Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week’s question is:
Why do you think there is such a large number of Christians among North Korean refugees?
In a country where Juche ideology is the one and only religion, I think many of my fellow North Koreans were always curious about new ideologies and religions. In North Korea, we were forced to study and believe only in Juche. The North Korean regime places strict restrictions on Christianity in particular.
This is interesting because Kim Il Sung comes from devout Christian families on both the paternal and maternal sides. His father had been educated at mission schools before Kim was born. His maternal grandfather was Presbyterian and taught local people about the Bible in his town. As a devout Christian, his mother took little Il Sung to church on Sundays even after the family moved to Manchuria. In Pyongyang, she took him to Chilgok Church, which still exists today. Kim Il Sung’s uncle on his mom’s side studied theology at university and became a pastor. In North Korea there’s the Ten Principles for the Establishment of the Monolithic Ideological System and it’s pretty obvious that the Kims got the idea from the Ten Commandments. Pyongyang once was referred to as the Jerusalem of the East.
While North Korean regime cracks down on all religions, it attacks Christianity especially harshly. Because the North Korean regime launched vicious verbal attacks on Christianity, I wanted to learn about Christianity more than any other religion. I think many North Koreans are especially curious about Christianity among all the religions that weren’t available to us. I’m sure it wasn’t just me.
While I wanted to learn about Christianity, I was never allowed to do so in North Korea. I was not allowed to read or study the Bible. There were no church services I could attend on Sundays in North Korea.
Then, unexpectedly, I happened to leave North Korea for South Korea with my parents. When I first found out about my parents’ plan to escape, the first religion I wanted to learn about was Christianity. While we were in Thailand, I saw a Bible placed on a desk at the police station. In North Korea, it is a crime to be in possession of the Bible or read it even once; you could be sent to political prison camp for that. As soon as I caught a glimpse of the Bible, I immediately picked it up and began to read. It was my first time reading the Bible.
It wasn’t easy to understand it. I got past the first few pages before I stopped because I couldn’t understand very well. I thought I would study about God and Christianity in more detail after entering South Korea. At Hanawon, pastors, priests, nuns and monks from the church, cathedral and Buddhist temples came to speak to us every weekend.
Among these three religions, Protestantism was the most popular, Catholicism second-most and then Buddhism. Hanawon, which accommodates female defectors, had a pastor who was assigned by the Christian Council of Korea to give sermon every morning throughout the week. I don’t know if it has to do with the daily service, but I know many defectors commit to Christianity. After attending church services and hearing sermons every morning for three months at Hanawon, North Korean defectors begin attending church services in their new towns at the invitation of the pastor at Hanawon.
COMING TO THE CROSS
After leaving Hanawon, I also began to attend Sunday services at a mega church (which I prefer not to reveal the name of) that my pastor at Hanawon introduced me to. In the first year, the number of Christian defectors increases and, from the second year, it gradually decreases. Seven out of 10 defectors friends of mine have stopped going to church for example.
But at the time I was so eager to study the Bible and learn about God’s word and Jesus Christ. I lived as a committed Christian for the first three years before I stopped attending church. The reason why I stopped going to church had nothing to do with the Christian beliefs. There was a pastor whom I looked up to but I soon found out that he was so fake. The pastor was married with two kids. But whenever he saw pretty-faced North Korean defectors, he always told them that he was single.
It didn’t end there. He would often invite beautiful North Korean women to sit in his office with him alone. He would go to their homes to convince them to go on a trip to Jeju island with him. I felt very disappointed and betrayed. Before me and my wife met each other, my wife almost went on a trip with him because she didn’t know he was married and he persistently asked her to go with him. As we began dating, my wife told me all about this and I stopped going to church.
Although I have stopped going to church, I respect all kinds of religions in this world. When reunification comes, if some South Korean pastors and missionaries continue to betray God like my former pastor did, there may be an increase in the number of Christians among North Koreans in the beginning but the number will drop sharply.
The above is the perspective of the author, and may not be representative of all North Korean defectors.
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Editing by Rob York and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Adam Westerman