The Korean church is one of the youngest branches of world Protestant Christianity, having taken root a bit more than 100 years. Today a surprising number of the world’s largest churches are located in South Korea, which also sends out more missionaries than nearly any other country. Korean Christianity was not birthed in Seoul or South Korea, however, but in the northern part of Korea, centered in Pyongyang which is today the capital of North Korea.
There are a number of reasons why the Korean church has grown so well and so rapidly, the unmerited blessing of God being of course the overarching reason. One aspect of that unmerited blessing is that the Korean church was organized according to what are called the Nevius Principles—a set of five guiding principles developed by Presbyterian missionary John Nevius, building on the work of Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson:
1. Christians should continue to live in their neighborhoods and pursue their occupations, being self-supporting and witnessing to their co-workers and neighbors.
2. Missions should only develop programs and institutions that the national church desired and could support.
3. The national churches should call out and support their own pastors.
4. Churches should be built in the native style with money and materials given by the church members.
5. Intensive biblical and doctrinal instruction should be provided for church leaders every year.
Because the North Korean underground church is built on these principles, Seoul USA is built on these principles, and so are all of our North Korea ministry projects and activities.
Some may say that North Korea is the necessary exception to the rule, contending that it is impossible for North Koreans to be self-supporting or to develop their own programs and institutions. We would disagree, pointing to what we believe are some very important factors:
- At the time the Nevius principles were first instituted, Korea was absolutely destitute and also occupied by Japan. Poverty, starvation, and persecution were facts of life for the Korean church then, as they are for the North Korean church today.
- There exists and has always existed an indigenous North Korean church that has successfully carried on the work of ministry inside North Korea independent of missionary aid. Seoul USA considers it a high priority to document this, since we believe it to be valuable to the church around the world to see how God has done this. Our book, These are the Generations, is an introductory resource to this subject.
- Wherever there is money to be made, the North Korean government is there. Whereas historically the policy of the North Korean government had been simply to exterminate Christians, the last ten years has seen a dramatic change as the North Korean government has recognized that Christianity is a lucrative source of potential income in the form of aid supplied by Christians from around the world. This takes two primary forms:
- The North Korean government, through its citizen informants, always tracks individuals who appear to be receiving money from something other than their obvious outward occupation. Often this money comes from black market activity. Sometimes it comes from relatives in China and South Korea. Sometimes it comes from Christian organizations from around the world. Whatever the case, the North Korean government’s perspective is that in each case they will find a way to tap into this money. They can do this by making the individual pay bribes or by imprisoning the individual in hopes of receiving bribes from whomever supplied the money in the first place. Interestingly, when Mrs. Foley and I started Seoul USA about eleven years ago, people were paying a few hundred dollars to bribe people out of jail in North Korea. Today bribes of more than twenty thousand dollars for this purpose are quite common—which is why we don’t pay them, nor do we contribute to the system or the practices that give rise to this kind of illegal and counterproductive activity.
- For years, the North Korean government has trained and continues to train a large and growing number of agents to serve as underground Christians working especially in the border provinces for the purpose of making connection with and drawing aid from western Christian organizations. Among those of us with extensive field networks, we estimate that 70 percent of those purporting to be underground Christians in North Korea are counterfeit Christians trained by the North Korean government. Our contacts in the South Korean intelligence community actually believe the number to be more than 90 percent. The North Korean government regards Christian aid as a lucrative source of state support, and they seek it both covertly, through counterfeit agents, and overtly, through humanitarian aid programs with contact coordinated by their so-called Korean Christian Federation. The counterfeit nature of the KCF and its role as an organ of state funding has been well documented, so there is no need to write more about that here.
This is why we emphasize training programs, evangelism, and discipleship rather than providing direct financial aid to individuals in a Western-style fashion.
Western-style aid neither built nor sustained the North Korean church.
Our role is partnership with the existing North Korean church not only in North Korea but across all of Asia, where we provide training and training resources. We believe that direct financial aid fosters dependence, puts recipients in danger, and is frequently perverted by the North Korean government. In our view, such aid violates the Nevius principles and thus the foundations of the indigenous Korean church in both north and south.
Even funding “business as ministry” is problematic in our view. In the time of famine, a North Korean Christian was funded by South Korean churches to sell grain at below-market prices as a form of ministry. He was discovered and executed for anti-state activities, since such sales trouble the state by upsetting the controlled economy. Word spread through the underground Christian community and that style of ministry became far less common among underground Christians.
Instead, by and large, underground Christians follow the first Nevius principle: Christians should continue to live in their neighborhoods and pursue their occupations, being self-supporting and witnessing to their co-workers and neighbors. Christian workers whose sole or primary source of funding is external aid are easily recognized by the government, and their effectiveness is accordingly constrained. Further, those with whom they come in contact are naturally included in surveillance and observation. At any time the North Korean government senses that the operation is getting out of hand or is not beneficial to them financially, they can shut it down and turn to Plan B: Imprisoning workers receiving the aid in hopes of getting large bribes to release them from prison.
There is a stereotype that underground Christians in North Korea are poor. As I have written about previously, this is not an accurate image. The best way for Westerners in North Korea to help Christians in North Korea is not by giving them money but by assisting them in the creation and dissemination of training and training resources. This is the only sustainable form of aid that cannot be perverted by the North Korean government for its purposes.
I have often thought of being involved in missions to NK and still wish I could be involved. I used to send Korean Bibles via Bibles Unbound. But I would much rather have boots on the ground discipling and teaching new NK converts.
Good to hear from you, Jeremy, and to learn of your involvement with and love for our NK brothers and sisters. These days I find myself doing a lot less teaching of NKs and a lot more learning from and with them! They have a gift for knowing how to reach and disciple their brothers and sisters. This year at Underground University (our missionary training college for NKs), I’ll be co-teaching with a North Korean who was once one of my students…and who now is one of the teachers. But she is also one of Mrs. Foley’s and my teachers, too. Iron sharpening iron, as the Scripture says.