Understanding Christian witnessing in N. Korea

Despite dangers and criticisms, Christians fear ‘eternal consequences’ of not carrying out missions
March 26th, 2014

John Short is a free man again, having endured 15 days of interrogations and emerging with his health intact.

The Australian missionary’s reason for entering – his faith – appears to have strengthened him during the experience (though a hunger strike may have shortened the ordeal), culminating in his release earlier this month.

But not all Christians to have gone into the North have been so lucky: Robert Park emerged from his experience tortured and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Kenneth Bae remains detained a year and a half after his arrest, and his physical state has worried many, even if it has since stabilized. Kim Jeong-wook, a South Korean missionary, has been held since the fall, confessing – though quite possibly under duress – that he received assistance from the South Korea government to carry out acts of espionage.

Granted, there are stark differences in these cases; Park attracted attention by crossing into the North with the express purpose of speaking out against its crimes against humanity. Bae had made references in previous speeches to Jericho, a city depicted in the book of Joshua as being overthrown through the faith of Israelite believers.

Short, on the other hand, was detained for passing out religious literature, translated into Korean, at a temple. Short has run afoul of Asian governments that oppose such witnessing before, but there’s no evidence to suggest that he had political aims, much less revolutionary ones, and the interrogation process failed to elicit a confession of anything except “insulting” North Korea and attempting to harm their trust in their leadership.


“…the Kim regime has exterminated religious believers, Christians in particular, with extreme prejudice”

Persecutions of Christians in the North are well-documented, despite a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, as well as a handful of churches in Pyongyang (whose authenticity has been questioned). This also happens despite the Northern provinces’ Christian heritage; national founder Kim Il Sung’s family was Presbyterian.

“Although Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, was once the center of Korean Presbyterian Christianity, also known as the ‘Jerusalem of the East,’ the Kim regime has exterminated religious believers, Christians in particular, with extreme prejudice,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “The cruel persecution of Christians continues under the Kim Jong Un regime.”

Even the North’s constitutional guarantee prohibits anti-state activities, as well as those considered harmful to the social order and those bringing in “foreign influences,” which gives authorities a broad mandate to conduct crackdowns.

Ryan Martin, East Asia regional manager for International Christian Concern, which advocates for Christians’ human rights globally, said that there are particular regions of countries that may be considered more dangerous than the North at times. These include parts of Syria currently controlled by Islamic extremists and areas of northern Nigeria where the terrorist organization Boko Haram has killed many Christians.

Still, he said North Korea as a whole is “definitely at the top of our list (and has been for some time) in terms of danger for both missionaries and local Christians in general.”

The non-denominational mission Open Doors consistently ranks the North at the top of its World Watch List, highlighting persecution of believers. Treatment is also harsh for North Koreans who convert, as well as those who make contact with Christians after crossing the border into China before they return.

The recently released UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK made note of this in its February 7 report.

“The (North Korean) State considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the State,” the report reads. “Apart from the few organized State-controlled churches, Christians are prohibited from (practicing) their religion and are persecuted.”


“…it’s hard for me to feel any sympathy for that Australian guy, or Kenneth Bay for that matter”

Yet, when cases such as Short’s or Bae’s make news, it’s not just the North’s policies that come under fire.

“He shouldn’t have gone & done something that he knew that could get
him (sic) arrested. Fundamentalist christians (sic) are always getting themselves
into (sic) trouble,” reads one comment left at NK News in response to Short’s arrest.

“While I strongly oppose anti-religion laws in the DPRK, it’s hard for me to feel any sympathy for that Australian guy, or Kenneth Bay for that matter,” reads another.

Short’s arrest required some complicated diplomatic maneuvering from Australia, which has no embassy in the North (nor the North in Canberra) and had to rely on Swedish diplomats as intermediaries. It may therefore be no surprise that conservative Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, himself a Christian, seemed irritated with Short, urging his countrymen to “obey the laws of the country you’re in.”

Abbott, however, is Roman Catholic, and evangelical Christianity is typically (though not always) associated with Protestantism and emphasizes salvation through faith in Christ’s atonement.

Verses, particularly in the Gospels, lead evangelicals to pursue their missions, including in dangerous places, believing that the risks taken are temporary, but consequences of not winning souls are eternal.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20. And, regarding the fear of persecution, he concludes verse 20 with, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Elsewhere, in John 3, he tells Nicodemus the Pharisee that no one can see the kingdom of God without being “born again.” In John 14:6, he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”


A churchgoer at Bongsu Protestant Church in Pyongyang. Eric Lafforgue

“Most Christians believe this is a life and death matter of eternal significance”

Though International Christian Concern is non-denominational, Morgan’s responses to criticism of witnessing in North Korea are consistent with evangelicalism: He cites a passage from the book of Mark with essentially the same message as in Matthew 28.

“Jesus clearly tells his followers in the Great Commission in Mark 16:15 to ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,’” Morgan said. “For Christians, not preaching the gospel in every nation simply isn’t an option. Most Christians believe this is a life and death matter of eternal significance, so to ignore millions of people…because their government threatens to imprison or kill you for teaching it is really to put your own health and freedoms above the needs of others.”

He compares this to criticizing firefighters and police officers for sacrificing their own safety.

“This is not to say that we don’t use wisdom and discretion as much as humanly possible, but we also simply cannot ignore the Great Commission,” he said. “I have no doubt John was perfectly aware of the dangers and risks he faced by traveling to North Korea and that he conducted himself there as prudently as anyone could in that situation, but I also know that he went out of love, determined to serve the people of North Korea, even if it required sacrifice.”

Furthermore, such comments also direct criticism at the victim rather than the perpetrator.

“It is certainly true that North Korea is the most repressive country in the world for freedom of religion, and therefore anybody who goes to the country to undertake missionary work, especially if it is overt, is taking an enormous risk,” said Benedict Rogers
, East Asia team leader

 for Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

“That does not mean, however, they should be undeserving of sympathy, for the North Korean regime is one of the most brutal in the world and anyone detained by such a regime deserves sympathy. Whatever your views on religion or on missionary activities, no one should be detained for peacefully and non-coercively expressing and sharing their beliefs – and to do so is a serious violation of freedom of religion or belief.”

“Those who make these types of comments don’t realize that their freedom to even make public comments of this nature was purchased by countless individuals before them who sacrificed their own freedoms and often their lives to secure these rights,” Martin said.

“Put pressure on your own governments to take this situation more seriously and act”

Rogers also notes that Christians are among the most active, not just in seeking conversions to their worldview, but in helping North Koreans achieve a better standard of living. This includes providing them with aid, helping defectors escape and helping them settle in elsewhere.

“Those activities should not be overlooked, ignored or negated by criticisms some people may have of other activities,” he said.

Rogers said that Christians with a burden in their hearts to help North Koreans can do so in a variety of ways.

“First, do your research, learn about the country, and get to know North Koreans outside the country,” he said. “Befriend and support North Korean refugees in your country, and perhaps help by teaching English, helping develop their advocacy for their own people, and join with them in their campaigns. Join an international advocacy organization and help raise awareness in your country about the horrific suffering of the North Korean people. Put pressure on your own governments to take this situation more seriously and act.”

And regarding Christians detained in the North, he suggested petitioning their own governments and elected representatives to call for their release.


“Mr. Short has done nothing to assist the North Korean people, nor advance their rights or benefit their living conditions”

Matthew Reichel, who has organized a number of engagement programs, particularly to provide education and skills-building opportunities for North Koreans, said that faith-based organizations can play a productive role in the engagement process.

“Humanitarians come in all shapes and sizes, some are motivated by their personal faith, some are not, and in my book both kinds are okay,” he said. “However, this does not mean proselytizing is acceptable behavior in the DPRK and it does nothing to advance the rights or conditions of the North Korean people – the very people whom humanitarians pledge to serve with dignity and respect.”

As such comments indicate, Reichel was not impressed with Short’s actions.

“Mr. Short has done nothing to assist the North Korean people, nor advance their rights or benefit their living conditions,” he said. “Instead, he has taken what I would consider a paternalistic and imposing position to try and exert a specific religious persuasion upon other people, and has willingly put himself and others at risk. If anything, his actions have distracted public attention away from real issues that North Koreans face every day, and at the same time furthered the isolation and culture of mistrust between Westerners and North Koreans.”

Reichel called for practical measures rather than “dogmatic and ritualized belief structures,” which he said North Koreans have seen enough of already.

“As with faith-based humanitarian organizations everywhere, it depends on how each organization is run: how they structure their practices, how they evaluate their effectiveness, and what their ultimate aim is,” he said. “Those that have genuine humanitarian goals, respect the humanitarian imperative, and have experience implementing successful humanitarian initiatives, regardless of what personal beliefs they or their staff may have, are more likely to be doing good work in the DPRK.”

Picture: Eric Lafforgue

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About the Author

Rob York

Rob York is the chief editor for NK News. He previously spent four years at The Korea Herald reporting on topics including North Korean affairs.

Join the discussion

  • jimbo

    “Mr Short has done nothing to assist the North Korean people, nor advance their rights or benefit their living conditions”

    that’s assuming this world is all there is…..
    Mr Short believes there is a life after death…..there is now considerable, independent, scientific evidence which backs this up…..in particular: the recent NDE of Dr Ebden Alexander, renowned US neuro-surgeon;
    Mr Short believes that the Bible (and, in particular, the words of Jesus Christ) most clearly describe this other world…..
    Mr Short also believes that, again, in line with the words of Jesus Christ and the various Epistles, your material and, even, physical/health conditions in this world are of very little if any eternal significance…..only where you stand with Almighty God counts……and….not to warn people of this is the worst sort of criminal negligence imaginable…..which will, also, have eternal consequences….

    • Ingo

      Hi Jimbo,
      ” there is now considerable, independent, scientific evidence which backs this up “.

      Please tell me more about those Scientific papers, I would like to do some reading.

      Best regards, i

      • jimbo

        !Google! “Alexander Ebden” on Y-tb….
        and….check out the near death site………near-death.com ;

    • Ditto_Bird

      Jimbo, I am Christian, but with great respect, the fact that you used “believes” and “scientific” in the same sentence shows there might some confusion on your part about what science is. “Scientific evidence” means that independently conducted experiments and/or observations can be performed that repeatedly duplicate the results that someone else has achieved using in a controlled environment. I have Ebden Alexander’s book (lent out now before I read it) and I look forward to reading it, given Alexander’s background. With respect to life after death, I have faith that indeed there is, BUT THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE THAT THERE IS.

      Science is not about faith/belief: they are two completely separate things. A fact, unfortunately, that a lot of evangelicals in North America clearly and demonstrably do not understand. I am not assuming you fall into that category,

      • jimbo

        the Bible is not a science text=book….but…..where it ‘touches’ on science, it is 100% accurate…..

        i used not to believe that, but, after considerable research, i am now convinced that the Biblical account(s) are true and correct in all respects….

        i am not going to argue abt all that here…..there are plenty of online resources for that…..which, no doubt, you are aware of…. creation.com and answersingenesis.org , for instance…..including ‘real-time’ interaction with Bible-believing Christians on the AIG facebook pg…… facebook.com/answersingenesis !

        good luck to you!

        *oh…BTW……Alexander’s book is well worth the effort, from what i understand…..especially since he convincingly rebuts all the arguments against his now firm belief in life after death*

        • Xavier

          Jimbo, I just noticed you recommending AIG’s page. With that one single recommendation, you just discredited everything you said. AIG followers and Ken Ham followers believe the earth is 6000 years old and that book of Genesis is the literal truth, which contradicts all evidence and has been proven wrong by generations of serious scientists.

          • jimbo

            AIG and other similar orgs like ICR (icr.org) have their own, highly-qualified scientists who claim that they have refuted the “old Earthers”;
            of course, these scientists are *barred* from publishing in secular, peer-reviewed journals like “Nature” because such publications have a pre-existing bias to prohibit any-thing that substantially challenges the neo-Darwininan world view…..it’s called “methodological naturalism” and has been exposed time and time again….Philip E Johnson’s “Reason in the Balance” is, probably, one of the best and most readable exposés of it…..

          • Xavier

            Well, there’s a reason these are not published in Nature: they wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. But regardless of the perceived bias of Nature and other such publications, the fact remains that arguing in 2014 that the Earth is 6000 years old doesn’t make more sense than arguing the world is flat. Both claims are equally foolish and do not stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. I am sure that even you, Jimbo, regardless of your love for Jesus Christ, recognize that.

          • jimbo

            i go by what the Bible says…..and it says that the Earth is *thousands* rather than billions of years old….although, there may be some quibble as to whether it is, actually, 6000 or, maybe, 10000…..

            God was there when it happened…..*not* the editors of Nature or any other so-called ‘scientist’……if what they claim conflicts with the Bible, then, i consider it as less than nothing….

            to para-phrase Mr Ham…..”there is a Book”

          • Xavier

            But Jimbo, the Bible is full of contradictions (look it up), because it was written over generations by pastoralists and peasants. To even think that you would take it literally is baffling. You can believe in God all you want, but to believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old flies in the face of common sense. Except for a few hardcore (most of whom are employed by AIG and like-minded foundations anyway), all God-loving Christian scientists know that the Earth is not 10,000 years old. You prefer to believe a 2000-year-old book over the work of thousands of trained and evidence-based scientists?

            You know that Ken Ham himself said that even if there was evidence proved that God did NOT exist, he would still believe in God? How extraordinary!!! All scientists are ready to change their mind when confronted with contradictory evidence.

          • jimbo

            “All scientists are ready to change their mind when confronted with contradictory evidence.”

            no they’re not!

            apart from the age-of-the-Earth issue, the evidence for Intelligent Design in Nature is almost overwhelming…..yet yr so-called “scientists” still refuse to change their stance……..

            see, for instance, the docco/movie “No Intelligence Allowed”, hosted by Ben Stein……..

            (also….i’v never found any contradictions in the Bible….whereas so-called “science” is riddled with them!)

          • Xavier

            Jimbo, since you seem to be the flag-bearer for young-earthers, I’m sorry to have to crush your illusions of Bible infallibility. I have personally read some of these contradictions. If you want hundreds (yes, hundreds!) more contradictions/inconsistencies/mistakes in the Bible, check this out:





            I have seen Ben Stein’s movie, all it does is use interviews to purportedly show the bias against ID…that’s because those are not supported by actual science! Tell me Jimbo, do you believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old? what about the fossils? The layers? Carbon dating? Dinosaurs?

    • Xavier

      Sorry Jimbo, believe all you want, but there is not a shred of evidence of live after death.

      Near death experiences, including Dr. Alexander’s, are always subjective, seen only (obviously) by the persons who had them, and are subject to all kinds of misinterpretations due to neurological activity when the subject is unconscious.

      • jimbo

        there is *more than enough evidence* to convince any oper-minded person of LAD….

        as i posted abv….Mr Alexander has answered *all* the so-called ‘objections’ to his experience in his book…..

        (i put “Mr” Alexander because, in the UK, Canada, Australia and NZ, specialists like him are called “Mr” rather than “Dr”…..just a bit of antipodean trivia!)

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/mantisarmy Jim Knowles

    Atheist countries are more benevolent. By looking at many religions we can see how women are not treated as equal. We have Islam, where women are made to walk behind men and are not allowed to be in the same room as men that are not related to them. We then have Catholics who do not allow the ordination of females. The most tolerant religion to women and their rights is protestantism; but that is the most secular religion of the three. From this we can infer that the more secular, the more respect for women and their rights, therefore the more benevolent the people. I for one am happy the Kim family has abolished christianity.

    • jimbo

      well….many regimes and governments have sought to “abolish Christianity”…..going right back to the Roman Empire and, later, the French Revolution and the days of Voltaire…..the former USSR tried and failed….so did Communist China…..

      persecuting Christians is a complete no-brainer because it only *strengthens* their faith…..

      as the Scriptures say: “the blood of the martyrs is seed”……that seed is used by the Holy Ghost to reap a huge harvest of souls…..

  • Same story as always

    Someone always feels entitled to change another nation’s ways for the mere fact they want to, or may feel compelled to. This article is firstly, all over the place and very hard to even follow. It secondly could be re-written in a lot of other contexts. These people who are detained – it’s like a foreigner going to the United States and while on the plane accidentally tries the cockpit door because they just really have to go, or maybe a foreigner is in Canada and smokes a little pot, perhaps even had it on them and they’re arrested and detained. Detained with process, eventually deported.
    The DPRK is a very slow process. Stop asking for everything because you’re used to 24/7 lifestyles and whims.

    You can’t just say whoops! Ha, sorry, just felt like doing whatever I wanted to in your country despite already knowing the laws. No. You are detained, possibly fined heavily, maybe beaten, even tortured if your crime was bad enough. Everyone (I would hope) who travels into the DPRK knows where they are going and just what they are getting themselves into. Someone saying otherwise is very likely a liar and that. What would the US do to a foreigner committing espionage or terrorism of their lifestyle, rights and ways of life? Step down Christians and entitled government shills, the entitlement is a grotesque plague upon all of humanity and you have no right to infiltrate any place or abuse laws because you feel a superior entitlement. Articles like this solidify that clearly.

    • jimbo

      sorry…..but….Christians are under *the Great Commission” from Almighty God Himself…….that over-rides any laws, regulations or mores of men…

      do you think that any of Christ’s disciples had an easy life.?….they were *martyred*….to *a man*……(except for one: St John)

      Christianity is *the only hope* for North Korea……

      • Same story as always

        You’re a waste to society and do not deserve to live anywhere near a civilized society for your disgusting opinion that Christians are above the law. What a disgrace you are.

  • jimbo

    without Jesus Christ, North Korea is DOOMED!