As I travel to speak about North Korea, I frequently hear Christians say, “I have been praying for many years for North Korea to open to the Gospel.”
This is a very understandable sentiment due to how North Korea is portrayed in the news. Take for instance the recent Associated Press article, Missionaries at border spread Christianity to North Korea in which I am quoted (though not in relation to the point I am seeking to make here). The article opens:
To the North Koreans gathered beneath a crucifix in an apartment in this northeastern Chinese border region, she is known as “mom.” She feeds them, gives them a place to stay and, on occasion, money.
In return, the 69-year-old Korean-Chinese woman asks them to study the Bible, pray and sing hymns. She also has a more ambitious, and potentially dangerous, goal: She wants the most trusted of her converts to return to North Korea and spread Christianity there.
Along the North Korean border, dozens of such missionaries are engaged in work that puts them and their North Korean converts in danger.
The article is true as far as it goes, but it is what is omitted that is most crucial to understanding the relationship between North Korea and Christianity, namely:
An estimated 100,000 North Koreans are Christians.
In other words, Christianity does not merely stand outside the door of North Korea and knock. Like yeast, Christianity continues to leaven the North Korean loaf.
And as I shared in These are the Generations, a book I wrote with third generation underground North Korean Christians, the kind of Christianity that leavens the North Korean loaf is North Korean Christianity. That is because Christianity first took root among Koreans in what is today North Korea (Pyongyang, most dramatically) before it took root among other Korean speakers. And it has continued to be practiced in North Korea without interruption since it arrived more than one hundred thirty years ago (or two hundred thirty years ago, in the case of Catholicism).
It has continued to be practiced without interruption, that is, but not without cost. It takes a lot of Christians to make 100,000 Christians inside North Korea. In other words, it’s hardly a static group. A third are in concentration camps. Some defect. Some are killed. Some apostasy.
But by and large, underground North Korean Christians are not waiting for the present regime to blow over in order to resume their Christian activities. They continue to evangelize and disciple in the face–or perhaps more accurately, in the teeth–of some of the strongest opposition to the Gospel in human history.
And, as such, we can learn a lot from them, if (a) we recognize that they exist and (b) we are humble to admit that the church at present is in desperate need of such learning. In my opinion, North Korean underground Christians and other persecuted Christians around the world are likely Christianity’s last best hope, since unlike the church in South Korea and America, they have not compromised with their culture and are thus paying the price for their non-compromise with their own blood. As Paul Minear notes with concern about the church in the West,
The Church has so emasculated the Gospel that it threatens no other power-structure. The Church no longer arouses hostility among the same elites and to the same degree as in the first century, but this is due not so much to a change in the operation of power-structures as to the Church’s betrayal of the Gospel itself.
Not so in North Korea. And so while I continue to do evangelism and discipleship with underground North Korean Christians, I do so in robust partnership with them today, not in the hopes that North Korea may one day “open up” so that the Gospel may “go in”. It is not the Word of God that is ever bound, the Apostle Paul notes rather matter-of-factly in 2 Timothy 2:9. Instead, I would add, it is we Christians in so-called “free” nations who are bound: bound to an emasculated version of the Gospel that is stymied in the absence of government-granted freedom of religion and so pain-averse that it does not know how to pass through closed doors the way its resurrected Lord calls it to.