The death of Kim Jong-il has many wondering about the future of Christianity in North Korea, and the implications it could have on the underground church there.
Colorado-based mission organization Seoul USA isn’t very hopeful that persecution for Christians will decrease. Chief Operations Officer Matt Dubois told The Christian Post that he doesn’t expect to see any big changes, and that there will be continued persecution. It might even get worse as Kim Jong-un, the late dictator’s son, consolidates his new power.
Regardless, Seoul USA hopes to continue its work no matter what changes do come. North Korea still remains one of the most closed-off countries in the world to the Gospel.
Persecution watchdog Open Doors USA lists North Korea as the worst persecutor of Christians. Owning a Bible could get a person killed, or sent to a harsh labor camp, the group reports. Hundreds of Christians were arrested last year, while others were murdered or sentenced to labor camps. Still, Christianity is spreading in the closed country, with Open Doors estimating 400,000 believers.
Underground University, a ministry of Seoul USA and Voice of the Martyrs Korea, is teaching North Korean defectors how to spread the Gospel to their fellow countrymen regardless of persecution.
The university began in 2009 and is a one-year program designed for North Korean defector pastors, missionaries and ministry leaders. The program, located in South Korea's capital, Seoul, is designed to give North Korean exiles the tools and understanding they need to spread Christianity to their home country, China, and countries where North Korean diplomats and students are living.
Pastors and missionaries from around the world teach classes every week in person or by videoconference. Because classes are small, ranging from seven to 10 people, UU students have the opportunity to learn from, and build personal relationships with church leaders from around the world.
There are 10 different educational tracks students can take, from survival training to church planting to ministry development and funding.
Seoul USA believes North Korean exiles are key to spreading the Gospel to North Korea. Dubois told CP that defectors have an understanding of how to share the Gospel in a persecuted country, after going through it themselves.
It’s hard work because, for the most part, life gets worse for those who become Christians in North Korea. But Dubois said missionaries have a huge desire to share the Good News and get the message to their friends and family back in North Korea.
The Rev. Eric Foley, co-founder and CEO of Seoul USA, told CP that oftentimes when North Koreans escape to South Korea they don’t have the skills to survive in modern society. They come physically or mentally broken. Seoul USA tries to give them the resources and opportunities to survive in their new environment.
In a video on the website, Tae, a North Korean defector, talks about his experiences at Underground University. He escaped from North Korea in 1985, but was caught and put in prison. He was also forced to divorce his wife. During his time in prison Tae became a Christian and later got out and escaped to China, finally settling in South Korea.
He has a desire to share the Gospel in his former home country, a place where Christians are essentially considered enemies of the state. “I believe God has a plan for North Korean defectors who come to South Korea,” Tae said in the video. “It’s important to do missionary work … but also important to prepare North Korean defectors to be able to be trained and equipped in the Gospel to go back there.”
In their classes, UU students study the Bible and theology, but they also have practical ministry initiatives. This includes a 2-3 day backpacking trip to do wilderness training, team building and conflict resolution courses.
Dubois said their approach to teaching the North Korean students isn’t different from how they would train in churches in the United States. “We see it as something we should be teaching in our churches here to prepare [in] defending our faith.”
Students gain new confidence in sharing the Gospel that they didn’t have before their classes, Dubois said. The graduates leave with the ability “to do things in ministry they didn’t believe they could do before.”
They also have a “much stronger connection with brothers and sisters in Christ.” Especially when they have people from other countries come in and teach them. Dubois said they see “how much Christians from around the world care for them, [and it] changes their mindset on how they see their position in the body of Christ.”