Listen: Dr Eric Foley talks on what life is really like for North Korea’s Christians.
If the TV’s your only source of news about North Korea, it’d be easy to assume that it’s hell on earth for Christians—a place where faith is crushed, and believers are silenced, hopeless and miserable.
But Reverend Dr Eric Foley paints a very different picture.
He’s the head of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, an organisation based in Seoul, that quietly works to support the North Korean underground church. When he first set out on this mission with his family 16 years ago, he decided to look for ways to befriend North Korean Christians and hearing their stories.
North Korea Not Quite as ‘Closed’ as You Think
First, he built friendships with North Korean defectors living in South Korea (there’s now 30,000 there). Next, he met North Korean refugees living illegally in China, followed by North Koreans working for the government in other countries.
In fact, Dr Foley didn’t have any trouble finding North Korean people to befriend.
“People tend to think about North Korea as a country with a big barbed wire fence around it, where nobody goes in, and nobody comes out,” Dr Foley said. “And that’s not a very accurate picture. There’s over half a million North Korean workers that are sent out by the North Korean government, to make money for the regime. There are 250,000 refugees in China, there’s 30,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea.”
Eventually, he came into contact with genuine North Korean underground Christians—and started to hear what it’s really like to be a Jesus-follower under the North’s mysterious, harsh dictatorship.
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Kim Jong Un’s Policy of Hunting Down Evangelists
Since Kim Jong Un came to power in December 2011, the number of public executions of ‘criminals’ against the state in North Korea has increased, and no-one is safe, even elite government officials.
And as for Christians, the regime has become downright aggressive towards them, equating their missionary work to terrorism.
Christianity is considered “one of the most heinous crimes against the state”, Bibles and prayer are illegal, and an estimated 30,000 Jesus-believers are currently living in concentration camps for their faith.
In fact the government now hunts down missionaries who support North Korean Christians— even if they’re sheltering in other countries.
Pastor and Friend of VOM Brutally Murdered
Case in point; in April this year Voice of the Martyrs lost a long-time friend when evangelist and pastor Han Chung-Ryeol, 49, was brutally murdered by Kim Jong Un’s regime. He was chased down in China and stabbed to death through the heart and head.
And currently there are three missionaries detained in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, who were sought out and kidnapped in China.
Even Dr Foley, who’s as white and Western as they come, is constantly being warned by US authorities that he and his family aren’t safe.
“They have weekly meetings in which someone sings from the hymnal, reads from the writings of Kim Il Sung, then preaches on it.”
“The North Korean ideology ‘Juche’ is, in many ways, a corruption of Christianity,” said Dr Foley. “North Korea has a hymnal of 600 songs of praise to Kim Il Sung. They have weekly ‘self-criticism’ meetings in which someone stands up and sings from the hymnal, then reads from the writings of Kim Il Sung, then preaches on it, like in a church.
“The reason why North Korea’s so threatened by Christians, is that Christianity is able to unmask Juche as a fraud. Christianity really is considered a subversive ideology, because it gives a different way of thinking about the value and purpose of human life.”
The Courageous Faith of Christians in North Korea
And yet, as horrific as all of this sounds, Christians living in North Korea aren’t timid people hiding in corners, longing for a Western government to come and rescue them.
According to Dr Foley, after 120 years of oppression Christians in North Korea have developed very unique ways of keeping their faith alive. It’s a faith he’s written about in his book, These Are The Generations.
“For example, when praying together, North Korean Christians look at each other with their eyes open, as if they were having a conversation,” says Dr Foley. “Their ‘conversation’ draws upon the fact that in North Korea, the official ideology is the worship of the Kim family, who are known by titles like ‘Dear Leader’ and ‘Young General’.
“I could look at you and pray like this:
‘I’m so thankful that in our country, the Dear Leader watches over us so carefully and shows us such love. I’m so thankful for that, because my brother is really in a lot of pain with his stomach problem, and I know in calling out to the Dear Leader that he will hear my cry and answer, and alleviate that pain’.
“That’s how North Koreans pray. And they could do it with a North Korean security agent sitting right next to them reading a newspaper, completely oblivious.
“These kinds of activities have allowed the North Korean church to not simply ‘wait for a better situation’ but continue to have a robust faith, and to spread that faith, now moving into the fourth generation.”
There’s No Sneaking Out at Night, Either
While some stories have circulated over the years of North Korean believers sneaking into the forest at night for prayer meetings, Dr Foley said that’s an inaccurate and “fanciful” picture of North Korean church life.
“Everyone is required to spy on everyone within two homes of their own, so if someone did try to sneak out at night, the first thing you’d do is report them, even if you like them,” he said. “If you don’t report them and they’re found to be guilty, then you would be considered guilty of the same offense—and everyone in your family, for three generations, would bear that stigma.”
Yet within the confines of the communist regime, believers have found creative ways to share their faith, learn about God, and disciple one another too.
Gloom and Doom a Limited View of North Korea
Dr Foley now travels the world trying to present an accurate picture of the North Korean church. And it’s not all about gloom, doom, and a robotic army bowing down to one of the nation’s 40,000 statues of Kim Il Sung. While that’s definitely part of life in North Korea, it’s not the only picture.
“It’s still home for 21 million people, who talk about the beauty of the mountains, the deep relationships they miss.”
“North Korean people face great difficulties, but it’s not as if there is a black cloud hanging over the people of this nation,” Dr Foley said. “They have joys and strengths and hopes also.
“Unfortunately, the only thing people want to write about is how terrible life in North Korea is. On the one hand it is, but on the other hand it’s still home for 21 million people. And they talk about the beauty of the mountains, the deep relationships that they miss, the food that they like to eat.
“Their lives don’t have to be defined simply by tragedy.”
Don’t Pity North Korean Christians, But Join Them in Prayer
Part of Dr Foley’s mission as a voice for the North Korean church, is to urge Westerners not to pity North Korean believers.
“Often radio hosts will introduce me by saying ‘this is the worst place in the world to be a Christian’,” he said, “but I’ve never heard a North Korean Christian say that. Not because their life isn’t difficult, but because they believe that God has drawn close to them in a real way, that the rest of us may not even be able to imagine fully.”
Dr Foley first learnt this lesson when he patronisingly asked a North Korean defector how he could help and pray for him.
“North Korean Christians are some of the most free people I’ve ever seen.”
“He looked amused by that,” Dr Foley recalls. “He said, ‘You pray for us? We pray for you! That’s the problem with you American Christians and South Korean Christians! You have so much, you put your faith in your money and in your freedom. In North Korea we have neither money nor freedom, but we have Christ and we’ve found He’s sufficient.’ ”
The conversation changed how Dr Foley viewed his work.
“I realised, we’re not there to help North Korean Christians,” he said. “We really are there to learn from them, as their junior partners. Freedom in Christ is something that can’t be granted or taken away by a government. So North Korean Christians are some of the most free people I’ve ever seen.”
What Can We Pray For North Korea?
What Dr Foley’s discovered from his believing North Korean friends, is that they don’t envy Western Christians.
“We should never simply pray ‘Lord make their life like mine so they can have money and freedom too’,” he said. “Because they see that in many ways, we lack happiness, because money and freedom can’t bring that.”
“They don’t pray for a regime change. They don’t pray for freedom and money. They pray for more of Christ.”
He advises Australian and American Christians to not pray for North Koreans with pity, but instead pray that they will simply be strong in their faith.
“What they say is, ‘Don’t pray for us. Pray with us. Pray that God finds us each faithful in the circumstances in which He has placed us.’
“They don’t pray for a regime change. They don’t pray for freedom and money. They pray for more of Christ and to mirror more of Christ in their life. That’s what we should be praying for ourselves as well.”
Why Western Christians Must Care for Persecuted Believers
To Dr Foley, taking risks to stand with fellow believers is a normal part of Christian life, and he encourages others to do the same.
“There is one body in Christ, there’s not a ‘persecuted church in North Korea’ and a ‘free church in Australia’, there’s one body,” he said, “and we’re commanded [by the Bible] to remember those who are in prison, as if we were in prison also.”