It actually happened. The on again-off again United States-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (US-DPRK) Summit in Singapore finally took place at the Capella Hotel on the island of Sentosa on 12 June 2018.
The joint declaration between both US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un commits to new US-DPRK relations; joint efforts to establish lasting peace and stability in the Korean peninsula; the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula; and the recovery of prisoner of war and missing-in-action remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
However, the joint statement has left world leaders and political observers divided over the document’s place in history due to its vague wording and generic nature. Some feel the summit marks the first meaningful step in a long journey towards a safer and more peaceful world. Others admit to being underwhelmed and insist that key issues such as complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID) have remained unresolved. Some question “the art of the deal” and warn that President Trump’s decision to end the “provocative war games” with South Korea, i.e. the joint military exercises that have for decades served to be a major deterrent to North Korea, is a huge unreciprocated giveaway to Chairman Kim. North Korea does not have a good track record of keeping its promises – eversince they signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, its regime has violated signed agreements, flip-flopped and reneged on its promises time and again. In other words, the leaders of North Korea cannot be trusted. How then can anyone be sure it will be different this time?
Yet Chairman Kim has declared the meeting in Singapore “very historic”, promising that “the world will see a major change”, even as President Trump announced that both leaders had developed “a very special bond”, with the added comment that the North Korean leader would be setting in motion the peace process upon his return to Pyongyang.
Only time will tell if this is merely “much ado about nothing”, a highly anticipated and publicised photo opportunity on the world stage, amidst all the political rhetoric, showmanship, and mutual “feel good” smiles and promises of global peace and good will. However, at least a nuclear war has been averted for now.
This month, we remember the persecuted Christians in North Korea. While many are familiar with the terrifying totalitarian rule of the Kim dynasty (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un) as well as the fact that North Korea ranks No.1 on Open Doors’ World Watch List (click here for details) as the world’s worst persecutor of Christians, fewer are aware of its rich Christian heritage.
The first known Protestant missionary to land in Korea was Karl Gutzlaff, a German missionary working with the East India Company in the 18th century, who shared the gospel, and also distributed bibles and tracts. When his ship was denied permission for further trade, he left reluctantly with these words:
“Can the divine truth, disseminated in Korea be lost? This I believe not, there will be some fruits in the appointed time of the Lord…The Scriptures teach us to believe that God can bless even these feeble beginnings. Let us hope that better days will soon dawn for Korea”.
However the first Protestant martyr in Korea was Robert Thomas, a young Welsh missionary who led a trip to Korea in 1865 to distribute bibles along the coast. On his second trip, while his ship came under attack as it ran aground and unfortunately began firing canons, Thomas tossed bibles to the people on the riverbank, before being executed when he made it to land. On the day of Thomas’ execution, God was already working in the hearts of the Koreans. Choi Chi Hyang, aged 12, turned to Christ soon after receiving one of Thomas’ bibles. He later became an elder in the Pyongyang Church. The executioner, Park Chun Won, later became a Christian, along with his entire family, and his house became the site of one of the first Protestant churches in Korea.
Soon after Thomas’ death, Korea opened up to world trade, with American missionaries arriving around 1885. The Church grew amidst persecution.
Then in Wonsan in 1903, a medical missionary called Dr Hardy was moved by the Holy Spirit to confess his prejudice against the Korean people. The Korean congregation began to weep and confess their own prejudice against him. This started the Wonsan revival, with more than 10,000 Koreans receiving Jesus into their hearts. In 1907, missionaries gathered in Pyongyang and prayed for revival for six months, resulting in “the Great Pyongyang Revival”. By mid-1907, there were more than 30,000 converts, and by 1910, there were reportedly more than 250,000 Christians worshiping in Korea. North Korea’s capital Pyongyang became known as “the Jerusalem of the East”.
However, during the Japanese Occupation from 1910 till the end of WWII in 1945, many Korean Christians were imprisoned and martyred for refusing to bow down at Japanese shrines. There were also many church leaders who succumbed to the pressure of persecution by leading their people in bowing down. It was a heart-wrenching time for the Korean Church.
Miraculously, the Church still grew against the odds and by the time of the Communist takeover in 1948, there were an estimated 3,000 churches throughout Korea, most of which were located in the North.
The Korean people faced another major trial when their country was divided into the North and South, with the USA and the USSR each establishing a Korean government in Seoul and Pyongyang, respectively, which later led to “the Forgotten War”, i.e. the Korean War in 1950 – 1953, and the subsequent loss of about 3 million innocent lives.
Over time, the two respective systems of communism and capitalism in the North and South led to different outcomes for their citizens. Backed by the Soviets, North Korea had a good start with her Juche ideology of self-reliance and the Songun “Military First” policy, and began to build her nuclear capability around the mid-1950s to early 1960s. The Pyongyang regime was faring much better in the 1960s while impoverished South Koreans stumbled and struggled through economic and political instability for several decades. To this day, in large part due to her initial success and the onslaught of propaganda (Kim-centric patriotic songs, literary works, festivals, parades, flags, badges, statues, monuments and revolutionary sites), indoctrination, the stratified Songbun hereditary system, restricted travel, inminban surveillance neighbourhood watch groups, imprisonment, torture, executions as well as media censorship and blackouts, many North Koreans are still convinced that reunification of the two Korea’s is necessary for the relief and rescue of South Koreans from their suffering and inferior Capitalist way of life. From 1959 to 1984, ethnic Koreans living in South Korea were even led to believe that North Korea was a form of “paradise”. Unfortunately, many lived to regret their decision to resettle in the North under the Kim regime.
Through the years, in tandem with her economy, the Church in South Korea has however flourished and is known globally for her prayer and missionary zeal. In contrast, her counterpart in the communist North has endured several decades of hardship and persecution.
It is noteworthy is that many of the original ruling elite of communist North Korea were from Christian families or received a Christian education. What is even more surprising is that Kim Il Sung, who was the revered Supreme Leader of North Korea from 1948 till his death in 1994, had a grandfather who was a Presbyterian minister (other sources also mention an uncle). His parents, Kim Hyong Jik and Kang Ban Sok, were also devote Christians serving as elders in the Presbyterian Church, before they were used for propaganda purposes to build their son’s cult of personality. (In South Korea, “Ban Sok” is a name that is also given to baby girls. It means “Peter”, who was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus.) Some sources state that the young Kim Il Sung grew up in church and was even an accomplished organist.
It is also rumoured that before an important surgery years later, the Supreme leader prayed with his doctor. Unfortunately, it is believed that Kim Il Sung resented the high living standards of foreign missionaries in contrast to the poverty and suffering of his countrymen. He found yet another reason for rejecting Christianity when despite fervent prayers uttered by Christians, his father failed to return home after his capture by Japanese soldiers during their family’s exile in China. This marked the start of Kim Il Sung’s stubborn repudiation of his Christian heritage, the horrific persecution of Christians and the cruel destruction of Christian properties. Warped Christian elements can be found in the subsequent use of propaganda to strengthen the cultification of Kim Il Sung through songs, teachings, the study of the writings of Kim Il Sung in small groups, and the confession of “sins” in weekly confessionals, with deification of Kim Il Sung as “god” and his son Kim Jong Il as “the son of god”.
It is now believed that the Supreme and Great Leader Kim Il Sung, who since 1998 has been posthumously named the “Eternal President of the Republic”, was gradually undermined and subtly usurped by his own son Kim Jong Il in a masterful stroke, even as the younger Kim appeared to support his father and encouraged the promotion of Kim Senior as a cult figure. As the son of Kim Jong Suk, Kim Il Sung’s first wife, Kim Jong Il managed to outsmart his enemies in a power struggle to emerge as the ruling “Dear Leader” of North Korea from 1994 until 2011. He took three years to consolidate his legitimacy through numerous purges, ridding himself of his once-powerful step-mother Kim Sung Ae – Kim Il Sung’s second wife – and her son Kim Pyong Il – the original heir to the throne – along with many other family members and friends who were executed throughout the country through the practice of “guilt by association”. There were also bizarre schemes that deployed trusted lieutenants to study and then infiltrate the South Korean psyche, culture and society through local-sounding poetry that was supportive of the Kim regime; the kidnapping of unsuspecting South Koreans and Japanese; the use of attractive North Korean women to have dalliances with influential figures in Japan that resulted in the birth of foreign children who were then moved to North Korea to be groomed as agents of the state.
Meanwhile, the nation-wide “Great North Korean Famine” of the mid-1990s, which was caused by economic mismanagement, the loss of Soviet support, droughts and floods, was promoted to North Korean citizens as the “Arduous March”/”The March of Suffering”. The people persevered throughout the land even as they were made to believe that their Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was himself soldiering on and inspiring them by surviving only on one riceball a day. The famine was so severe that it is believed to have led to at least three million deaths, many of whom were children. Even rice farmers had difficulty growing enough rice, and families were accustomed to rationing rice by counting out the grains or consuming meagre grains of rice diluted with bowls of water. International aid in the form of food packages, medicine and clothing almost never reached the general populace, and subsequent world-wide economic sanctions over the years have since further bankrupted and impoverished the country, hindering the recovery and growth of a nation with a reputation that ironically once fooled about 100,000 ethnic Koreans to leave Japan for communist North Korea under a repatriation programme from 1959 to 1984.
Thus while the privileged few in North Korea even today enjoy the trappings of a lavish lifestyle, living in luxury apartments or mansions and enjoying access to foreign goods such as cognac, cigarettes, ice cream and expensive handbags, it is the poor ordinary citizens who continue to suffer from deprivation at every level.
The high level of scepticism amongst many world leaders and political observers is therefore understandable despite the ongoing talks of peace on the Korean peninsula. Afterall, the current North Korean leader, Chairman Kim Jong Un is believed to have ordered the execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who as Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law was considered second in rank only to the late Supreme Leader, taking charge of national affairs when Kim Jong Il was ailing towards the end of his life. Kim Jong Un is also rumoured to be the mastermind behind the fatal poisoning and assassination of his older brother Kim Jong Nam while the latter was at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia in February 2017. The Otto Warmbier incident, in which a strapping young American student was incarcerated in North Korea for theft of government property in January 2016, followed by his mysterious medical condition and death soon after his return to the United States in June 2017, remains disturbing in recent memory. Scores of defectors have since told many a horrific and cautionary tale as well. The North Korean regime has always been perceived as opaque, dangerous, unpredictable and not to be trifled with.
The persecution that Christians face in North Korea is unmatched, despite Pyongyang’s claim that religious freedom exists. There are only three state-sponsored churches in North Korea – two Protestant and one Catholic – and they are essentially government establishments and not genuine places of worship concentrated in Pyongyang to give some semblance of religious tolerance to visitors from the outside world. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have mysteriously disappeared over the years. Threats, intimidation and public executions are commonplace, especially in provinces far from Pyongyang. Three generations of a family can be thrown into prison camps simply for possessing a bible or practising Christianity. Christian groups like those from South Korea cannot meet their counterparts or potential converts face-to-face in North Korea. Tourists who visit North Korea are closely chaperoned by state-employed guides and proselytising is prohibited.
In desperation and despair, tens of thousands of North Koreans have risked their lives and defected to South Korea and beyond, through the Chinese border. Countless more never made it alive. Even those who have made it to China need to remain in hiding to avoid repatriation as well as certain torture and death, with most resorting to suicide when they are captured by Chinese or North Korean authorities. Only the very fortunate have managed to escape to freedom, with Good Samaritans to help them along the way.
Against such a background, it is therefore truly amazing that the underground church has survived as a body of believers that has held out for generations, even after years of persecution and attempts to destroy Christianity. It is believed that there are now at least 200,000 to 400,000 Christians in North Korea. While the Church remains invisible, it is growing. Believers memorise scriptures and hymns, and gather in secret. Sparks of revival are happening even now, as thousands of North Koreans are quietly giving their lives to Christ. It is the hand and work of our loving and sovereign God.
“Our prayers can go where we cannot…there are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray.” – Brother Lawrence
So while we cannot claim to fully understand or imagine the hardships and atrocities fellow believers in North Korea are facing even today, we want to come confidently to God’s throne of grace and stand in the gap for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We know that behind every evil person is Satan. But behind Satan is our all-powerful, holy and sovereign God. So we are not powerless. We have direct access to Almighty God, our Heavenly Father. There is power in His word, and we will and must use it to push back the darkness. For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. Across the world, as children of the Living God, we unite in prayer for North Korea/DPRK:
O Lord God, You are the Alpha and the Omega, the Great I Am and our Creator God. Nothing in all creation is hidden from Your sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before Your eyes. You are omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. Apart from You, there is no other.
How Your heart must ache when You see the suffering of Your precious sheep in North Korea, with its capital Pyongyang once known as “the Jerusalem of the East”. Yet to those who are faithful, You show Yourself faithful. You have granted Your sheep the grace to persevere in the faith, and the grace to remain true to You even in the face of death. For those who have perished because they bear Your name, You have rewarded them with the Crown of Life and the White Robe of Righteousness. Their names are written in Your Book of Life forever.
For those still persevering in the faith, we know that the Lord Jesus is standing by their side to give them strength. O Lord, may Your love, word and truth continue to be planted, watered and strengthened in the hearts of the faithful. We know that Your eyes range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to You. Even when they have little strength, may the Holy Spirit embolden and enable them to do what is normally humanly impossible – to stand firm and not deny Your name even in the face of severe testing. Abba Father, may You watch over all believers. May You keep their faith from wavering. May the flame of faith remain ablaze within their hearts as they shine brightly as Your witnesses, as Your light in the darkness.
Lord God, You know how Your sheep are singled out for harsher treatment. In their hunger, we pray that You will strengthen their frame and lead them to food sources. Lord Jesus, You are the Bread of Life. We pray that You will build them up even as they languish helplessly in labour and re-education camps, or even as they starve and are brutally tortured while in prison. May You draw near to each one. We pray that Your strong presence and peace will comfort them by the power of the Holy Spirit.
O Lord, we pray for the sick. May You send them the medical help and expertise they need, including supplies of medication that will reach them. Lord God, You are the Great Physician. May You heal each one physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
We pray that You will send brave and compassionate people who are in the position to help Your sheep – to love them, shelter them, protect them, defend them, feed them, clothe them, pray for them, visit them and help them by all possible means, even in the presence of danger.
We pray for the vulnerable young girls and women who are in constant danger of being raped and trafficked. O Lord, may they sense Your presence, love and peace. May You comfort and strengthen them, protect them and rescue them from captivity. May each one have the opportunity to finally live a meaningful life of blessing, dignity, peace, fruitfulness and safety.
Lord God, we also pray for those who have managed to flee and defect. May You plant godly people along their way so that they may experience Your unconditional love. May You continue to reveal Yourself in dreams and visions, or miracles and other creative ways reminiscent of the awakening and revival that swept across North Korea in the early 1900s. May refugees and defectors hear the Good News either en route or wherever they settle, and experience the joy of putting their trust in You.
Lord, revive and rebuild Your Church in North Korea. May You watch over believers who are faithfully serving Your people through the broadcast ministry and those who have answered Your call and made appropriate preparations to return to their homeland as Your salt and light. May You bless and prepare many more Christ ambassadors for future ministries throughout the land.
O Lord, You are the God of Truth and Justice. May You open the eyes of the 25 million people who have been deceived and taken advantage of all these years. May You cause a strong sense of injustice to stir within the hearts of every single person. May You convict their hearts and embolden them, and cause them to arise. May You, O Lord, the only One True God, raise an army of prayer warriors and intercessors, to pray unceasingly for a miraculous breakthrough and divine delivery from bondage and suffering.
May You also raise an army of God-fearing, astute and capable men and women who truly love the people of North Korea, to stand for truth and boldly oppose anything that is ungodly and unjust. May they arise to lead the people and shout: “Enough! We deserve and demand dignity and respect for the ordinary men, women and children of North Korea.” We know that it will be such an army that the sheer size of it will cause the enemy to tremble – for the first time in their lives, their once-arrogant eyes and hearts will register fear.
The day of reckoning is at hand. O Lord, may boys and girls, men and women, young and old, altogether arise in unity and power across domestic borders, to end injustice and persecution in the land. They have already endured much, and they will be unstoppable. May they stand together, fearless and strong, for they far outnumber those who have been manipulating and oppressing them. And because You, O Lord, are on their side, nothing will get in their way. You, O Lord, will help them turn the tide and experience victory in Jesus Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.
In Your wisdom and timing, may You summon and gather allies from around the world as well. May You scupper all the grand plans and devious schemes and devices of the oppressors. May all their masks and trickery be exposed. May all perpetrators of evil who do not repent be dealt with by You ever so severely, that they will know that You alone are God. Let Your Holy and Almighty name be known throughout the land, O Lord.
May Your love and power manifest in ways that will melt hardened hearts and terrified hearts alike, and cause each one to turn to Christ. May the Holy Spirit continue to stir, convict and work in the hearts of those who have cowardly served the wrong master. May Your power remove the scales from their eyes and the barriers from their hearts. May You turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. May they each encounter You wherever they turn and run. May there be true repentance as they turn away from their wicked ways, and begin to see an alternative way to truly serve the people.
We know You do not want anyone to perish but You are also a Holy God who punishes those who oppose and reject You, and those who harm Your precious children, precious sheep and precious servants of God. You punish those who touch Your anointed and faithful ones. Almighty God, may Your will be done.
Heavenly Father, open doors for Christians around the world to respond as the Body of Christ to the suffering of our fellow Christians in North Korea. Send professionals who are willing to help in key areas such as humanitarian work, education, agriculture, finance, business and management. May each Christian serve as a faithful incarnational witness for You, O Lord.
May everyone also work prayerfully, intentionally and in unity, to come up with wise and creative ways to encourage, strengthen and rebuild the Church in North Korea. May You enable Your truth to travel across radio airwaves, other forms of media, emerging technologies and cyberspace. May the truth be revealed. Let Your Light shine through. O Lord God, may You continue to watch over, guide, and grant wisdom and creativity to all those who risk their lives to serve You and Your people throughout the land.
May You also grant world leaders and those in positions of influence to have the wisdom, integrity, compassion and ability to accurately address the issues at hand, for the good of the people of North Korea and the world. May leaders exercise restraint in their rhetoric and actions, and consider interests beyond their own. May You use godly men and women of influence and grant them favour and courage as they provide wise counsel to all the world leaders involved – may they be modern-day versions of Joseph, Daniel, Meshach, Shadrach, Abednego, Deborah, Abigail and Esther who You can use for good governance and the saving of souls.
Lord Jesus, You are the Light for the world. May Your light shine in the darkness and flood the nation of North Korea. Let every deception and evil deed be exposed by Your light. Lord Jesus, You are the Way, the Truth and the Life. May Your truth go forth and penetrate hearts, so that many will acknowledge that the only way to eternal life is through You and You alone.
May the current dire circumstances in North Korea precipitate a genuine breakthrough and a sincere desire for positive and lasting change, guiding those in leadership to the path of peace for the good of all Koreans, and especially Your beloved sheep. May your precious sheep be relieved of the decades and even centuries of pain, loss, sorrow, separation and suffering that they have endured stoically, to fully experience the joy of knowing You and the freedom of living their God-given lives victoriously. We trust that Your word will not return void. In Jesus’ mighty name, we pray. By the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Can the divine truth, disseminated in Korea be lost? This I believe not, there will be some fruits in the appointed time of the Lord…The Scriptures teach us to believe that God can bless even these feeble beginnings. Let us hope that better days will soon dawn for Korea”. – Karl Gutzlaff, first known Protestant missionary to Korea in the 18th century