SEOUL – Churches are opening in North Korea, a country long known for its hostility to any religion, and especially Protestantism. But it is not the handful of officially sanctioned churches that are interesting so much as reports of a revival of the North’s “catacomb church”.
Given the privation and suffering in North Korea, it’s not surprising that the masses would find solace in the opiate of the people.
North Korean defectors to South Korea recently were asked about the fate of those escapees who were apprehended in China and sent back for interrogation in North Korea. Their treatment is harsh but they are not necessarily doomed. If an arrested escapee does not make some dangerous confessions while subjected to relatively mild beatings, he or she is likely to be set free very soon (not very nice, but still it’s a vast improvement over the situation that existed two decades ago). This correspondent asked, “What do interrogators see as dangerous activity?” The answers were virtually identical across the board: “Contacting missionaries and bringing religious literature to North Korea.”…
Once upon a time, relations between early Korean communism and Korean Christianity were much closer than either side is willing to admit nowadays. Kim Il-sung himself, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), was born into a family of prominent Protestant activists. His father graduated from a Protestant school and was an active supporter of the local missions, and his mother was the daughter of a prominent Protestant activist. This was fairly typical: it seems that a majority of early Korean communists had Christian family backgrounds, even though Christians were few and far between in the general population….
Nonetheless, left-wing Christianity was not a success in North Korea. Most Protestant preachers and activists were enemies of the new regime. There were a number of reasons for this. Most pastors came from affluent families and were not happy about the redistribution of wealth during the land reforms of 1946 and subsequent nationalization of industries. As well, many Christians had personal connections with the West and admired the United States as a beacon of democracy, and thus were alienated by the regime’s intense anti-American propaganda. The increasingly harsh and repressive policies of the new government did not help either.
Thus in 1946-50 Protestants formed one of the major groups of the refugees who moved to the South. When the Korean War began, these Protestants often helped the advancing United Nations troops. Such incidents once again demonstrated to the Pyongyang leaders what they believed anyway: that Christians were politically unreliable….
By the mid-1950s, not a single church was left functioning. As usual, the Korean Stalinists outdid Stalin himself: even in the worst days of Josef Stalin’s rule a handful of churches remained opened in Soviet cities, and some priests avoided the gulag (more often than not through cooperation with Stalin’s secret police).
Some North Korean believers continued to worship in secret. The precise scale of the North Korean “catacomb church” is likely to remain unknown forever. Serious research is made impossible by the secrecy of the church, and in the post-unification future (if there is one), the picture is likely to be distorted by exaggerations and myth-making to which religious organizations are usually so prone. A lot of martyrdom stories are certain to emerge in post-unification Korea, and some of them are certain to be true, but none of these stories should be taken at face value without careful checking. Nonetheless, the existence of the Protestant underground is beyond doubt.