by mission partners serving in South Korea
In the late 1800s the gospel first came to Korea near North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. A young man, Thomas, was killed there as he gave Gospels to the Koreans. Later, Korea opened up to trade with the world. God used the written Word, people believed and churches were started. Missionaries came and God blessed the work.
In the early 1900s a wonderful revival started and many Koreans were saved and churches were formed. At that time Pyongyang was called ‘the Jerusalem of the East’. Billy Graham’s wife Ruth attended a missionaries’ children’s school in Pyongyang while her parents served in China. Christian activity continued, even during Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 when there was persecution for not bowing to the emperor in worship.
After World War II, sadly, Korea was divided on Russia’s insistence. A communist state was formed in the north and continues today. There was much agitation for the south to also become communist. South Korea’s first president, Rhee Syng-man, was previously an activist who spent time in jail. A missionary gave him a Bible and he was saved while in prison. On becoming president, he was strongly anti-communist and surrounded himself with Christians to lead the country. The church began to grow quickly with about a third of the population becoming Christian.
It was a very different story in North Korea. Russia’s man Kim Il‑sung had all the churches’ bulldozed. He said, ‘Only Christianity can cut the root of our communism.’ In 1950 his army invaded South Korea to make it communist and millions were killed in the war. Many Christians escaped to freedom in the south.
The believers left in North Korea must be very careful! Even having a Bible can result in the whole family being sent to the infamous prison camps where most perish in the horrible conditions. Kim’s son, Jong‑il, continued this wicked rule and his son, Jong‑un, has carried on in the same way. North Korea is extremely anti-Christian and has rightly been called an ‘axis of evil’.
Lee Soon-ok’s Testimony
In 1984 Lee Soon-ok was falsely charged and sent to prison. Still a loyal communist, she wondered how the law could allow this. When she arrived at Kaechon prison, a lieutenant said, ‘If you want to survive here, you’d better give up the idea that you are human.’ As one of the few people to have survived the camps and escaped North Korea, Lee speaks out about the cruelty she suffered and witnessed.
Lee describes how the prisoners worked debilitating shifts in factories on food rations of just 60‑100g. They were severely punished for any infraction, even just raising their heads or stretching. They suffered from illness, infections and frostbite. Many were crippled and eventually died as a result of the hardship. Lee wrote: ‘I cannot explain how I could have survived such an ordeal.’
Christians were given the most difficult work. In the spring of 1990, five or six elderly Christians were lined up and forced to deny their faith and accept the Juche1 ideology of the state. They all remained silent; the security officers became furious and killed them by pouring molten iron on them one by one. On another occasion, a Christian woman was carrying buckets of sewage on a rainy day and while going up a ladder to dump the contents into the sewage tank she fell in. Her friends jumped in to save her and an officer cruelly shut the door leaving them all to die. ‘When I saw their love, it raised questions in my mind that I could not erase. How could they die for someone else?’ Lee saw that Christians received more abuse than others and was struck by their attitude. ‘They did not falsely accuse others and were willing to take the blame for one another.’ Lee was raised an atheist but during her prison experience, she began to wonder about God’s existence.
One day, two soldiers led Lee in front of everyone and announced that she would be released. She noticed 140 Christians in the front row raise their heads, violating the rules. She said, ‘Their eyes were glowing with heavenly light.’ She felt them imploring her to testify to what she had seen. Lee and her son managed to escape North Korea.
The believers left in North Korea must be very careful! Even having a Bible can result in the whole family being sent to the infamous prison camps
On their arrival in South Korea, an official handed them a Bible and began to sing ‘Amazing Grace’. Lee remembered her grandmother singing hymns to her and realised she had been trying to share the Word of God with her in a safe way. Lee went to church for the first time and read, ‘the truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). She committed her life to Christ and said, ‘I have been healed with the love of God…I am free!’2
The Gospel in North Korea
North Korea does not want its people to leave the idolatrous worship of its leader or to put their faith in God. There are North Korean believers but they are not allowed to share the gospel and they must remain well hidden. However, the mere presence of Christians can have a positive effect.
A spy for South Korea who went to North Korea came back testifying how he heard the gospel there and was saved! A Chinese Korean who made trips to North Korea to visit relatives would quietly give the gospel to them. Once, they showed him a Korean New Testament that a Chinese medical doctor left them when he returned to China. They wanted to destroy it, knowing it was very dangerous to be found with it, but the mother stopped them, saying, ‘It is God’s Word, when I die bury it with me.’ The Chinese Korean encouraged them to read it. It thrilled his heart to hear one of them reading it out loud.
Several means are used to get God’s Word into North Korea, including passing along literature and USB flash drives and sending balloons up with Bibles. Various NGOs operate in North Korea seeking to help, mostly through feeding needy children.
Witness in South Korea
In stark contrast to its northern neighbour, God has richly blessed South Korea. Churches have grown and sent many missionaries out worldwide. However, there is a spiritual battle to put out the light of the gospel in South Korea.
A number of years ago, an average of seven new churches were being started daily in South Korea! Now the number of churches is diminishing. This may be partly due to the shrinking population: people are marrying late or not at all and the birthrate is low. South Koreans have become more materialistic with less interest in church. Covid brought heavy restrictions on churches and activity, which resulted in broadcasting meetings online. However, these broadcasts have continued and are working well for gospel outreach and Bible teaching. The church is active in seeking to stop the passing of bad laws that, among other things, would make it illegal to preach the gospel.
Good Christian literature is available for outreach and teaching but with phones and the internet, books are not being used much. Despite these negatives, the Lord is building His Church. People are being reached, mostly through personal evangelism. New believers are being shepherded and Korean missionaries continue in their outreach worldwide. Usually, 20 students take an annual nine-month intensive Bible training course at an assembly training institute. Several of these students have gone into full-time ministry locally and in foreign fields. A Christian academy ministers to middle- and high-school students. The Lord is blessing these ministries with fruit.
In His Word
Refugees from North Korea, who have become believers, are praying and seeking to reach those in the North with the gospel. Praise the Lord for what He is doing and has done in Korea. May we obey the Lord’s command to ‘…preach the gospel to all creation.’ (Mk 16:15). It is the truth of His Word that truly sets us free. Pray for the Korean people, North and South, to find true peace and unity in God’s Kingdom.
- for the salvation of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and for South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol
- that South Korea may continue to have freedom for the gospel and for spiritual growth
- that people in North Korea may be free to hear the gospel
- for the Korean people, North and South, to find true peace and unity in God’s Kingdom.