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The prospect (even if unlikely) of Pope Francis responding to Kim Jong Un’s invitation and visiting North Korea has created quite a stir. This is understandable: The world’s most prominent holy figure visiting the nation most hostile to religion would be ironic. Another point of irony is that Christianity once thrived in North Korea – so much so, in fact, that a century ago, the capital city of Pyongyang was known as the “Jerusalem of the East” or the “Jerusalem of Asia.”
Catholicism began to make considerable inroads on the Korean peninsula in the late 18th century. Its arrival was in large part due to native Koreans, be they scholars or merchants, who returned home after having converted during their international journeys.
The Joseon monarchs, then Korea’s ruling elite, were less than welcoming, and about 10,000 Catholics – some of them European missionaries but most of them Korean – met with martyrdom. Despite the obvious mortal danger, Christianity persevered and began to spread.
How Korea evangelized itself
But a meteoric Christian rise would not take place until the decline of the virulently anti-Christian Korean monarchy, which led to the formation of diplomatic relations with the United States in the 1880s. Ensuing years saw a heavy influx of American missionaries. These mostly Protestant missionaries began building hospitals and schools. With these institutions, they brought not only faith but also modern medicine and education, establishing about 300 schools and 40 universities on the Korean peninsula.
The year 1907 saw a renewed boost of homegrown religious sentiment – in this case Protestant – known as the “Pyongyang Revival” or the “Korean Pentecost.” Owing to this phenomenon, Christianity was no longer regarded as an influential foreign contribution but rather as a national Korean faith. When the Revival reached its zenith, Asia’s “Jerusalem” had an estimated 3,000 churches.
At one of North Korea’s many churches, the young man playing the organ was none other than Kim Il-sung, who would become the first leader in the tyrannical Kim dynasty. He had grown up Presbyterian, the religion ardently practiced by both his father, who served as an organist, and his mother, who served as a deaconess. This is not as remarkable as it may seem; after all, Pyongyang was once the center of the Presbyterian Church in Asia.
When the Japanese occupied Korea between 1910 and 1945, there was some anti-Christian persecution, which actually served to strengthen religious sentiment, as Korean Christians viewed their faith as an act of defiance against their Japanese oppressors. Of course, the Japanese persecution of Christianity paled in comparison to what ensued with the Kim family dynasty, which began in 1948. By then, a huge portion of North Korean Christians had fled to South Korea; they had foreseen an era of extreme religious repression; and they were proven correct, likely beyond their worst nightmares.
While Catholic and Protestant Christianity flourished in South Korea, the North saw its thousands of churches vanish into the air of isolated tyranny. The Kim regime, like all good totalitarians, not only expunged these churches from the present but also from their nation’s history. And the bygone glory of North Korean Christendom – still quite recent chronologically despite being so far removed in practice – has received curiously scant attention from the West.
Now, a grand total of four churches operate in the former “Jerusalem.” These state-approved churches are, by most every outside assessment, props in a spooky masquerade involving simulated congregations that arrive and depart on buses and with whom foreign visitors are not permitted to communicate.
Any authentic church service is out of the question, so Christians are forced to worship either alone or in small underground groups. Going underground is no guarantee of safety, though, as the possibility exists that any group might have a spy working to entrap genuine Christians. The justifiable paranoia is so extreme that many do not even tell their own children about their spiritual lives, unless they consider mandatory adoration of the Kim dynasty a spiritual experience.
Despite such circumstances, an estimated 300,000 Christians remain in North Korea. Some 50,000-70,000 of them are facing an existence many would consider worse than death – imprisonment in a North Korean labor camp, where followers of Jesus are targeted for particularly harsh treatment.
These Christians will likely live out the rest of their torturous existence in captivity, as long as the Kim dynasty endures. However, the current regime is so erratic that some believe it will bring about its own destruction in the coming years. The end of this grim dynasty would enable North Korea to reunify with its now heavily Christian southern counterpart and return “Jerusalem” to Pyongyang.
American priest continues mission of “Healing Without Borders” in North Korea