Protestant Christianity rumbled into Korea with guns blazing–literally. It arrived aboard an American trading ship, the General Sherman, which pressed its way, unwelcome and unlawful, up the Taedong River towards Pyongang in 1866. After the crew of the General Sherman had killed seven Korean civilians and wounded five (both the Korean government and early Korean Christians agree it was the General Sherman that inaugurated the hostilities), the Koreans launched a burning boat and set the General Sherman ablaze. The entire crew was either shot, burned, or, in the case of missionary Robert Jermain Thomas, beaten to death by the angry crowd once he reached the shore, holding a Bible aloft.
It is not unfair to say that Christianity has always been controversial along the Taedong shores and in Korea generally. First the Japanese and later the DPRK would contend that Christianity and the General Sherman were inextricable. Christianity was subversive, they insisted, but not in the Sunday School, kingdom of God sense. Instead, they insisted, it was politically and militarily subversive, always serving American and anti-Asian interests as its missionaries leapt ashore trying to distract everyone with Bibles. These concerns and accusations were hardly allayed as tens of thousands of northern Korean Christians fled from North to South to become simultaneously Christianity’s greatest proponents and communism’s most trenchant critics.
Those Christians who remained in the north could never overcome that taint, that suspicion, and were hardly ever given the chance. They loved their Lord passionately, and they also loved the land of their birth. They sought to serve the one by serving the other. Their service–in fact, their very identity–was rejected by their land, but they continued to offer it in the hope that it was acceptable to their higher master, to whom they one day would have to give account.
At times as uncertain and ambivalent about the land to their south and its inhabitants as their political leaders were (due in no small part to the information they received from those leaders), they saw and continue to see themselves themselves as true North Koreans. Some serve in high positions in North Korean society, their faith either a carefully guarded secret or a matter sufficiently addressed. Others–a full third of the estimated 100,000 who name the name of Christ in North Korea–accept the full brunt of the punishment accorded to those with this identity, in their nation’s concentration camps. The majority make their way day by day, generation by generation, carefully and faithfully, through life in a country that insists that Christianity must be constrained absolutely lest the General Sherman return and bring far worse weapons with it. They are at one and the same time Christian and North Korean. Whereas everyone around the world regards it as a contradiction, for them it is simply life and calling. Their cry, surprisingly, is not that they be delivered from it but that they receive the wisdom to be found faithful within it.