8 Minute video about North Korea.
Many Christians would be surprised to learn that North Korea – the world’s undisputed top persecutor of its own Christian population – was once the centre of sweeping revivals. Even more surprising to many would be the fact that the ruling Kim dynasty came from a devout Christian family.
What went wrong and how can we pray for North Korea at this time of increasing tensions? Is there hope for the long oppressed people of North Korea?
Pyongyang – the Jerusalem of the East
After the first Presbyterian mission opened in Pyongyang in 1895, revival movements rapidly brought in many converts. These waves of revival culminated in the ‘Great Pyongyang Revival’ of 1907 which spread out from the city and touched the whole nation of Korea. The fruit of the revival was that by 1910, Pyongyang was the most Christianised area of Korea - boasting over 60’000 Christians in the Presbyterian Church alone!
By the time of the Communist take-over in 1948, there were 2000 churches throughout Korea. Pyongyang itself was known as a bustling head-quarter of missionary activity and was affectionately called the ‘Jerusalem of the East’.
The Christian Heritage of the Kim Dynasty
According to the outstanding book ‘Back to the Jerusalem of the East’ by Eugene Bach and Luther Martin, Kim Il-Sung – the founder and supreme leader of North Korea who ruled for 46 years – came from a devout Christian family. According to Kim’s official biography, his grandfather was a minister and his parents served as elders in a Presbyterian church. The young Kim grew up in church, and it is even reported that he was an accomplished organist!
What went wrong?
According to Bach and Martin, the young Kim observed with resentment the high living standards of the western missionaries while the average Korean struggled to put food on the table.
Another pivotal event in Kim’s life was his family’s forced exile in China. Sadly they were not safe in China either, and one day Japanese soldiers snatched Kim’s father. Local Christians prayed fervently and passionately for his release, but he never returned. No doubt this event would have marked the young Kim and sown seeds in him leading to his complete rejection of Christianity.
Kim later became a rebel leader fighting against the Japanese, and was installed by the Russians as the leader of Korea after the defeat of the Japanese armies.
Pyongyang’s status as the Jerusalem of the East came to a close with the establishment of the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ under Kim Il-Sung in 1948 and the subsequent rapid closure and confiscation of church properties.
Kim Il-Sung’s repudiation of his Christian heritage and ruthless persecution of Christianity forms a horrific part of Korea’s history. As his son and now grandson continue in his footsteps, millions of Koreans are suffering from Kim’s fateful decision to turn away from the God of his fathers.
Did Kim Il-Sung entirely forget his Christian heritage?
In Christian circles, bible study groups, worship songs and confession of sins are important in the development of strong committed disciples. Even though Kim turned his back on Christianity, it appears that his regime chose to use surprisingly similar methods to unite the people around their ‘dear leader’. These practices include regular breaks at work to study the writings of Kim Il-Sung in small groups, the singing of songs to the ‘dear leader’ and even the confession of ‘sins’ in weekly confessionals. Perhaps some of these corrupted practices are the secret to the enduring strength of the North Korean dictatorship?
Hope for the Future of North Korea
According to Open Doors there are today an estimated 300’000 believers in North Korea. This is an extraordinarily high number considering the high price these believers may end up paying for their faith. The calibre of these Christians who are willing to stand in the fire of persecution is to me a great sign of hope for the future of Korea.
I believe there is great hope for a future revival in North Korea – and I base these hopes on the very similar history of the Chinese Church in the lead up to the great revivals in the late 70’s and 80’s.
Could the same happen to North Korea? Could a tumultuous removal of the Kim dynasty lead millions of North Koreans to turn away from worshipping this false god? Like in China, could this revival be headed up by North Korean believers who have been through the purifying fire of persecution? Can Pyongyang once again be the epicentre of a tremendous revival to have an impact even the borders of North Korea? Perhaps this is the reason why the enemy has tried to hold North Korea in the iron-grip of the Kim dynasty for so long.