside North Korea.

Third, there is more data available than ever before. The South Korean government Ministry of Unification conducts its own surveys about life inside of North Korea, including religious life, as do other organizations. Also, there are hundreds of thousands of North Koreans who are still North Korean citizens but who are either working overseas at the assignment of the North Korean government, or who are living in China illegally in order to make money for their families. This has created a veritable flood of data about North Korean life Taken collectively, these studies paint a very detailed and credible summary of the current state of religious life in North Korea, which allows analysts to, for example, estimate the number of Christians in North Korea.

Even given this volume of data, you will see widely varying estimates of the number of Christians in North Korea. Some Christian organizations claim that as many as ten percent of the North Korean population, or about two million people, are Christian. However, most organizations—from governmental agencies to human rights organizations to Christian ministries including VOM Korea—typically estimate that the actual number of Christians in North Korea is around one hundred thousand, of which thirty thousand are detained in concentration camps. In our view, based upon our own research, the research and analysis of other credible organizations and data gathering entities, and the collective experience of us and other groups, we are comfortable saying that the total number of Christians may be as low as sixty thousand and as high as one hundred twenty thousand.

But why do some groups say that there are two million Christians? There are three reasons why.

First, the organizations who make these claims typically do not attempt to integrate their own data with that of other organizations. As a result, they extrapolate from a very small slice of data (like the number of Christians along the border with North Korea and China, or the percentage of Christians in the areas where they work, which tend to be the areas most permeable to outside communication) and, in our view, overestimate significantly. It is like the story of the blind men feeling parts of an elephant and trying to figure out what it is. It takes many blind men cooperating together in order to figure out what they are feeling. In the same way, it takes many organizations and researchers working together and sharing data in order to come up with accurate estimates. When an organization makes an estimate based only on their own data, that estimate is far less likely to be accurate than when organizations work together, sharing information where possible, and humbly listening to one another’s insights. North Korea is a far more diverse country demographically than people realize. Some Christians are rich. Some Christians are poor. Some live on the border with China. Some live in Pyongyang. Some live on the sea. Some towns have a stronger Christian presence, while others have a weaker presence. All organizations have to cooperate together in order to develop as accurate a picture as possible. And that picture needs to be continually updated, literally month by month, as new data becomes available. Regrettably, some organizations do not cooperate well with others, and, as a result, their data and insights are not as accurate as others.

Second, some Christian organizations either are unable to tell the difference between real North Korean Christians and North Korean spies posing as Christians. Intelligence agencies report that more than ninety percent of North Koreans who encounter missionaries on the North Korea/China border are spies, specially trained and dispatched by the North Korean government to infiltrate missionary organizations in order to gather information and draw money and resources into North Korea. If an organization is unable to tell the difference between an actual North Korean Christian, a North Korean seeker, and a North Korean spy expertly trained to imitate a North Korean Christian or seeker, then they will estimate that there is a much greater number of Christians inside North Korea than there really are. If ninety percent of North Koreans visiting missionary bases are spies, it stands to reason that their estimates will be ninety percent higher than those of organizations that can and do tell the difference between spies and Christians. And that is indeed the case: Some organizations say two million Christians. We say one hundred thousand Christians—and an even greater number of spies.

Third, the number of Christians in North Korea is definitely not static. Given that about a third of North Korean Christians are in concentration camps according to best estimates, and that life in a concentration camp does not last long, imagine the number of new Christians required even to keep the number of Christians level. And yet all indications—regardless of who is estimating—is that Christianity is continuing to grow in North Korea. But even a phenomenal, exponential growth rate would be barely enough to keep the Christian population level.

Fourth, even the question of who counts as a Christian is a matter of some debate. I read a recent review of my book, These are the Generations, in which the reviewer liked the book but wondered whether the Baes were actually even Christian. The basis of his concern? In the book they do not use the same kind of language that Western evangelicals use to describe their faith, e.g., personal relationship with Christ, born again, accepting Christ as Lord and savior, etc., etc. In South Korea, some Christian leaders debate whether there are any North Korean Christians because North Korean Christianity does not look like South Korean Christianity, e.g., there are no pastors, no church buildings, no regular gatherings outside of family members, etc., etc. Our dear friend and ministry partner Pastor Tom Doyle, the author of Dreams and Visions and a number of other books, told me that he had a member of his church that doubted that Middle Eastern Christians were actually Christian, despite the fact that they were living and dying for Christ. One day that same church member didn’t show up at church, so Pastor Tom called to check up on him. “It was too windy for me to go,” the church member said. It is perhaps too easy for us to judge what counts as Christianity in other countries, and our own cultural lenses often prevent us from seeing the extreme devotion of believers in other countries and the tepid faith in ourselves. At VOM Korea, we extend the hand of Christian fellowship to all those who can subscribe to the Nicene Creed as the rule of faith and life. Other groups would find that an unsuitable definition of what counts as a Christian. We leave the matter to God and simply state our definitions openly so others know where we are coming from.

I would conclude by suggesting that however many Christians there are in North Korea, and however you might define Christianity, you can certainly pray with them, that God will find them faithful where they are, and that God will find you faithful where you are. If we are uncertain how many Christians there are in North Korea, it may be that we can not be too certain about the question in our own countries. What we know is in countries like the United States and Korea, the church is on the decline. We believe that the North Korean underground church, and underground churches around the world, are God’s plan for renewal for the church worldwide. However many Christians there are in North Korea, the United States, and South Korea, may there be more tomorrow, and may we who know Christ be even more committed tomorrow than we are today.



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Why the North Korean Church is Growing Faster than the US and the South Korean Church Combined

If I were to ask you, “Where is the church growing faster? America or North Korea?”, how would you answer? The correct answer is North Korea.

If I were to ask you, “Where is the church growing faster? South Korea or North Korea?”, how would you answer? The correct answer is North Korea.

The church in America and the church in South Korea are in decline. The church in North Korea is continuing to grow. If American pastors and South Korean pastors are eager to see their churches grow, why do they continue to look for church growth strategies in America and South Korea? Why not emulate the North Korean church?

Why does the North Korean church continue to grow while the American and South Korean churches continue to decline?

Because in North Korea, the body is understood as the primary tool for Christian ministry. Anywhere where the body is understood as the primary tool for Christian ministry, the church is continuing to grow. Anywhere where money and materials other than the body are the primary tools for ministry, church decline is inevitable.

As my brothers and sisters at VOM Canada say, “A cross-centered gospel requires a cross-bearing witness.” The cross can only be borne by the body. Where the body is the primary tool for ministry, the cross is the primary tool of the body. This is the meaning of the Apostle Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1 (NIV),

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.

God is incarnational. Therefore, the body will always be at the center of Christian ministry. This is why the great church father Tertullian said that martyrdom, not apologetics, is the seed of the church.

The reason why suffering–any kind of suffering–is such a powerful spur to deep relationship with Christ is that in suffering the body necessarily searches for its purpose. The only purpose in which the body can come fully and completely to rest is in service to Christ. The physical realm was built for this, and our bodies somehow know this.

In North Korea, where there is much suffering, bodies can only come fully and completely to rest in service to Christ.

Consider the story of Mrs. Ahn.

Mrs Ahn’s husband was a communist party official in North Korea and a smuggler, part of a black market supply train bringing goods in from China. Neither Mrs. Ahn nor her husband were Christian.

She would watch as through their house passed crates of Jack Daniels and cigarettes, radios and pornographic DVDs. She was especially curious about the books her husband would smuggle, as he never brought those in the house but instead buried them in the yard. When she asked to see one, he said, “Don’t ever look in that book! It’s far too dangerous.”

Human nature being what it is, her husband’s reluctance made her press all the more. Eventually her husband relented, and one night they read the Bible together while under a blanket with a candle.

Their suspicious behavior was quickly reported by their neighbors. Since her husband was a communist party official, his denial was accepted as truth; however, Mrs. Ahn was put into prison for further interrogation.

They asked her who introduced her to Christianity, and she said, truthfully, “I don’t know what Christianity is!” They broke one of her knuckles with an iron rod.

“What was the name of the missionary who gave you the Christian book?” they asked. Again, truthfully, she answered, “I don’t know what a missionary is!” And they broke another knuckle.

In this way they broke all 10 of her knuckles. And then they broke her jaw, which is why her face is slanted sideways. And then they broke her skull, which is why she has to wear a wig.

When at last her husband managed to bribe her way out of prison by selling their TV set, she escaped to China, and the first thing she asked was, “Would somebody please tell me who Jesus is?” She had not made it far enough along in the Bible to know in whose name she was being persecuted. But God used that persecution to bring her to eternal freedom. Suffering always raises for the body the question for which service to Christ is to the body the only permanently satisfying answer.

But in America and South Korea, the body is not honored as the primary tool for Christian ministry. The dividends of the body are accorded this role. Things like money: Money, which is produced by our labor; buildings, which are produced by our money; pastors, which are produced by our buildings. Meanwhile, the body remains restless (and, note, prone to sin). This is why Jesus loves the rich young ruler enough to tell him, “Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me.” Until as a Christian you only have your body as a tool for ministry, you will inevitably try to press anything else into God’s hands for his use. And your body will continue to wander.

In North Korea, intense suffering means bodies are in constant motion, desperately seeking their purpose. Ten broken knuckles can set a body lurching toward Christ. In Christ, and only in Christ, does a body find its purpose. Only as a tool for ministry can a body ever come to rest. Or as the Apostle Peter taught us, “Whoever suffers in the body is done with sin.”

Until the American church and the South Korean church stop substituting tools other than the body for primary use in Christian ministry, the church in those countries will continue to decline (and Christians in those countries will not be done with sin).

As long as the North Korean church continues to use the body as the primary tool for Christian ministry, the church in that country will continue to grow, and to teach us how God intends for ministry to be done.


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Who Do You Say I Am?

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Matthew 22:34-46

Today, the Temple was burbling over with activity—and not only because it was the busiest time of the year, Jewish Passover.

A new teacher had arrived in town two days before, bringing with him strange new teachings that had the religious leaders up in arms. This teacher’s name was Jesus, and he had just silenced a group of Sadducees who had attempted to stump him with riddles.

Amidst the drone of scandalous whispers, a lawyer stood up. A member of the Pharisees, this lawyer sought to test Jesus with a question.

“Teacher,” the lawyer asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36)

The burbling chatter of the crowd rose to fever pitch. What a difficult question the lawyer had asked! While the scriptural proficiency of the crowd varied, every onlooker knew that the scriptures contained hundreds of commandments that must be followed (the wisest onlookers, perhaps, knew that scripture held 613 commands); wading through these commands to identify which was paramount was a near impossible task—even for the most brilliant of teachers.

This new teacher, however, did not seem to appreciate the difficulty of the question. Without quandary or speculation, he answered the lawyer.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” Jesus said. “This is the first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38)

Although the teacher’s voice was strong, patient, and overflowing with authority, there was the sense that the words he was speaking weren’t his own. It felt as if he was relaying words that had been entrusted to him by another.

“The second command is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus continued. “On these two commands hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:39)

The crowds quieted down to a murmur and scrutinized the faces of the Pharisees. Earlier in the day, Jesus had cried out that the tax collectors and prostitutes would enter into the kingdom of God before the Pharisees. (Matthew 21:31) How would the Pharisees respond?

While many of the Pharisees brooded in silence (silently plotting ways to rid themselves of this troublesome teacher without the crowd’s knowledge), the lawyer seemed to be deep in thought. He had been listening to Jesus carefully. Now, he nodded.

“Yes,” the lawyer nodded again. “Yes, you are correct, Teacher. You have truly said that he is the one and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:32-33)

Although Jesus had offered only reproach and reprimand to previous leaders, he looked at this lawyer and nodded.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus said. (Mark 12:34)

But this is not where the story ends.

Although the Pharisees had been vexed into silence, Jesus did not leave them be. Instead, he fixed them with a glance.

“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42)

The Pharisees shot one another puzzled glances. Why was the teacher asking such a simple question? Everyone knew about the Messiah! Even the most foolish member of the crowd knew that the Messiah would be a relation to David. Jesus must have a trick up his sleeve.

“The son of David,” they cautiously replied. (Matthew 22:42)

“How is it, then, that David, in the Spirit, calls the Messiah, Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet?’” Jesus asked. “If David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matthew 22:43-45)

No one was able to answer.

When we read this passage of scripture, we are often tempted to read Jesus’ final question as an attempt to one-up the Pharisees. After all, the Pharisees had approached Jesus in the hopes of stumping him; why shouldn’t Jesus respond in kind? But what if Jesus’ final question was meant in earnest?

The Pharisees had a very specific set of beliefs about the Messiah: The Messiah was going to be an entirely human descendant of David who saved the Jewish people from their worldly oppressors. Although the Jewish people had heretofore been burdened with the yoke of various empires (Babylon, Persia, and, most recently, Rome), the Messiah would not only set them free but herald in an enlightened Jewish empire, providing all with government-backed freedom.

It is no wonder, then, that the Pharisees who happened upon Jesus were incapable of bestowing upon him the title he was owed: Their definition of the Messiah was completely askew. (For an explanation of the freedom that Jesus offers, you can click here.) The Pharisees search for the Messiah was much akin to the police search for Saint Athanasius in the Nile. The police pulled alongside the boat responsible for transporting Athanasius and, ignorant of the saint’s appearance, spoke with the saint, himself.

“Is Bishop Athanasius on board?” The officers demanded of the saint. To which, the saint responded, “No! He is hiding on the boat following us.”

The police stopped to check the boat behind, and Athanasius made it safely to Upper Egypt.[1]

While the officers are similar to the Pharisees, there is one key difference between Saint Athanasius and Jesus: Athanasius didn’t want to be found.

If we examine our scriptures for context, we see that the conversation at the temple takes place only days before Jesus is crucified:


Sunday: Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11)

Monday: Jesus drives the money-changers out of the temple (Matthew 21:12-17)

Tuesday: Jesus is questioned by religious leaders in the temple (Matthew 21:23-46, 22, 23)

Wednesday: The religious leaders plot to arrest and kill Jesus (Matthew 26:3-5)

Thursday: The Last Supper and arrest of Christ (Matthew 26:17-68)

Friday: Jesus delivered to Pilate and the Crucifixion (Matthew 27)


This scripture also takes place only moments before Matthew 23:37, in which Jesus cries:

“Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathered her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!”

Jesus is not idly engaging in a battle of wits with the Pharisees. He no more wants the Pharisee to perish than the prostitute or the tax-collector. As mentioned before, the only difference between a Pharisee and a prostitute is that a prostitute acknowledges their sinful nature and spiritual ignorance. When Christ gives the prostitute a definition of the Messiah, the prostitute is more likely to accept it at face value. The Pharisee, however, has dedicated his life to study and purification; he is less likely to see himself in need of salvation and more likely to reject this new definition of the disciple based on his own definition.

So Jesus asks this impossible question of the Pharisees to open their eyes.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisee’s question is also meant to instruct. When he distills all 613 commands to two commands, he isn’t doing any favors. “On these two laws,” Jesus says, “hang all the Laws and the Prophets.” This means that if we are not loving God with all our heart, soul and mind—if we, for example, designate room in our heart, soul, and mind for something else—then we have broken all 613 commandments.

This is somber news deserving of much thought. It is more than telling that upon hearing this news, the Pharisees were not thinking about their own inadequacy, but the best way in which they could kill the very God in whom they were commanded to love.

That Jesus mentions the commandments immediately after this somber news is no mistake. Although we could never fulfill these commandments on our own, this Messiah offers us a way to become free from the weight of our own sins and imperfections. While the Messiah does not offer us physical freedom—in fact, he promises the opposite—he does grant us the freedom to follow all 613 commandments. He makes it possible for us to truly love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (as well as love our neighbors as ourselves).

This question isn’t just being presented to the Pharisees, however. Just like he asked Peter, Jesus is now asking you, “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29) Will you say that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God? Or will you, like the Pharisees, completely overlook his importance? You have the freedom to answer in any way you choose; only, be honest. We can lie to one another, but we can never lie to Christ.

[1] Christopher Loveless, Strange Eventful History: The Story of the Saint (, 2012), 95-96.

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