Missionaries along North Korea’s borders have devoted their lives to bringing the Gospel to North Koreans, even as many border missionaries die under suspicious circumstances.
From missionaries living in China so close to North Korea they can watch North Koreans do their laundry, to South Korean pastors who minister to those who escape the oppressive regime, Christians along North Korea’s border have risked death and imprisonment in their devotion to ministry, according to The Associated Press. Rev. Kim Kyou Ho, head of the Chosen People Network in South Korea, said he knows all too well the risks that they face, as at least 10 border missionaries who ministered to North Koreans have died in recent years under suspicious circumstances.
North Korea is suspected as the orchestrator of each of those deaths, according to Kyou.
Despite the risks, missionaries like a 69-year-old Chinese-Korean woman living in China’s northeastern border region remain stalwart in their commitment to evangelism. North Koreans under her care — both those who entered China with a visa and those who simply fled the oppressive regime — refer to the woman as “Mom.” She houses and feeds them, occasionally gives them money, helps hide those who escaped without a visa, and instructs them in the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and Christian scriptures. She has done so for 20 years.
She told AP that she knows both North Korean and Chinese authorities monitor her, but still plans to send the most trustworthy of the North Korean converts in her care back to their home country to spread the Gospel.
“I always pray and I’m with God, so I’m not worried,” she told AP.
Those who minister on China’s side of North Korea’s border face threats from both regimes. Proselytizing is illegal in China, and those caught doing it are either imprisoned or, if they are foreigners, deported back to their home countries. Some even die.
Li Baiguang, a human rights lawyer who defended Christian farmers and pastors in China, died on Feb. 26 in a military hospital after being admitted for what his family described as a minor stomach problem. Baiguang had received several death threats over the course of his work defending Christians in China. Rev. Han Chung-ryeol, who ran a church in the Chinese border town of Changbai, was found dead with a punctured skull and multiple stab wounds in April 2016.
Han Songshi, Han’s sister, told AP that Chinese authorities recently told his surviving family that they have security camera footage of a woman and three men, suspected of being North Korean agents, crossing the border into Changbai and subsequently crossing back into North Korea before and after Han’s murder, respectively.
The missionary woman in the northeastern border region, and others like her who equip missionaries, cannot keep track of what happens to the missionaries once they enter North Korea.
The North Korean regime claims that religious liberties are protected in the country. However, those who defect and organizations like Open Doors say that Christians involved in Bible distribution, underground churches, and praying with others are imprisoned in labor camps or executed. North Korea believes that South Korea’s intelligence agencies use Christian missionaries and pastors to gather information about the North, especially regarding their nuclear program. Authorities in the North have arrested and continue to detain at least two South Korean pastors on such charges. Native Christians, and even those who simply express “interest in speaking about Christianity” receive some of the worst persecution in the country at the hands of North Korean authorities and labor camp guards, according to a report from the International Bar Association War Crimes Committee.
“Christians are heavily persecuted and receive especially harsh treatment in prison camps, with one former prison guard testifying that ‘Christians were reactionaries and there were lots of instructions … to wipe out the seed of reactionaries,'” the report reads.
As for Han, his work with North Koreans along China’s border was unprecedented, according to Eric Foley, co-founder of Voice of the Martyrs Korea. Foley believed Chinese authorities allowed Han to not only house and feed thousands of North Korean escapees, but also to convert many of them to Christianity. They viewed his work as a “social service” that cut down on crime and regional unrest, he told AP. Voice of the Martyrs Korea provided Han with Bibles and other ministry tools.
North Korean defectors warned Han that he was one of North Korea’s most wanted because of his work not only spreading the gospel and housing defectors, but also because of his efforts in actively helping people escape from North Korea. A North Korean woman whom Han equipped to run a house church in North Korea said that Han was aware that he was “at the top of a blacklist by the North’s Ministry of State Security,” according to AP.
The congregants of Han’s church in Changbai seem intent on carrying on his legacy, and have memorialized it with a sign on their church building that reads “Martyr and pastor, Han Chung-ryeol is our pride!”
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