The Church in North Korea can’t be Stopped
Today, June 25, marks 70 years since the start of the Korean War. During this time, the church in North Korea has not only survived, but grown.
Christians in North Korea were already beginning to experience extreme persecution under Kim Il-Sung’s regime when the war began – and the persecution only got worse once the war was over. Despite the oppression they have lived under for over seven decades, the underground church has not only survived since the Korean War, but grown.
When the Korean war began, the Korean peninsula was already split in two, having been divided up at the end of World War II in 1945 – the United States had occupied the South, while the Soviet Union had occupied the North.
A North Korean soldier, 70 years after the beginning of the Korean War.
Under Kim Il-Sung’s regime, Christians were already facing persecution before the Korean War, as he saw them as a threat to his political power. Christians and churches were openly regulated and oppressed. The believers were forced to register with the Workers’ Party, and those who refused were arrested, banished to remote areas such as Siberia, or killed. Small churches were forced to merge with bigger churches for easier surveillance, and the pastors were ordered to put pictures of Kim Il-Sung in their chapels. Refusal meant arrest, torture, and death. Many fled to South Korea to escape the rising levels of persecution.
The war begins
The Korean War began on June 25th 1950, when the North bombed the South’s camps at the 38th parallel, the line that separated the North and the South. Within three days, Seoul was captured by the North’s army. The troops continued advancing until in September they had taken all the cities in the South but one.
In Pyongyang, a ‘Christian’ rally was held, chaired by Pastor Kang Ryang-uk, Kim Il-Sung’s uncle and right-hand man. At the rally all Christians in the Korean peninsula were told they must give undivided loyalty to the future communist country that would be led by Kim Il-Sung.
The church after the war
If a Christian wanted to live after the war, they were left with three choices: try to flee to the South, hide their faith, or deny their faith. Many leaders and members of North Korean churches decided to go underground. Despite the extreme persecution Christians faced, the believers who survived the Korean War kept the faith alive, and God graciously allowed many of their children to come to faith too.
From war survivor to secret believer to prisoner
Hea Woo is a North Korean former secret believer who now lives in South Korea and travels the world for Open Doors to speak about her birth country and the underground Christians. Her life story is the story of the North Korean Church since the Korean War began.
She was born in the 1940s, and remembers the Korean War breaking out. She says, “Our village was on the border between the North and the South, which meant it was right on the front line. It wasn't long before North Korean soldiers appeared and told everyone that they had to leave. My mother, sister and I left too. My father had already been called up to serve as a doctor in the army, and we never saw him again. One day, I looked at my mother and I saw that she was wearing a chain with a little cross on it. ‘What's that, Mummy?’ I asked. She quickly hid her chain. ‘Sssh,’ she said. ‘You mustn't tell anyone about this.’ I never said anything to anyone about it, but I always remembered it. And only many years later did I realize that my mother had been a Christian.”
Finally, Hea Woo came to faith herself when she – like so many North Koreans – made her own escape to China, and met Christians there who shared the gospel with her. She says, “There is only one explanation as to why I accepted this ‘incredible’ tale as the truth: my mother and my husband had prayed for me. I'm convinced of this.”
Her new faith didn’t make her life easy; she was eventually also captured and sent back to North Korea, enduring years in a terrible labour camp. “Every day was torture,” she says. But she knew God hadn’t abandoned her; she heard His audible voice, experienced His healing, and was even able to lead five other prisoners to faith in Jesus.
Hea Woo says, “I remained faithful and God helped me to survive.” Open Doors has heard many similar testimonies. Not only of Christians who have escaped the country, but also of those who returned to North Korea or never left in the first place. Brother Simon, Open Doors’ coordinator for North Korea, says, “Thanks to our Almighty God, the North Korean Church is still very strong. Through His provision we are able to help the Christians via our safehouses and networks in China, close to the border.”
The church grows with your support
The church in North Korea has not only survived under persecution since the Korean War, but grown. It’s difficult to get exact figures from this secretive nation, but Open Doors estimates that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians in North Korea today - the actual number could be even higher.
Your prayers and support have helped to make some of this growth possible. Open Doors runs safe houses in China for North Koreans who have made the illegal journey over the border in search of food and work. Many North Koreans have encountered the gospel for the first time in these safe houses, and then taken the good news back to their families in North Korea, along with food, medicines and Christian materials, provided with your support. Open Doors also broadcasts Christian radio programs into North Korea, helping to build the faith of secret believers, and bring the gospel to those who may never have heard it before.
As we remember the start of the Korean War, and what that meant for the church in North Korea, please continue to stand with our persecuted church family there in prayer and action. Your support not only enables North Korean believers to survive the harsh realities of life in North Korea and stay strong in their faith, but helps to remind them that they are not alone or forgotten.
One believer sent us a message saying, “As the light of the sun shines through the cracks and adds warmth, in the same way we are touched by your love and warmth that flows through our hearts. Our hearts are overwhelmed and we cannot stop our tears from flowing. We thank you for your sacrifice, warmth and consideration to take care of us. We feel your warm heart and mind every minute and second. We do our best to serve our Lord and live a faithful life.”
To learn more about our persecuted family in North Korea, you can listen to this episode of the World Watch Weekly Podcast.