In a recent class at one of Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s discipleship training schools for North Korean defectors, Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, the ministry’s Representative, was teaching the students about Missionary Robert Jermain Thomas, one of the earliest Protestant missionaries to Korea who was martyred while attempting to sail up the Taedong River near Pyongyang in 1866 on a missionary journey. “As I shared the story, the North Korean students, most in their 60’s, realized that they had already been taught this history before—just from the perspective of the NK government,” says Representative Foley.
Representative Foley says that such remembrances of Christianity, which she describes as “hidden in plain sight”, occur frequently as she teaches North Korean students.
“Surprisingly, the history of Christianity in North Korea is in many ways well preserved by the North Korea government—not for the purpose of honoring it but for the purpose of portraying Kim Il Sung’s purported victory over it,” says Representative Foley.
When Dr. Foley shared with the students that Missionary Thomas had been aboard a ship called the General Sherman, “Mrs. E” (name changed for security reasons) remembered an “Invader Ship Sherman” event that she had attended as a youth.
“Mrs. E shared that when she was in her early teens and living in Pyongyang, there was an event held on the Daedong river,” says Representative Foley. “She said that many citizens of Pyeongyang came to attend the event, which consisted of re-enactments of the burning of the ‘Sherman Invader Ship’.”
A 2006 North Korean postage stamp commemorates the burning of the General Sherman, a ship carrying early Korean missionary Robert Jermain Thomas who was killed in the event. (Photo Credit: Dawkish Blog) (Photo Credit: as found on Facebook)
According to Mrs. E, high schoolers and college students volunteered their time to make replicas of the ship and recreate the events of the General Sherman incident.
“The North Korean authorities told the attendees that Missionary Thomas came to take Prince Daewongun’s crown, but that Kim Il-Sung’s grandfather Kim Eung-Woo drove Missionary Thomas away and sent a fireship toward the General Sherman and incinerated it,” says Representative Foley.
Mrs. E said that the onlookers watched the burning ship and were impressed.
The Cross and other Christian artifacts appear regularly on North Korean state television, as shown in this screen shot from the introduction of a popular North Korean television program.
According to Representative Foley, such experiences of Christian history being “hidden in plain sight” in North Korea are common among North Koreans.
“The cross actually appears on television frequently in North Korea, via a program that includes a shot of the cross and other religious items in the program’s introduction,” says Representative Foley. “Students at North Korean schools are taught stories of foreign missionaries in their curriculum, and missionaries appear in many North Korean movies. Of course such portrayals are never positive. The stories are told from the perspective of the North Korean government, to show how Kim Il Sung rescued the country from Christianity and other purported ‘foreign invaders’.”
Sometimes elements of Christianity are borrowed, modified, and re-deployed as part of North Korea’s Juche ideology. Representative Foley recalls bringing a North Korean defector to London to speak at churches there. “Right before he was scheduled to share his testimony, the church sang the hymn, ‘How Great Thou Art’,” says Representative Foley. “The North Korean became alarmed and asked me, ‘Why are they singing that North Korean government song’? As many analysts have noted, many of the songs in the ‘Kim Il Sung Hymnal’ are originally Christian songs, with lyrics re-written to praise Kim Il-Sung rather than the Christian God.”
Representative Foley says that in addition to these evidences of North Korea’s Christian history being preserved by the North Korean state, North Koreans also encounter Christianity through the activities of underground North Korean Christians, often without realizing it.
“Many of our North Korean students, when they come to South Korea, hear a Christian Bible story or see a Christian activity like prayer, and they realize they saw or heard the same thing inside of North Korea,” says Representative Foley. “Some recall waking up overnight and seeing their grandparents or parents sitting up with their eyes closed, hands clasped together, mumbling words. At that time they just attributed the experience to senility. But after learning about prayer from Christian missionaries or from churches in China or South Korea, they realize that they very likely came from a Christian family without even realizing it.”
Previously unknown North Korean Christian martyr Cha Deok Sun, whose story was preserved in an anti-religion training video created by North Korean authorities for security agents.
According to Representative Foley, these experiences reveal God at work, preserving North Korean Christian history and the stories of North Korean Christian martyrs even through Christianity’s fiercest persecutors—the North Korean government. She points to the story of Cha Deok Sun, a previously unknown North Korean Christian martyr whose story is preserved in a North Korean government video used to train state security agents how to identify and silence proponents of religion inside North Korea.
“The purpose of the North Korean government video is to discredit practitioners of religion,” says Representative Foley. “But by deciphering the story told in the video we learn for the first time about a bold and courageous North Korean evangelist who received Christ in China and returned to North Korea instead of escaping to the South.”
According to Representative Foley, the video says that due to her poverty, Cha Deoksun was given permission by the government to travel between towns in North Korea to provide for herself. “During her travels, Cha Deok Sun evangelized others,” says Representative Foley. “According to the video, she gave money to people who were poor, lower class, or suffering. She also found the descendants of several prominent Korean Christians and worshipped together with them. The video claims that these groups of underground Christians gathered every Sunday to worship, pray, sing hymns, and study the scripture—even during the busiest farming season.”
The video describes Cha Deok Sun as a spy seeking to recruit other spies. “This is the typical definition of evangelism used in NK propaganda,” says Representative Foley.
The video says that eventually, Cha Deok Sun was reported by “a good and awakened North Korean citizen.” But as Representative Foley notes, “The identity of that ‘good and awakened citizen has been lost forever, but the Lord made sure that story of Cha Deok Sun would not be lost but would be preserved by the persecutors who martyred her.”
Individuals interested in learning more about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s North Korean ministry can visit https://vomkorea.com/en/northkorea/.