It’s understandable to think that North Korean underground church life must be something like Chinese underground church life, with individuals sneaking out of their homes at night to gather together with five to ten other believers in a basement or cave or forest, reading the Bible by candlelight and silently mouthing the words to hymns as they look at each other with blissful but urgent expressions on their faces.
But it’s not. In fact, if you see photos or hear stories of North Korean Christians behaving in these ways, you are either hearing false stories or you’re hearing stories of North Koreans gathering in China, typically with Korean Chinese brothers and sisters. Since it’s illegal for Korean Chinese people to aid North Koreans, underground or secret gatherings like this do occur.
But in North Korea? Almost never.
There is simply no credible evidence of groups of North Korean Christians regularly gathering in the same way their Chinese counterparts do, and for good reason: In North Korea, individuals are required to report on the activities of their neighbors. What they fail to report, they themselves are then guilty of. If a North Korean saw a neighbor sneaking out at night, or if a North Korean saw five or six people huddling together regularly in a home, the North Korean would of course report this, even if he or she loved these neighbors. Because in North Korea, you can love your neighbors but if you fail to tell on them, it will be you and your family in the concentration camp, and not many people anywhere (especially non-Christians) love their neighbors that much.
Also, in any group of five to ten North Koreans, there are almost certain to be two or three spies–even from your own family. As we shared in the previous post on North Korea, this is why the gospel confines its spread tightly along family lines in North Korea, with wives often unaware that their husbands are Christian and children unaware that their parents are believers. When Jesus says that he shows up wherever two are three are gathered in his name, no one counts on that more than the Christians of North Korea.
You may then be wondering, “Are there underground churches in North Korea, or just underground Christians?” If what you are asking is, “Are there gatherings of five to ten North Koreans that meet on a regular basis to hear the proclamation of the gospel?”, the answer is, “Almost none.” But if what you are asking is, “Are North Koreans Christians connected together in any way?”, the answer is, “Yes, though not in named house church networks like in China.” In North Korea, the gospel travels slowly and quietly along tiny spiritual tributaries, from person to person to person sitting next to each other on a bench, walking home from a day in the fields, or even heading to the required government self-criticism meeting. These tributaries do not join together to make streams and rivers but instead remain as tributaries all of their lives. Individual underground believers in North Korea struggle to grasp what it would be like for even five believers to be able to come together to sing and pray and worship regularly.
Take the case of Mrs. Bae, part of the husband and wife pair of third generation underground North Korean Christians whose story I have had the privilege of writing this year, due out in book form in English later this fall, Lord permitting. When Mrs. Bae defected from North Korea following her husband’s miraculous release from prison after his investigation for Christian activity, the one thing she couldn’t wait to do when she got to China…was to go to church.
In the first Chinese city we entered, we stayed with an old lady. Now that we were settled in, I could no longer contain myself. I blurted out the request that I had had on my heart ever since I had heard from my mother-in-law about the large groups of Christians who would come together to sing, pray, and worship in broad daylight—in buildings specially set apart for that purpose, no less. Could we, I asked, go to church?
There are some very large Korean Chinese churches in northeast China, with congregations numbering literally in the thousands. Such places are well known to defecting North Koreans, who are told that if they go to a building with a cross on it, they will receive help. Problem is, my host explained to me, many North Korean defectors are captured at church, since the authorities know that North Koreans head there all the time.
But to me, it was worth the risk. I had waited for so long to be with God’s family in God’s house. I could hardly imagine what a “church” could be like, but, as it turned out, I knew more than I thought I did. What I mean is that church looked exactly like what happens in North Korea whenever Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il come to town. Everyone is gathered together and offering praise, adoration, and prayer. In North Korea, however, the “god” is visible, sitting up front (or present by his portrait in the mandatory weekly self-criticism meetings).
But in church, there was no one sitting up front. And unlike my attendance at self-criticism meetings, here I felt peace, joy, comfort—and God’s holiness. That night the sermon title was “At the End of the World, the Pain Will Come,” which made perfect sense to me in the midst of the journey we were on. The church was so big with so many people. Lights were twinkling everywhere. People were singing from hymnals. The praising songs were so loud and powerful. I just followed what everyone did, in complete awe. It was like I had entered heaven.
Excerpted from These are the Generations by Eric Foley. Copyright © 2012 by .W Publishing. All rights reserved.