North Korean defector Ms. KMS (name withheld for security reasons) recalls her first exposure to Christianity, which occurred while she was still living in North Korea. “In 2002 I was arrested and brought to North Korean police,” she says. “Many people were interrogated at the same time. A young woman next to me was closing her eyes, folding her hands, and praying to God. The police yelled, ‘You dog, you are praying!’ They beat her and sent her to a prison camp. I knew she was praying because my mom had told me that people eventually pray to God when they are in trouble.”
Experiences like Ms. KMS’ are shared by approximately one third of North Korean defectors enrolled in Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s discipleship training schools, yet many defectors do not initially realize they encountered underground Christians. When defectors are asked questions like, “Do you think there is an underground church in North Korea?”, they typically answer, “No.” But when they are asked whether they recall seeing anyone in North Korea pray, sing a hymn, share a Bible story, use the Christian name for God, or even possess a Bible or other Christian artifact, many will answer, “Yes.” Then they begin to realize they encountered traces of the North Korean underground church, even within their own family.
North Korean defectors often do not realize they were exposed to underground Christians inside of North Korea because they have been conditioned to think of “church” according to the South Korean model. The two most frequent associations for the word “church” among South Korean Christians are church buildings and pastors. North Korea certainly has neither of these. So, many South Korean Christians and North Korean defectors conclude, “Therefore, there must be no church in North Korea.”
Other studies are also confirming what Voice of the Martyrs Korea hears from its students: A growing number of North Koreans are being exposed to Christianity while still inside of North Korea. The North Korean Human Rights Database, an independent data-gathering NGO, has been conducting an ongoing study where they found that in the year 2000, effectively 0% of people inside North Korea had ever seen a Bible with their own eyes. They have continued to update that study, and at the end of 2020 they determined that around 8% of people inside of North Korea have now seen a Bible with their own eyes. In a different study released in June, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimated that more than 6% of North Koreans inside North Korea have had personal contact with a Christian.
But it is the detailed interviews with North Korean defectors that reveal the most important information about the source and characteristics of the Christian faith inside North Korea. Most of the North Korean Christians our defector students met inside of North Korea didn’t become Christian as a result of South Korean missionaries or through the North Korean government’s purported “state churches”. They became Christian because of other North Koreans.
Consider the example of Mrs. YEJ (name withheld), a North Korean defector enrolled in a Voice of the Martyrs Korea training program, whose mother was an underground Christian. “My mother believed in God, and, as she was dying when I was thirteen, gave me a silver or iron cross,” says Mrs. YEJ. “Because I was so young at the time, I didn’t even know what it was. My mother told me to bury it in the ground because I would die if someone found it, so I wrapped it in paper and buried it under a persimmon tree at night.” Mrs. YEJ says that she never heard anything more about the cross or about Jesus. “I only remember that I often saw my mother murmuring in front of water or food in the room. Sometimes I saw her make the sign of the cross. But, at the time, I didn’t understand what my mother was doing, so I figured she must just be upset.”
A June 2021 graduate of Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s Underground Technology discipleship training program for North Korean defectors, Mrs. SYA (name withheld), says she witnessed some of her neighbors being taken away by security guards when she was still living inside North Korea. She was told by other neighbors that it was because they were members of the underground church. Mrs. SYA said she did not know much about God when she saw the underground Christians being taken. But what she did know is that she would be in trouble if she ever believed in God.
Mrs. SYA’s eldest son defected from North Korea to China when he was young. At the time, she told her son to never to believe in God. Later, Mrs. SYA also defected from North Korea and lived in China. Her son would call her every Saturday and tell her to believe in God and go to church. He also sent her praise music tapes. Whenever she listened to the tapes, her heart felt at peace. Sometimes, she would stay up all night and listen to the tapes over and over. After this, she began to attend church.
I had the opportunity to write These are the Generations, a book on North Korean underground Christianity, together with a third generation North Korean underground Christian husband and wife who have since defected to South Korea. Through the book, we can see how different the North Korean and South Korean models of church are. In the North, there are no church buildings and no pastors, yet the underground church there continues to endure and even grow and thrive, perhaps at a higher rate of growth than the South Korean church, which has been in numeric decline since the 1990s.
Recording, studying, and publishing these traces of the North Korean underground church experienced by North Korean defectors should be the basis for North Korean mission, now and in the future. South Korean Churches and mission groups are raising funds and preparing to plant South Korean-style churches inside North Korea if and when North Korea opens, and they are increasingly drawing North Korean defector pastors into that way of thinking. That is unfortunate because it overlooks the reality that God has already planted a unique and beautiful church in North Korea, one that has endured the harshest conditions in history and continued to grow.
Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, the founder of Voice of the Martyrs, said that when the Soviet Union collapsed, he was grieved to see so many pastors rush into Russia from the outside in order to plant Western-style churches. He said that instead, these pastors should have rushed in to sit at the feet of the Russian pastors who had survived communism and the Soviet gulags in order to learn how to plant a church capable of surviving under any conditions. We should have the same thinking about North Korea.
Voice of the Martyrs Korea joins international human rights groups and government analysts in estimating a current population of around 100,000 Christians inside of North Korea. While some of these converted due to South Korean missionaries and radio broadcasts and Bible balloon launches from South Korea, what we can see from the testimonies of the North Korean defectors enrolled in our Voice of the Martyrs Korea training programs is that most of the Christians they met in North Korea did not learn Christianity from pastors or in church buildings. They learned it underground. We have a lot to learn from following the traces of these underground North Korean Christians.
More information about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s North Korea ministry and its training programs for North Korean defectors is available at https://vomkorea.com/project/northkorea/.