No one knows how many Christians remain in North Korea. Two-thirds of Korean Christians lived there before the war, but many fled to the south to escape Communist rule. Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, was the son of pious Christians. Communists loyal to Kim Il Sung persecuted Christians along with rightists and Japanese collaborators. This small Christian community in North Korea has generated enough interest overseas to attract visits from such prominent Christian leaders as Billy Graham, who visited Pyongyang twice and, in 1992, preached at the Catholic church in Pyongyang and at one of the Protestant churches there.

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: “Given the country’s extremely closed nature, figures for religious followers are outdated and difficult to confirm. The United Nations (UN) estimates that less than 2 percent of North Koreans are Christian, or somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 people. Most are Protestants. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report North Korea 2017]

Anne Penketh wrote in The Independent: North Korea “relentlessly represses the underground Christian church. There are four state-sanction churches in Pyongyang — two Protestant, one Catholic and one Russian Orthodox — and — according to North Korean authorities — 500 throughout the country, but they now serve the interests of state propaganda. The majority of North Koreans have never heard of Jesus. Following the introduction of the Juche policy, all religions were banned in a country where until 1950, according to some estimates, there were 2,850 churches, 700 pastors and 300,000 Christians. [Source: Anne Penketh, The Independent, September 17, 2004]

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices” that after North Korea was established in 1948: “A trusted Christian member of the new Communist elite in North Korea was appointed chief of the Christian League and other Christian pastors and leaders were forced out of their jobs. Christians soon joined other "class enemies" of the North Korean state — big landlords, businessmen, those who had served the hated Japanese — in their escape to the friendlier atmosphere of the South. Many of them had suffered fierce persecution twice at that point, first under the Japanese and then under the Communists.” [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006. Baker was a professor in Korean History and Civilization at the University of British Columbia]

Dave Hazzan wrote in the Diplomat: “Many Christian preachers were from the north – Pyongyang had been a hotbed of Christianity before the Korean War – and when they fled south they brought with them a virulent hatred of communism. Conservative, evangelical Christianity meshed well with the authoritarian, development-minded dictatorships, and the two forces reinforced each other.” [Source: Dave Hazzan, the Diplomat, April 7, 2016]

Early History of Christianity in North Korea

Christianity was introduced to Korea by Catholic missionaries in 1784 and the religion has flourished since the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries in 1885. Respected Korean historian Andrei Lankov said that Christianity found such a large following in the north that t by the 1920s Pyongyang was known among missionaries as “the Jerusalem of the East.” Before the Korean War, Pyongyang was a Christian missionary center for all of northeast Asia. There were an estimated 3,000 churches before the Korean War in 1950-53.Kim Il Sung’s parents and first wife were Christians. The first wife was the mother of Kim Jong Il. Kim Il Sung is said have played a church organ in his youth. Kim Il Sung’s mother — Kang Pan-sok — was a Presbyterian named after St Peter (Pan-sok means "rock").

Before the Korean war a large number of Christians lived in the northern part of the peninsula where Confucian influence was not as strong as in the south. Before 1948 one-sixth of the population of Pyongyang, a city of about 300,000 people, were Christians. Christianity played an important role in organizing anti-Japanese resistance during the colonial period. Ruth Graham, the wife of American Christian leader, Billy Graham, attended Christian boarding school in Pyongyang as a teen in the 1920s. [Source: Christian Caryl, Newsweek, September 15, 2007]

When the Communist government come to power in North Korea it closed most the churches. Between 1945, when Soviet forces first occupied the northern half of the Korean Peninsula and the end of the Korean War in 1953, many Christians, considered "bad elements" by North Korean authorities, fled to South Korea to escape the socialist regime's antireligious policies. In 1950, at the beginning of the Korean War, as many as 5 million Christians in the north fled to the South, before the border was closed.

Donald N. Clark wrote: “When the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea into occupation zones in 1945, North Korea was the part with the most Christians. These, however, were regarded with suspicion by the new Communist regime. The Christians were organized, and they did not always obey the new government. Communist youth organizations attacked Christian meetings and Christians organized to fight back. North Korea dealt with its troublesome Christians by creating a state church — a Christian League that it decreed would be the new owner of all church property, all schools, and to which all Christians must belong or face accusations of disloyalty. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Christians that remained in North Korea faced persecution. Most of those who retained their religion kept quiet about it or went into hiding.. Those that converted and were discovered ended up in jail or in a labor camp or dead. A couple of German nuns that were arrested said they were initially kept in cells that were too small for them to lie down in and then were moved to a labor camp in the mountains. According to State Department reports, 1,500 churches were destroyed in North Korea during the early decades of the communist regime. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 2, 2005]

North Korea Becomes More Open to Christianity But Don’t Proselytize

In the late 1980s, it became apparent that North Korea was beginning to use the small number of Christians remaining in the country to establish contacts with Christians in South Korea and the West. Such contacts are considered useful for promoting the regime's political aims, including reunifying the peninsula. In 1988 two new churches, the Protestant Pongsu Church and the Catholic Changchung Cathedral, were opened in Pyongyang. Other signs of the regime's changing attitude toward Christianity include holding the International Seminar of Christians of the North and South for the Peace and Reunification of Korea in Switzerland in November 1988, allowing papal representatives to attend the opening of the Changchung Cathedral in October-November of the same year, and sending two North Korean novice priests to study in Rome. Moreover, a new association of Roman Catholics was established in June 1988. A North Korean Protestant pastor reported at a 1989 meeting of the National Council of Churches in Washington, D.C., that his country has 10,000 Protestants and 1,000 Catholics who worship in 500 home churches. [Source: Library of Congress]

in the early 1990s, the North Korean government began taking a softer stance on Christianity at least in part because so much of their humanitarian aid is distributed through Christian groups. In March-April 1992, American evangelist Billy Graham visited North Korea to preach and to speak at Kim Il Sung University. Later Kim Jong Il has said he would welcome the pope if he decided to visit North Korea.

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology opened in 2010 and is funded largely by devout Christians from the U.S. and South Korea. One former teacher told the BBC that many of the teachers there are devout Christians, “but the (perhaps unspoken) deal the regime has made is that it gets a very high-grade teaching establishment and the funders and teachers get an "in" into North Korea for whenever the place is opened up. They feel it is ripe for conversion when the regime changes and they are there for that moment.” [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, August 3, 2015]

There is a view “that Christians certainly have a hard time in North Korea, but they are tolerated providing they don't proselytise. Suki Kim, who taught there, said that two colleagues she trusted” at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology “had told her that a teacher had been deported for handing out scripture. Overt evangelising was absolutely forbidden but more subtle forms were possible, like using biblical verse as examples of text in language lessons. Having said all this, the university is a very small and isolated part of North Korean life. It is not a way of spreading Christianity to the bulk of the people. ‘ [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, August 3, 2015]

Official Churches in North Korea

There is an official church in North Korea and sanctioned local churches. The leaders and members are handpicked by the Party and the church itself is largely regarded as a propaganda device. In Pyongyang, there are two Protestant churches and one Catholic church. Pictures of Jesus sit next to portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Sermons are mostly political diatribes. When churchgoers talk about their religion they usually do so in connection with juche. Many of the churches are locked up except when important foreigners are in town and they want to have a look.

According to United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: “All religious groups are prohibited from conducting religious activities except through the handful of state-controlled houses of worship, and even these activities are tightly controlled. There are three Protestant churches, one Catholic church, and the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, all state run. [Source: United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, International Religious Freedom Report North Korea 2017]

Doug Wallack wrote in the Huffington Post: “The few churches in Pyongyang are maintained by the state in order to give the appearance of religious practice; congregants are actors bussed in to services for the benefit of tourists.” Lord David Alton and Baroness Caroline Cox visited several churches in North Korea. They visited a the Catholic church and told Christian Solidarity Worldwide there wasn't even a priest. "Although the buildings and religious services appear to suggest some degree of freedom of religion or belief, that freedom is extremely limited and may be aimed primarily at visitors and foreigners," the CSW report states. "All the churches are found in Pyongyang and there is no record of church buildings existing anywhere else." [Source: Samuel Smith, Christian Post, September 27, 2016]

Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: One person who attended a service at Chilgol Church told the BBC it seemed like a typical Anglican Church, with a small congregation of perhaps 20 people, many of them elderly women, and a choir (which he thought was rather good). Bibles were bilingual, in English and Korean, and printed in South Korea. The church, by the way, is dedicated to the memory of Kang Pan-sok, the mother of Kim Il Sung, the first leader of North Korea. [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, August 3, 2015]

“One Westerner who had lived in Pyongyang for several years told the BBC that he thought the official Christians he had met didn't seem to have a strong faith. He was continually amazed by how superstitious the people were in all kinds of non-Christian ways and they had no fear of talking. Unthreatening, unorganised superstition is one thing in North Korea - organised Christian belief quite another.”

Is Kim Il Sung Worship Supposed to Be a Substitute for Christianity?

"Kim Jong Il is above the country's law ... and in North Korea what he instructs is like Jesus Christ's words in the Bible," says Son Jung-hun, a human rights activist and devout Christian. since his brother's death.

Ed Pilkington wrote in The Guardian: For many North Koreans, “the only belief system to which he was exposed as a child was reverence, mixed with fear, for the Great Leader. When he was very young he was taught in kindergarten about the magical powers of Kim Il-sung, then supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Kim learned that the dictator was the smartest man in the world and that he was able to fly around the countryside keeping watch over all his children...The cult of the Great Leader left no room for Christianity, or any other organised religion. [Source: “Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America” by Joseph Kim, Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, October 18, 2015]

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Choi recalled the daily recitations of "Thank you, Father Kim Il Sung" required of children. But after studying with missionaries, she realized the extent to which "Kim Il Sung just replaced God's name with his own," she said. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2005]

“The North Korean regime is clearly worried about the corrosive effect of religion on its own ideology. A 2002 report by the ruling Workers' Party refers to Bibles along with "lewd and indecent material ... that the imperialists are sending to infiltrate our borders."Christianity is particularly threatening if only because it has been extensively plagiarized by North Korea's propaganda writers. For example, doctrine has it that Kim Jong Il's birth was heralded by a bright star in the sky, as in the story of Jesus' birth.

“North Korean defectors say that churches away from the capital were either destroyed or the buildings put to other uses, sometimes as movie theaters. To the extent that North Koreans know about religion at all, it is mostly through propaganda films that portray greedy, conniving missionaries trying to trick North Koreans.

Suzanne Scholte, the chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition and vice co-chair of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told The Christian Post: "Because the DPRK regime was set up so that North Koreans are raised to worship the Kims as their gods, there is nothing the regime fears more than the spread of Christianity.The knowledge of the one true God is the greatest threat to the regime." Scholte believes that North Korea's animosity toward Christianity came as a result of the fact that former supreme leader Kim Il-sung was raised a Christian and saw the power of the Christian faith in standing up to the Japanese occupation. "Kim set himself up as a god, perverting the holy trinity with Kim Jong-il as the Christ and juche as the Holy Spirit," Scholte explained. "North Koreans are taught from childhood to give prayers of thanks to their father, Kim Il-sung, to say a perverted version of the Apostles creed to their great leader, and to study their ideology in thousands of centers across North Korea." [Source: Samuel Smith, Christian Post, September 27, 2016]

Protestants and Catholics in North Korea

By one estimate Catholics make up 0.2 percent of the population. Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: ““The same diplomatic benefits North Korea gains from its monks provides the rationale for two official Christian organizations. The Korean Catholic Association has fewer than 5,000 active members. It only has one church, in Pyongyang, and it is still waiting for a resident priest. Nevertheless, Korean Catholics have occasionally been dispatched overseas to explain the policies of the North Korean government to Catholics outside the country. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

However, in October 2014, North Korean rockets were “coincidentally” launched during a test when Pope Francis visited Seoul. In a gesture of good will, South Korea had invited North Korea to send a delegation to the Pope’s visit, but the North declined. [Source: Doug Wallack, Huffington Post, October 22, 2014]

The Korean Christian Federation has served the same purpose as the Korean Catholic Association with Protestant communities. There are two Protestant churches in Pyongyang, serving a total membership of approximately 10,000. According to Baker: “Unlike Protestant Christianity in South Korea and most other countries, there are no competing denominations within North Korea's Protestant community. All Protestants in North Korea belong to the same denomination, the Korean Christian Federation. The doctrinal and ritual differences that separated Presbyterians and Methodists before 1945 have disappeared from public view.”

In recent years Protestants have returned to Pyongyang. The Economist reported: They are “ running the private Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which since 2010 has been educating North Korea’s future elite; strictly no preaching. Given Korean Christians’ energy and tenacity, it is a sure prophecy that one day the Pyongyang skyline will be as studded with neon crosses as Seoul’s.”[Source: The Economist, August 13, 2014]

Underground Christians

There is an underground Christian church movement in North Korea but it is difficult to tell how extensive it is. Underground Christian families in some cases gather under blankets in their homes, so they can not be seen or heard, and whisper prayers that they have memorized. One Christian defector told the Washington Post, “My mother taught me the Ten Commandments, and we memorized hymns. Of course we could never keep a Bible in the house. The Communist Party would regularly raid the house and go through all the belongings, looking for foreign books...If they found a Bible, you could be executed. My mother always told me I could not show my belief in God. I must keep it inside me.” [Source: Washington Post]

Another Christian defector told the Washington Post they had a family friend who they knew for decades before realizing he was a Christian. “He would listen to a Christian radio broadcast from South Korea. He would make notes and hide them in his hat and come my house. We had to do it in secret.” Underground Christians that are discovered are stripped of their jobs and sent to remote rural areas where food supplies are limited. In the worst cases they are sent to labor camps. “Prison No. 15" was said by defectors in the early 2000s to be home to 6,000 imprisoned Christians.

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: Underground churches do exist in North Korea, but information about their location and number of parishioners is nearly impossible to confirm. In her book “Escape from North Korea”, journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick describes North Korea’s underground church movement. She estimates it has between 200,000 to 400,000 followers, about one percent of North Korea’s population. [Source: Doug Wallack, Huffington Post, October 22, 2014]

Unapproved Christian groups seem to be strongest in northern North Korea near the border with China, because Christians and missionaries based in China can get in and out of North Korea more there. It is also an area where a lot of North Korean defectors have made their escape. [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, August 3, 2015]

According to to Newsweek: “Missionaries say Christians often keep their Bibles buried in the backyard, wrapped in vinyl. Preachers based in China sometimes conduct services by mobile phone. In five to 10 minutes the pastor reads Bible passages and prays for the sick and needy. Services are kept short; the regime uses GPS trackers to locate the phones...Christian activists along the border are a dedicated bunch, but they have a vested interest in dramatizing the plight of their brethren in the North. The latest U.S. State Department human-rights report says that "members of underground churches have been beaten, arrested, detained in prison camps, tortured or killed" in the North. [Source: Christian Caryl, Newsweek, September 15, 2007]

Learning About Christianity During the Famine in North Korea

Ed Pilkington wrote in The Guardian: The first time Joseph Kim heard the words “Christian” and “church”, he had no idea what they meant. He had never seen a church and Christianity was as unfamiliar to him in his famine-ravaged North Korea as Disneyland. “Kwang Jin”, a friend said to him, using the Korean name by which Kim was then known, “if you ever go to China, the churches will give you money.” To which Kim replied: “What’s a church? Why would they just give you money?” “Because they’re Christians,” the friend said. “What are Christians?” Kim asked. [Source: “Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America” by Joseph Kim, Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, October 18, 2015]

“Prolonged famine had struck the country when he was five, killing more than a million people and in effect turning Kim into an orphan. His father died of hunger-induced illness, his mother ended up in a North Korean prison camp, and his beloved sister was probably sold as a child bride in China. As he describes in his memoir of becoming a defector,Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America, Kim was driven to increasingly desperate measures to survive. He ate wild plants and raspberry leaves, snails and grasshoppers, lived by petty crime and joined a network of homeless thieves called the “gangster brothers”.”

Describing a similar story, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: In the late 1990s, “an astonishing rumor spread among the teenagers of Musan, a sad, hungry mining town hugging the North Korean side of the border with China. If you slipped over and looked for a house with a cross, the people inside would give you a lecture on Christianity and a bowl of rice. Choi Hwa knew this was dangerous stuff. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2005]

“Back when she was an impressionable 12-year-old, she and her classmates had been called out to watch the execution of a young woman and her father who were caught with a Bible. But Choi knew as well that the pangs in her stomach meant she might soon succumb to the starvation that had killed dozens of neighbors.“The girl followed her stomach. Through it, she found her way to faith. "Once you read the Bible, you stop believing in Kim Il Sung," said Choi, who later defected and made it to Seoul, where she now lives.

“Growing up in North Korea, Choi Hwa said she didn't know much about religion. It was like other personal matters to be discussed in hushed tones and through innuendo. Her grandmother taught her to sing "Silent Night" but warned her not to sing it outside the house. A classmate once whispered that her father owned a Bible, she recalled. "Show me," the incredulous Choi demanded. "My father won't let me see it," the girl replied.The starkest lesson about the risk of practicing religion was the execution she and her friends witnessed in 1998.

Christians, Defectors, Chinese Churches and North Korea’s Underground Railroad

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ Realizing that impoverished North Koreans may be open to other belief systems, missionaries from as far away as the United States and Australia are plying their trade on the Chinese side of the border. In villages along the Tumen River, tiny churches are tucked next to farmhouses, some inconspicuous and others beckoning with red neon crosses that glow in the night sky. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2005]

Some operate especially quietly to avoid encountering trouble from Chinese authorities, who have banned aid to North Koreans and missionary work."The North Koreans don't have any other place to go, so they come here," said Kim Young Geol, an ethnic Korean who runs a makeshift church from a house that looks out onto the mountains over the border. "They need rice, clothes, medicine, and there is nobody else to support them." It is impossible to tell how many of the North Koreans whose hunger leads them to church end up true believers. Most eventually do return to North Korea, either because they are arrested and deported by the Chinese or wish to take money back to their families.

Doug Wallack wrote in the Huffington Post: “ Christians are key actors in what Kirkpatrick calls Asia’s underground railroad - a network of safe houses that help North Korean defectors escape to China and beyond. Defectors’ testimonies bring to light the heinous human rights abuses of the Kim regime, which will eventually oblige the international community to respond. The defectors also reach out to their family and friends in North Korea with reports of the outside world, exposing what the state propaganda calls “paradise on earth” for the hellish prison it really is. [Source: Doug Wallack, Huffington Post, October 22, 2014 \^/]

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: “The Chinese government holds longstanding concerns about an influx of North Korean refugees crossing its border. The few religious materials that make their way into North Korea often do so along this border. Accounts from North Korean defectors reveal that individuals caught attempting to cross the border or who are forcibly repatriated from China are severely punished, particularly if North Korean officials believe they have interacted with missionaries or engaged in religious activities. Increasingly, reports indicate Chinese officials conspire with their North Korean counterparts to hunt down, arrest, and forcibly repatriate North Koreans attempting to cross into China.” [Source: United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, International Religious Freedom Report North Korea 2017]

Escaping North Korean on the Underground Christian Railroad

Ed Pilkington wrote in The Guardian: “Eventually in 2006, at the age of 16, he decided he had nothing left to lose and made the perilous journey from his town of Hoeryong in the north of the country across the Tumen river into China. He remembered what his friend had told him about churches giving money, which chimed with what somebody told him as he knocked on doors in search of food inside China. “You must go to a Christian church,” a Chinese woman said.“How do I find this church?” he asked. “Look for a cross,” she replied. [Source: “Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America” by Joseph Kim, Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, October 18, 2015]

“His connection with Christians meant he had entered the most sophisticated underground support network for North Koreans. His search took him to a number of churches in Tumen City, the Chinese town where he arrived close to the North Korean border, and through them he was introduced to a network of Chinese-Korean Christians who were to prove his salvation. “If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know what other route I could have taken,” Kim said in an interview with the Guardian in New York, where he now lives. “I didn’t have any relatives or friends I could find inside China, so this was my only hope.”

“Unbeknown to Kim at that time, his connection with the Christians meant that he had entered the most sophisticated underground support network for North Korean defectors then in existence inside China. Backed with money and logistical support from South Korean-based, largely Presbyterian, churches, an intricate system was in place for hiding away, and then providing escape routes, for people who had fled famine or persecution in the DPRK.

“In Kim’s case, he was sheltered in the home of a Korean-Chinese woman, aged about 75, whom he called Grandma. A woman of strong faith, she was a member of a South Korean church, which paid some of her rent and the expenses she incurred looking after North Korean defectors.

“It was a dangerous arrangement. If Grandma had been caught harbouring Kim, she would have faced a 5,000-yuan (£520) penalty – an enormous sum for her. If Kim had been caught, he would have been deported back to North Korea, where his connection with Christianity would have been severely punished. “Public execution would have been highly possible, but definitely I would have been sent to a prison camp back in North Korea,” he said.

North Korean Becomes a Christian in China

Ed Pilkington wrote in The Guardian: “The shelter and food that Kim received from Grandma and her Christian network did not come entirely without a cost. He was expected to embrace the religion. He attended Bible-reading lessons, and later Grandma took him to underground church services. At first it was all gobbledygook to him. When he arrived in China from North Korea he was, he said, “nothing more than an animal who wants to live and have a bite to eat. There was nothing else. My primary concern was to find food. If you didn’t constantly put yourself first, you would die. So ethics meant nothing to me, it was nothing more than a word.” [Source: Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, October 18, 2015]

“He admits in the early days he was only interested in what Christianity could give him. “I was merely interested in the aid I could get from them. There was no sense of moral development.” Over time, though, he did come to appreciate the lessons and to embrace the religion. The sacrifices made on his behalf by Grandma and other local Christians chimed with what he was reading in the Bible, and he started to understand the value of altruism. “Grandma made a huge sacrifice and took great risks to help me. And that matched the story of Jesus I read in the Bible and I started to understand.”

“But there was another sacrifice he found more difficult to accept. Early on in his contact with the Christians in China, he was told to change his name from Kwang Jin to the biblical Joseph Kim. He was shocked and offended by the demand. “It was a mixture of anger plus sadness,” he said. “I literally gave up everything I had to survive. I gave up my personality. I gave up the pride of being human. I had nothing to tie me to my parents and my past life. The only thing that identified me was my name – and now I was being told to give that up too.”

“After around three months living under Grandma’s protection, Kim was introduced to a non-religious group called Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), which works with defectors hiding in China and helps them seek asylum. LiNK facilitated his journey to the U.S. consulate in Shenyang, and after four months there he was relocated to the US, where he has lived for eight years.

North Korean Defectors Who Return to Spread the Gospel

Some North Korean Christian converts return North Korea to evangelize — a risky move to say the least — but is one of the few ways to penetrate a country that bars most citizens from tuning into television and radio sources outside the country and the Internet. Hyung Jin Kim of Associated Press wrote: “ Little is known about the practice, believed to have started in the late 1990s. Missionaries won't say how many defectors they have sent back, citing their safety and that of the defectors.

"It's their country, where people speak the same language. They know where to go and where to escape," the Rev. Isaac Lee, a Korean-American missionary in Seoul who has dedicated his life to spreading Christianity in the North, told Associated Press. "But I agonize a lot whenever I have to send defectors to the North as I know what kind of punishment they would get if arrested." [Source: Hyung Jin Kim, Associated Press, July 10, 2010]

It's unclear whether efforts of the Christian defector returnees has paid off. Lee’s Seoul-based Cornerstone Ministries International claims it has 135,000 members in North Korea. “But experts such as Kim Soo-am at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul are skeptical of purported active underground church movements. "They know they would get severely punished," he says, adding that he thinks many North Koreans aren't even aware of religion as an option.

South Korean and American Missionary Activity in North Korea

South Korean Christians groups have stepped up their proselytizing activities aimed at North Korea. Working primarily in China near the North Korean border, the smuggle in tiny Bibles, try to convert North Korean escapees and defectors and try to help them defect o South Korea.

According to the Los Angeles Times: “Missionaries working along the border have tried creative means to get Bibles into North Korea: hiding them in sacks of rice or even floating them over the border with balloons. But today, more Bibles may be carried in by traders who sell them with other contraband such as DVDs of Hollywood movies and recordings of South Korean soap operas and pop music.”

Hyung Jin Kim of Associated Press wrote: “South Korea has a large Christian population, and hundreds of South Korean, American and Canadian missionaries work undercover in Chinese towns near the North Korean border, say Seoul-based activists specializing in North Korean human rights issues. They hide bibles in shipments of food, clothing, bicycles and other aid bound for North Korea. They release balloons imprinted with the Gospel of St. Mark and let winds carry them across the border. They help North Koreans flee and teach them about Christianity. And sometimes they send them back. [Source: Hyung Jin Kim, Associated Press, July 10, 2010]

One missionary,Korean-American Robert Park, made headlines after he crossed into North Korea on Christmas in 2009 , shouting that he brought God's love and carrying a letter demanding Kim's resignation. The 26-year-old was arrested and released three months later.

Giant Christmas Tree at the DMZ: Propaganda?

In 2010, as troops stood guard and a choir sang carols, South Koreans lit a massive steel Christmas tree near Aegibong on a spot that overlooks the DMZ — world's most heavily armed border — and is within sight of atheist North Korea. The tree had 100,000 lights, likely making it visible as far away as Kaesong, one of the North’s most populated border cities.

Lee Jin-Man of Associated Press wrote: The lighting of the tree after a seven-year hiatus marked a pointed return to a tradition condemned in Pyongyang as propaganda. The provocative ceremony — which needed government permission — was also a sign that” South Korea was “serious about countering the North's aggression with measures of its own in the wake of an artillery attack that killed four South Koreans a month earlier. [Source: Lee Jin-Man, Associated Press, December Dec. 21, 2010]

The tree lighting was seen as a signal that the South is ready to play hardball until it sees real change from the North. Earlier, a South Korean destroyer prowled the sea and fighter jets tore across the skies in preparation for possible North Korean attacks a day after Seoul held a round of artillery drills from a front-line island.

“On Aegibong Peak, about a mile from the border that divides the Korean peninsula, marines toting rifles circled the Christmas tree as more than 100,000 twinkling lights blinked on. The brightly lit tree — with a cross on top — stood in stark relief to North Korea, where electricity is limited. Choir members dressed in white robes trimmed in blue and wearing red scarves and Santa Claus hats gathered beneath the steel structure draped with multicolored lights, illuminated stars and snowflakes. An audience of about 200 listened as they sang "Joy to the World" and other Christmas carols. "I hope that Christ's love and peace will spread to the North Korean people," said Lee Young-hoon, a pastor of the Seoul church that organized the lighting ceremony. About 30 percent of South Koreans are Christian.

“The 100-foot-tall (30-meter-tall) steel tree sits on a peak high enough for North Koreans living in border towns to see it and well within reach of their nation's artillery. Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said an attack from North Korea was certainly possible but unlikely.North Korea, officially atheist and with only a handful of sanctioned churches in Pyongyang with services for foreigners, warned that lighting the tree would constitute a "dangerous, rash act" with the potential to trigger a war.

“As a precaution, dozens of armed troops took up position around the site during the lighting ceremony. Ambulances and fire trucks were parked nearby. Instructions placed on chairs at the ceremony advised participants to take cover in case of an attack from North Korea. "The danger of the enemy's threat still exists," the leaflet read, suggesting that they hide behind concrete walls, crouch down between chairs and move quickly to shelters in case of an attack. The event took place uninterrupted.

“For decades, the rival Koreas have fought an ideological war, using leaflets, loudspeakers and radio broadcasts across the border. At the height of the propaganda, South Korea's military speakers blared messages near the border 20 hours a day, officials say. South Korea halted the campaign about seven years ago — including the longtime practice of lighting the huge Christmas tree — as ties between North and South warmed under an era of reconciliation. The church had sought government permission to light the tree over the years, but had been denied several years running.”

The lighting of a Christmas tree tower near the DMZ was an annual event for years until 2004, when the practice was suspended as part of an agreement between the two Koreas not to spread propaganda near the border. In 2011, the South Korean government approved plans for three such displays near the DMZ. A North Korean state-run Web site called those planned displays a form of “psychological warfare” and warned there would be “unexpected consequences” if the coalition of South Christian groups went ahead with the tree lightings. The displays were ultimately canceled in consideration of North Korea’s official period of mourning in the wake of the death of Kim Jong Il last December. The tree lighting was resumed in 2012 and but canceled in 2013 due to a military alert. In 2014, a 20-meter-high (60 foot) "Christmas" tower — with a giant illuminated cross — was pulled down after North and South Korea agreed to resume high-level talks. [Source: Jon Rabiroff and Yoo Kyong Chang, Stars and Stripes, December 21, 2012; AFP, AP, December 22, 2014]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.