A Brief History and 2020 Snapshot of the North Korean Underground Church

A Brief History and 2020 Snapshot of the North Korean Underground Church

Each year, as we prepare our North Korea projects and budgets for the coming year, we write a brief history of North Korean Christianity and a snapshot of present conditions to include with our project proposals. Our present circumstances, in which we stand accused in our own country as criminals alongside our North Korean Christian brothers and sisters, gave us a new perspective from which to write. I encourage you to read and share this with your family, friends, and church as you remember us and your North Korean brothers and sisters in prayer. (I had the privilege and pleasure of co-authoring this with my son, Trevor.)


The history of Christianity in Korea cannot be separated from the history of the Bible in Korea. The original Korean Bible translation was quite unique in its creation and distribution. In the late 19th century, John Ross, a Scottish missionary stationed in Manchuria, was able to meet with some Koreans among the peoples there. The Koreans he met had been merchants of little repute from the northern part of Korea. Having lost their livelihood and become financially desperate, they agreed to help Ross translate the New Testament into Korean.

In the process of translating, these men became Christians. As missionaries to their own people, they ultimately participated in the smuggling of 15,000 portions of the New Testament into Korea prior to the arrival of the first Western Protestant missionaries in 1885. When those first missionaries, Henry Appenzeller and Horace Grant Underwood, arrived, it was those Korean Christians who had already believed in Jesus Christ through the reading of the Bible who came of their own accord to receive baptism from the Western missionaries. As a result of their special brand of faith, the Western missionaries nicknamed the Korean Christians “Bible Christians”.

Christianity in Korea has, from the very beginning, been “Bible Christianity.” This history continues today, holding true for present-day Christians in North Korea as well. Their Christian life is an encounter with Christ through the His word. These Christians have never experienced the other things that may seem essential to meeting Christ (church buildings, religious liberty, pastors, discipleship training). They experience Christ clothed only in His word.

As it was in the beginning of the history of Christianity in the region, North Koreans of little repute continue to be the linchpins of evangelism to the North. North Korean defectors are regarded by many in both North and South Korean as traitors. Yet, these defectors who have become Christians comprise a grassroots evangelism movement to their family and friends in North Korean and China, as well as to their North Korean defector neighbors and friends in the South.

Current Situation

North and South Korean governments continue to engage in diplomacy that regards NGOs like Voice of the Martyrs Korea (VOMK) as dangerous to national security. Thus, for the first time, VOMK and other NK-related NGOs are targets for attack from both Koreas. So far, two human rights organizations in South Korea run by North Korean defectors are in the process of losing their NGO status. Subsequently, in July 2020, it was announced that the South Korean Ministry of Unification would start reviewing government-registered NGOs in the North Korea human rights sector, the first review set to target 25 such groups.

At the beginning of July 2020, VOMK was investigated by the Seoul government and police in response to blanket accusations of financial and programmatic mismanagement made by a governor with regard to the four largest balloon launching organizations. The investigation could not find any reason to revoke our NGO status because we are meeting the agreements set forth in our NGO permit. Because we also subject ourselves to scrupulous receipting and annual independent audits, the investigation could find no reason to accuse us on account of financial misconduct. What is clear, however, is that the South Korean government does not intend to allow us or other NK-related NGOs to operate in the manner which we have in the past. The central premise of VOMK’s NK ministry is that we are a platform for North Koreans to disciple and evangelize other North Koreans in partnership with and at the direction of underground Christians. What concerns the SK government about this method is that Koreans in the North and the South are able to relate with one another without the mediation of the government.

Although the current issue of contention is balloon launching, the South Korean government Ministry of Unification had also approached us in May 2018, instructing us not only to cease launching balloons, but also to end our radio broadcasts and other non-governmentally mediated activities. They instead offered that we might be able to participate in future cultural exchanges, distributing Bibles to the North Koreans permitted to participate in such events jointly organized by both governments. The cessation of balloon launching, thus, is the tip of a much deeper iceberg related to the legitimacy of private, non-governmental ministry activities involving North Koreans.

These circumstances have had the benefit of allowing us to explain to the public, the South Korean government and, indirectly, the North Korean government, our heritage and history as a mission, as well as about what it means for us to be partners of North Korean underground Christians rather than missionaries. In some sense, we are being written into the same history that God has been writing since the introduction of the faith into the region, because we have been publicly associated with North Korean underground Christians. People understand this to be our identity and purpose.

We have hope for the future not because we are optimistic about current events and their trajectory. We have hope because hope is a discipline of acknowledging God and His character in every circumstance. We believe that God has looked upon us being faithful with a little, and now He is giving the grand opportunity to suffer with NK believers in the name of Christ.