How do you learn about a church whose members must remain hidden from one of the world’s most intrusive governments? By speaking with those to whom they have ministered! Although members of the North Korean underground church do sometimes defect to South Korea, a majority remain in North Korean prisons and concentration camps. Many of the North Koreans who do defect to South Korea, however, have previous experience with the underground church. They have lived alongside a relative who was a member of the underground church, have served time alongside an imprisoned member of the underground church or have been ministered to by a member of the underground church. This experience has given them questions about God—and a keen interest to share their story. Through our Hanawon project, we reach out to North Korean defectors throughout South Korea and listen to the stories they have been itching to share. Here is one such story:
Although Mr. L was an experienced trader, his heart skipped a beat when he opened the package a relative had sent him.
Stacks of tiny Bibles were hidden beneath the bundle of clothes. A few months before, Mr. L had been baptized at a church in China. This, however, hadn’t stopped the keen sense of unease that gnawed away at him every time he saw a Bible. Although Mr. L was currently in China, he was a North Korean. In North Korea, a Bible meant serving time in a concentration camp—or worse.
Biting his lip, Mr. L reached into the box and began to count. Twenty-Five... Fifty…
There were at least one hundred Bibles.
If one Bible were trouble, Mr. L didn’t even want to imagine what one hundred Bibles might mean.
What could he possibly do with one-hundred Bibles? When it came to smuggling things across the border, Mr. L was good but… no one was that good.
After giving the quandary some thought, Mr. L pulled out ten of the Bibles. A hundred Bibles? Impossible. But ten? Far more feasible. He could donate the rest of the Bibles. After all, it wasn’t as if churches in China were immune to persecution. There had to be some church that was eagerly seeking Bibles.
Not only did Mr. L successfully sneak the ten Bibles across the border, but, later, he also managed to sneak himself into South Korea. Today, Mr. L volunteers in a South Korean church. Despite successfully defecting to South Korea, Mr. L still suffers trauma from torture in North Korea.
When crossing the border in 2015, Mr. L was suspected of being a spy and was interrogated. He, along with several others, were tortured by officials during this interrogation. The torture was so violent that one of his fellow prisoners died. Since Mr. L wasn’t in good health either, they assumed he was close to death and released him.
Today, Mr. L takes medicine for intermittent explosive disorder and regularly struggles with suicidal thoughts. Though he attends church, Mr. L struggles to understand God’s love for him. He has tried to attend our Underground Technology school twice but has pulled back both times due to his job. However, our students continue to visit him and encourage him in his faith.
Through the NK Newcomers project, we support Mr. L and defectors like him who are either unable or unwilling to attend UT classes, but who are interested in learning more about Christianity. Like Mr. L, these defectors are often interested in God because of an experience they had with him in North Korea and are seeking for answers. NK Newcomers project seeks to answer these questions before any cult or marketing scheme.
Through the experiences of the defectors we meet among NK Newcomers, we are better able to understand the situation and the struggles of the North Korean Underground Church. The better we understand these things, the better we can supply and support our brothers and sisters in North Korea. This is what makes the NK Newcomers project vital to our North Korean ministry on a whole.
Where’s the best place to learn about the North Korean underground church? Many people think the answer is obvious: North Korea. However, this overlooks the fact that the North Korean underground church is underground—they know how to remain hidden from prying eyes. The best place to learn about the North Korean church is actually in a South Korean prison. This is because North Korean prisoners in South Korea (generally) were also prisoners in North Korea, and in North Korea, most of the Christians are in prisons.
VOMK’s Newcomer project ministers to North Korean defectors in prison, in hospitals, and in their homes. We do this to learn about (and minister to) the North Korean church in any way that we can. We can care for the NK church by caring for those to whom they have witnessed.
I met a young North Korean man Sunday who was newly arrived in South Korea. He had defected shortly after completing his mandatory ten year military service. He had caught my attention during the worship service where I was preaching because he held eye contact with me the entire time, had a warm and compassionate face, and showed a lot of calm and poise--traits not often found in North Koreans just beginning to make the adjustment to life outside of North Korea.
In our private conversation he showed unusual insight into English--also rare for North Koreans. He was not fluent, but he had certain phrases memorized (like "nice to meet you"). He looked at our
VOMK logo and read slowly, "Voice...of...the...Pilgrim..." (An insightful mis-reading!) He said today NKs all learn English, but in his day they would take the smartest students in middle school and teach them English, and that is where/how he learned.
In the military he had served as a border guard and used his position to do black market trade in cigarettes and rice. He clearly was very smart and fared well. He became a Christian shortly after arriving in South Korea, during his initial interrogation period, of all times. Since then he has been growing steadily week by week, even participating in daily morning prayer.
But now the smuggling story.
When the young man was a border guard along the river, a middle-aged North Korean woman came across the river on a raft made of inflatable inner tubes. She had a box that was labeled DVDs, but when he searched it he found six Bibles concealed on the bottom. When he saw these, he froze as if dead. He said all NK border guards are told, "If you see the Bible, you are dead," which he as an intelligent young man understood to mean that if an NK soldier ever reported having seen Bibles, he himself would be heavily interrogated and watched. So in his panic he told the woman, "Never mention this in your life, and I will never mention it in my life," and he let her in to North Korea with the Bibles.
This is a good reminder that God has his ways of moving hearts and arranging for Bibles to enter into North Korea. Human deception is rarely God's way. God's way involves transforming hearts in surprising fashion.
The young man noted that before he became a Christian he had a lot of anxiety. Since he became a Christian, he has had a great peace and calm over him, which was evident to me.
He asked us about a dream he recently had. In the dream he overslept because he was watching Korean dramas. So in the dream he arrived late for the morning prayer service at church. He was supposed to have organized and prepared the worship bulletins, but when he showed up at 6:10, they were blowing freely down the hallway. I showed him James 1:5 and told him always to pray for the interpretation of dreams.
But as I prayed with him, I myself received the interpretation of his dream, which I expressed to the young man through the traditional Korean proverb, "You can't catch two rabbits." I told him about Jesus' admonition that we cannot serve two masters. I explained that the Lord was showing him that he must overcome the temptation to seek both worldly success and Christian service, choosing instead to "seek first the kingdom of God." The young man was struck by the interpretation, and I laid hands on him and prayed that God would make him a single-minded man in all his ways.
Perhaps you will join me in praying this for him as well.