To whom do North Koreans proclaim the gospel?
- To their spouses, but only after they’ve been married for several years
- To their children, but not until they reach the age of 15
- To other family members, but only when they’re exceedingly tight
- Rarely, to their lifelong closest friends or most trusted and longest-lasting co-workers
Yes, that’s it. There are a few documented cases of Christians sharing the gospel with individuals outside of their most intimate sphere of influence, but they are so few as to constitute the most extreme outlying cases–definitely not the norms.
I understand this is hero-deflating, romance-killing news, but before you dismiss North Korean Christians from your fantasy evangelism league, hear me out for the rest of the post.
North Koreans have a saying. You know how Jesus said, “Wherever two or three come together in my name, there am I with them?” North Koreans say, “Wherever two or three come together for any purpose, at least one of them is guaranteed to be a spy.”
Guilt by association is the operative principle of North Korean justice. If you are somehow associated with someone who is doing something the government considers wrong, fail to report it and you’ll be guilty, too–even if you didn’t know what the person was doing in the first place. Even to the third generation in the family of the offender.
So each time you share the gospel–especially with someone you don’t know, and even with those you do, or think you do–you have a veritable one hundred percent assurance of your entire family within three generations of you on either side paying for your crime. Given that most people you meet are spying for the government in some capacity, it leads one to a certain judiciousness in choosing when to share, and with whom. Call it fear if you like; in my experience I would call it exceptionally good judgment.
But what about children? Why wait until they’re 15 to share the gospel with them?
Because teachers and educators are specially trained to help children inadvertently rat out their parents. There are even prizes offered to children who bring special books and information from home about their families. Sanctity and privacy of family life is unknown in North Korea. Kim Il Sung is the eternal father, commanding infinitely more allegiance than one’s biological parents. As a result, North Korean Christians judge it best to wait to share the gospel with the child until he or she is old enough to withstand and resist the constant and cunning psychological warfare that even adults struggle to combat and endure.
It’s with these nearly inconceivable realities in mind that proclaiming the gospel to one’s own spouse, children, and dearest family members and lifetime associates reveals itself to be a truly breathtaking act requiring the utmost courage and training.
I just finished writing a book that shares the story of a third generation underground Christian family in North Korea. I’m hopeful that we’ll have it available in English before year’s end. There are so many great stories in there about proclaiming the gospel, but space limits me to just one here. So let me choose perhaps my favorite: the story of how the wife in the book began to hear about the gospel from her husband, namely, in confusing bits and pieces as together they grappled with her ongoing illnesses.
I married Mr. Bae. We went on our honeymoon, and later I bore two children. I was happy, and my life was good, like it had been under my parents. But even though I had been very successful and smart and energetic for my whole life, all I was after having babies was ill—all the time. My parents and siblings felt sorry for me. They wondered why I was getting sick and thought it might be caused from some unknown sin in my parents’ past. My whole body was sick, but there wasn’t a specific name for my disease.
My husband said to me, “If it is difficult to live, then pray—with two hands together.” He did not even say “Lord” or “God” or explain what prayer was. He just said that I should confess what I did wrong and pray. Frankly, I thought it humorous. I thought he was being silly. I had been continuously sick, and he told me to pray—with two hands together. When I did, I was healed. It did not last forever—I would get sick again, of course, and still do—but I didn’t laugh any more when I thought about praying.
Sometimes after that first healing experience I would go outside on a moonlit night and do this pray-with-two-hands-together thing. “Why am I sick?” I would ask no one in particular as I clasped my two hands together. “I have done my best to be a good person. Why am I sick, now? Can anyone heal me?” And sometimes I would be healed.
My husband said, “Do not sin.” I didn’t even know what “sins” were. He explained to me that lying is a sin, looking down on people is a sin, theft is a sin, and adultery is a sin. I didn’t even know what adultery meant. He said that heresy is a sin too. I didn’t know what that was either. I asked him what it meant, and he said it was espionage activities. Now that I think of it, I did not know many things.
But even before I had prayed with two hands together, I had lived honestly. I felt like heaven was keeping an eye on me. I could not bear malice, nor could I curse someone. I wondered whether those were sins or not too….
It may sound unusual to you that a husband and wife could sleep together, have babies together, do the pray-with-two-hands thing together, and still not have an in-depth conversation where the wife could ask, “What in the world are you talking about? I can’t understand half of what you are saying.” But it is important to understand that North Korea is unusual like that. Husbands and wives must be very careful when they speak to each other. It takes many years before they trust each other enough to speak about deep matters like faith.
Excerpted from These are the Generations by Eric Foley. Copyright © 2012 by .W Publishing. All rights reserved.
Fascinatingly, it wasn’t until Mr. Bae went to prison for his faith that Mrs. Bae heard the gospel message in anything resembling an understandable presentation.
But that’s another story for another day. In North Korea the gospel always takes a long time to tell, even to your wife.
Thanks for helping us understand!