Korea has the fourth-highest number of Catholic saints in the world. Why? Because present-day Christianity in Korea – particularly the Catholic stream – was molded from the blood of its martyrs, thousands and thousands of them. Probably more so than just about anywhere else.
Christians were also at the forefront of the resistance against the Japanese occupation, that ended in 1945, and they helped lead the fight in the 1980s for democracy in their country. Today, Christians comprise about 30% of the South Korean population, and a vibrant Christian expression is everywhere.
By contrast, North Korea is once again a land of martyrs.
It is sadly ironic that former US President Jimmy Carter, after meeting North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, reportedly pronounced him “friendly” towards Christianity.
Yes, he was friendly when he thought Christians might help prop up his regime, and garner some international support. That’s why he occasionally sent North Korean “Christian” leaders to travel abroad for international conferences.
My wife is Korean, and a while ago some North Korean Christians came to Australia for talks. A pastor friend met them.
“They said that North Koreans couldn’t worship any more, because the Americans had bombed and destroyed their churches during the Korean War,” our friend told us. “They also said that North Koreans didn’t really need religion, because they had Kim Il Sung.”
And in a crazy way it was true that North Koreans didn’t need Christianity. After all, they already at that time had the father (the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung), son (his successor Dear Leader Kim Jong Il) and spirit (juche – the doctrine of self-reliance that supposedly inspires the populace).
Yet Christianity has persisted, even though any friendliness that might have been shown to the faith by Kim Il Sung was not replicated by his son. He was a tyrant. In the words of the National Association of Evangelicals, North Korea is “more brutal, more deliberate, more implacable, and more purely genocidal” than any other nation.
As many as 100,000 Christians are in concentration camps, enduring regular torture. Executions are common.
Prisoners unable to contain their horror at executions are deemed disloyal to the party and are punished with electrical shock, often to death. Others are sent into solitary confinement in containers so cramped that their legs become permanently paralyzed. Eight Christians working in a prison smelting factory died instantly when molten iron was poured onto them, one by one, for refusing to deny their faith.
Yet something remarkable is happening. A growing number of North Koreans are escaping, to China or South Korea, and many of them are turning to Christianity. There at last they find hope.
So while no decent person in a million years would wish on North Korean Christians their present sufferings, it is possible to see in them the seed of a future renaissance.
German doctor Norbert Vollertsen was stationed in North Korea in 1999-2000 for the relief agency German Emergency Doctors. Later he interviewed hundreds of North Korean refugees in China and South Korea. His message: what has been going on in North Korea for more than half a century bears a strong resemblance to the World War II Nazi genocide against Jews.
“Like the Jews then, Christians in North Korea face their executioners praying and singing hymns,” he related.
But as the church father Tertullian reportedly said at the dawn of Christianity: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Vollertsen, whose reports have made him a legendary figure in Japan and South Korea, found out that as a result of this Communist campaign of persecution an underground church was growing rapidly. “I am sure that once North Korea is free, Christianity will boom there in a way that will even dwarf its growth in the South.”