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View more articles by Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
A mountain peak with a glistening treetop-like structure, where South and North Korea come together, has sadly come to symbolize military tension rather than peace on earth. The twinkling of Christmas lights, at the confluence of the Han and Imjin Rivers, reportedly once penetrated across the DMZ to the North Korean city of Kaesong. Aegibong, the site of a fierce battle at the end of the Korean War, is named for the legendary “love mistress” who climbed the peak to gaze northward for her lost lover, the then-governor of Pyongyang. He had been taken away during a 17th-century Chinese invasion. In that regard, the peak is a rather perfect analogy for a divided Korea, although the annual holiday battle there over the Christmas tree remains rather mystifying to many outsiders.
Pyongyang has consistently launched verbal attacks on the lights, condemning them as ‘psychological warfare’
NK News reported on December 3rd that the annual imbroglio over the Christmas tree has pitted local residents of the border municipality of Gimpo, concerned for their physical security, against conservative Christian groups seeking to exercise freedom of religion as guaranteed in South Korea. Although the original metal Christmas tree tower structure was dismantled last year, reportedly due to corroding rust, the controversy continues. Aegibong Christmas tree lights have ebbed and flowed over the years, disappearing completely during the Sunshine Policy administrations of more than a decade ago only to re-emerge in 2010 following the reported sinking of the South Korean Cheonan naval vessel by a North Korean torpedo. Pyongyang has consistently launched verbal attacks on the lights, condemning them as “psychological warfare,” and even threatening to bombard the area in retaliation. This extreme sensitivity of officially atheistic North Korea to visibly Christian symbolism underscores the significance of Christianity in all of modern Korea.
Former U.S. diplomat David Straub made a perceptive point on Christianity in Korea in his recently published work Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea: “Also during most of the colonial period, a small but influential community of American Christian missionaries remained in Korea, where they continued to provide humanitarian aid, support Western-style education, and offer limited sanctuary against Japanese oppression … Unlike Western missionaries in places such as India and French Indochina, the American missionaries in Korea largely identified with the colonized rather than the colonizers.” As with Roman Catholicism in communist Poland, Christianity in Korea became identified with resistance to a foreign oppressor, in this case Imperial Japan. Korea’s most famous independence fighter, An Jung-geun, executed for shooting Meiji elder statesman Ito Hirobumi, was a northern Korean and a devout Catholic who used his baptismal name of Thomas. South Korea’s first President, Syngman Rhee, was a Methodist. The two Kims who struggled against military rule for democracy, Kim Young-sam (Presbyterian) and Kim Dae-jung (Catholic) were both Christians. Even communist North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s parents were reported to have once been devout Christians. And North Korean Kim family mythology continues to make generous use of Christian symbolism. Dear Leader Kim Jong Il’s birth on the sacred Mount Baekdu is often depicted with a glowing star in the night sky just like the one over Bethlehem. And North Korea duly celebrates the Christmas Eve birthday of Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jong Suk, a Madonna-type figure in North Korean ideology.
Korea’s Christian legacy became quite evident over a generation ago to homesick American Peace Corps volunteers. Traveling on buses on Korean country roads as they dreamed of being home for Christmas, the volunteers gained comfort from the sudden sight of a red neon cross lighting the dark winter sky. Such was the reach of the Western missionaries that even in the remotest South Korean country town there was usually a church with a choir on Christmas Eve singing melodiously “Silent Night.” That missionary reach once extended equally into North Korea as well, with Pyongyang formerly dubbed “the Jerusalem of the East.”
Ruth Bell Graham, the late spouse of Reverend Billy Graham, is one of the prominent Americans who attended Pyongyang Foreign School (PYFS). PYFS was a boarding high school established by missionaries in 1900 for the children of the expatriate community in northeast Asia. The late American Ambassador to South Korea James Lilley in his work China Hands (2004) describes Mrs. Graham’s pre-war expatriate community: “Virtually all of the foreigners in Pyongyang in the 1930s were there as missionaries or educators with a Christian sense of mission, part of the strong American and Canadian Christian communities in northeast Asia. By the mid-1930s, Western missionaries had founded four schools in Pyongyang alone.” Mrs. Graham’s personal link to this missionary community is likely at least a partial explanation for her son Franklin Graham’s current sponsorship of humanitarian assistance to North Korea, carried out through his Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse.
Ambassador Lilley’s two brothers were also alumni of PYFS. He describes his brother Frank’s school days in China Hands: “When Frank and his friends would wander into town on a free day, they would see harassment of Koreans by the Japanese in the city’s markets. Since Japan’s annexation of Korea, many Korean farmers had chosen to protest the loss of their country by wearing white clothes, the traditional color of mourning in Korea. This practice of silent protest infuriated the Japanese authorities. Periodically, Japanese policemen on horses carrying buckets of red paint would make runs through the produce markets in Pyongyang. Armed with long paintbrushes that they wielded like lances, the Japanese policemen would smear paint on any Koreans wearing white clothes.” Nor were these Pyongyang students safe from the reaches of Japanese militarism even in the confines of their Christian school, because an Imperial Japanese military airfield was located just across the Taedong River: “Several times a week during classes, Japanese dive-bombers executed dry runs over the school, aiming for the school’s athletic fields as the target for their imaginary payloads. Then, at night, searchlights would light up the sky over Pyongyang for night runs, and students would run to black out their windows.”
But, as Ambassador Lilley recalled, through Korea’s darkest days of colonial occupation, its Christian missionary friends stood with the Korean people: “In January 1935, Japanese authorities called down two American missionaries, Samuel Moffet, the pioneer Western missionary in Korea, and Dr. Douglas McCune, head of Union Christian College. (The college was founded in Pyongyang in 1897 by the American Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Missions.) The Japanese demanded that the missionaries follow Japanese custom and force the Korean students at their schools to pay homage to the Japanese emperor at the city’s Shinto shrine. The missionaries refused. The Japanese threatened to close the Christian schools in retaliation.” (Union Christian College was, in fact, closed in 1938.) Dr. McCune was expelled for his refusal to yield to emperor worship in early 1936. Samuel Moffet, who had established a Presbyterian seminary in Pyongyang, now transferred to Seoul, during his missionary service in Korea, followed later that year.
In a March 7, 2007 interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Moffet’s son recalled how his father ”landed in Pyongyang in 1890 on his 26th birthday and stayed for 46 years.” The son, also named Samuel Moffet, served as a missionary in South Korea with his spouse, Eileen, starting in rural Andong just after the Korean War. He remained for a quarter century before becoming a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He returned once to North Korea, the land of his birth, in the late 1990s when he accompanied the North Carolina-based group Christian Friends of Korea, on a humanitarian mission. Professor Samuel H. Moffet passed away at the age of 98 on February 9, 2015, ending 125 years of one family’s devotion to Christianity in Korea, both North and South.
… there are ‘about 9 million Protestants and 3 to 4 million Catholics in South Korea today’
The Christian Science Monitor article also reported that “no one knows how many Christians remain in North Korea. Two-thirds of Korean Christians lived there before the war, but many fled to escape Communist rule.” The late Korean-American author Richard Kim captured the tragedy of North Korea’s Christian community, following the national division, in his 1960s best-selling novel The Martyred. The novel describes a South Korean army officer’s investigation of the kidnapping and reported mass murder of 12 Christian ministers by communist forces during the Korean War. It reiterates the central position of Christianity in Korea from the colonial period through the Korean War and afterward. Professor Moffet told the Christian Science Monitor that there are “about 9 million Protestants and 3 to 4 million Catholics in South Korea today (2007).” And the newspaper added that ”South Korea sends more missionaries abroad to spread the word than any other country except the United States.”
A DIFFERENT MISSION
Nowhere are those missionary efforts more dangerous than on the North Korean border with China. Here faith-based NGOs from both South Korea and the greater Korean diaspora labor quietly to care for the kotjebi (flowering swallows) North Korean orphan children wandering the streets, to rescue North Korean refugee women from sexual trafficking, to send refugees on the perilous underground railroad to South Korea, and to seek to smuggle Bibles inside totalitarian North Korea.
Those engaged in this mission to revitalize Pyongyang as “The Jerusalem of the East” adhere to the ancient invocation that “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” Jang Jin-Sung, in his epic book “Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea” indicated that there are still those inside North Korea who have kept the faith through decades of oppression. He wrote: “Back in 2000, the following incident occurred. Once, in order to welcome an international religious organization to North Korea, the United Front Department (UFD) conspicuously opened the doors of the Jangchun church in Pyongyang to the public. An old man in his eighties walked in carrying a Bible that he had kept hidden all of his life. He said that he had believed in Jesus before the Korean War, but after losing his family to the American bombardment, he had converted and instead become a fervent believer in the Supreme Leader, Kim Il Sung. He even explained that at his age, old memories became important, and he had come to the church because he’d been delighted to hear hymns from his childhood. The old man was reported by the UFD operative in priestly garb and arrested on the spot by secret police.”
Those who assist persons who secretly cling to North Korea’s Christian roots are also at peril. Over a decade ago I was sent on a mission one Christmas by the late Congressman Henry Hyde. He had heard from the Chicago Korean-American community about a former Illinois resident, Reverend Kim Dong-shik, who had mysteriously disappeared on the Chinese border in January 2000 while assisting North Korean refugees. Reports claimed that Reverend Kim had been spirited by North Korean agents across the border where he was tortured and slowly starved to death. Hyde wanted to know more details and asked me to meet Esther Kim, Reverend Kim’s wife, while on holiday in Chicago.
Mrs. Kim agreed to meet at a local public library without checking holiday hours. As I approached the library on a dark, frigid December afternoon, I saw two figures huddled on a snowy bench in the shadow of the lights of the locked library doors. It was Esther Kim and her Korean-American friend. The sudden shudder I felt came not just from the cold wind as Esther recounted her husband’s abduction. Chairman Hyde followed up. In 2005 he organized a letter from the Illinois Congressional delegation, including then Senator Barack Obama, to the North Korean UN Mission seeking answers on Reverend Kim and stating that North Korea should not be removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism until answers were given. No reply ever came. In 2008 North Korea was removed from the terrorism list. The fate of Reverend Kim remains unknown.
May your days be merry and bright
And may North Korea’s future Christmases bring light!