HONG KONG (ODNS) – Asian populations under Communist rule are generally referred to as living behind a “bamboo curtain.” But never was a metaphor more inappropriate to convey the impenetrable nature of the barrier erected between North Koreans and the outside world in the bloody aftermath of the Korean War in 1953.
A more appropriate metaphor to describe the utter isolation of North Koreans from foreign influence might well have been “concrete curtain.” At that time, visits and letters in and out of the country were banned and a self-proclaimed messiah, Kim Il Sung, created a personality cult so vast that it swiftly became a religion which culminated in his claim to bestow “1,000 years of eternal life” upon his followers.
Thirty-five years of total isolation has left its mark on an entire generation. One night, a recent visitor to Pyongyang was sought out by his guide who pleaded, “Please be my friend. I do not have a single friend in the whole wide world outside North Korea.” He added tearfully, “We are the loneliest people on earth.”
The 20 million inhabitants of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are also prime candidates for the “most repressed” people on earth. In the latest edition of the World Human Rights Guide, North Korea gains a human rights rating of 17 percent – the second lowest in the world. Ethiopia was lowest.
Yet this may soon change. A desperate shortage of hard currency, plus a desire to stage some events in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, have combined to spark a small but growing tourist industry. Except for South Koreans and some U.S. citizens, ordinary tourists are permitted to visit the country. Even North Korean VIPs are given more freedom to travel abroad now. These are minor changes of course, but major ones are expected when Kim Il Sung – now an ailing 75-year-old dies or relinquishes power.
Expectations of change have Western observers eagerly wondering about the status of the church in the DPRK. The leading question is centered on whether the church has survived. First, because the vast majority of Christians fled from North Korea during the civil war in the early 1950s, and second, because all vestiges of Christianity were annihilated with a ruthlessness unmatched in the history of communism. All churches were closed, known Christians shot, and the Bible banned and burned.
Sources confirm that the church is alive and well in North Korea. The first source is officials of the DPRK government. In 1984, the World Council of Churches (WCC) received an invitation from North Korea to visit with a formerly unknown “Korean Christian Federation.” When an official delegation from the WCC visited Pyongyang in November 1985, they were told that the Federation was modeled after China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement. i.e., state controlled and non-denominational, which had actually been in existence for “at least 15 years” though no one is sure when it originated.
A second source of factual information about Christians in North Korea are the Korean Christians in Manchuria, some of whom have traveled to North Korea and met with fellow believers. Approximately three million ethnic Koreans live in China, mostly spread throughout the three provinces of Liaoning, Jilin (which both border North Korea) and Heilongjiang. They can travel in and out of North Korea to visit relatives and it is know that some North Koreans are allowed into China to pay return visits.
In 1984-1985, representatives of the mission, Diaspora International, a Los Angeles-based ministry founded to mobilize Koreans worldwide in anticipation of the opening of the DPRK – began to contact Korean Christians in China. Although at first reluctant to divulge information, in 1986 China’s Korean Christians revealed that individuals among them had traveled to North Korea and worshipped with fellow believers.
These sources claim that there are many small groups of believers meeting in villages throughout the CPRK. They do not know of any meetings larger than twenty. Guards are always posted, windows blanketed and singing hushed. They have few Bibles and those circulated are for the most part hand-copied portions or editions of a 1930s version.
Even for the Chinese Koreans the border crossing is tight. They are searched thoroughly for letters, photographs or gifts, but even so a steady trickle of New Testaments did filter in last year. In September, a letter from a DPRK Christian was smuggled out of the country, stating, “Pray that the government will open the churches … It is impossible to share our faith. I am severely persecuted now because my neighbors know I am a believer …”
Visitors to the DPRK are another source of information, some of whom have felt sure they met genuine Christians, but of course were not able to confirm this publicly. In 1987, the numbers of tourists visiting North Korea increased dramatically with over ten travel agencies offering no less than ninety scheduled tours.
One group of Christian visitors reported that they slipped out of their hotel one night in downtown Pyongyang, parked themselves on a street corner and began to sing Christmas carols. “We sang familiar ones like ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful.’ We didn’t bellow, we just sang softly but the still night air seemed to amplify our singing.” They reported that many people came up to them smiling as if they knew the hymns, and nodding as if they agreed with the sentiments.
Whether or not the church in North Korea exists today is no longer questionable. In recent years Communist officials, China-based Korean Christians and tourists have all confirmed, in their own peculiar way, the reality of a true church behind the “concrete curtain.”