A rare glimpse inside North Korea’s secret church

January 16, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

It’s not often we get to share stories from Christians who still live in North Korea. One mistake, and their identities could be exposed. For that reason, most of Open Doors’ accounts from North Korea feature believers who have escaped their home country and are now living outside it. But here, through the inspiring story of two faithful believers, our field offers us a rare peek inside North Korea’s secret church.

“Oh sweet Jesus, how long will I need to live like this?”

Young-Sik had no idea anyone had heard his whispered prayer. The young man knew that one wrong move could expose his Christian faith. One misplaced prayer—even working in the fields of the tiny village where he lived—could mean a life sentence in one of the prison camps he’d heard about all his life. Or even death.

But someone had heard the young man.

Byung-Chul, an older gentleman also working in the field, couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Did this young man just pray to Jesus? Could he be a secret believer?

Later, Byung-Chul would share with Young-Sik that his heart immediately leapt for joy that day.

Slowly and quietly, Byung-Chul approached Young-Sik, making sure no one was nearby to hear. When he was next to the young man, he gently grabbed Young-Sik’s wrist and drew a cross in the palm of his hand, hoping he’d recognize the invisible symbol. But Young-Sik didn’t understand.

“Get lost,” he said to the old man. Byung-Chul decided to wait for another opportunity to reveal himself as a “brother.”

The moment came sooner than expected. The next day, Young-sik went out again to the same field to forage for food. Byung-Chul spotted him again and walked nearby, deliberately humming a melody from an old hymn. Young-Sik vividly remembers that day.

Learn why North Korea is No. 1 on the 2020 World Watch List—for 19 consecutive years. 

“At first, I was so terrified!” he says. “I looked around the field to make sure no one was there. It was a hymn I learned years ago. I looked into the face of Byung-Chul, and his face was so hopeful. I could work out that he was humming the melody on purpose, for me to get his sign.”

They had to be careful, making sure no one was around. Cautiously, each man whispered a few details from their backgrounds for a few brief moments.

“The joy I experienced was amazing,” Young-Sik says. “It was such a spiritual moment for us. I had found a spiritual companion in this hellish place. Now there was hope.”

The older man invited his new brother-in-Christ to the next underground church meeting in the remote village—the first time Young-Sik had worshiped with other believers in years. “It was such a wonderful experience that proved how faithful Jesus is,” he says. “The sigh of depression was gone now, and hopeful prayers were on my lips.”

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Serving God’s people unconditionally

Young-Sik has vivid memories of how miserable life was before meeting Byung-Chul. The North Korean government had sent him to this remote area without his family (for no apparent reason known to him). He was alone, isolated.

He remembers how the days melted into the other, each one starting with a futile search in barren fields for something to eat; even bits of grain were hard to come by. If he was lucky, he’d find some corn kernels or vegetables like cucumbers. Foraging for food for the day could take hours. Then there was the regular workday all North Koreans are forced to do.

The winters were the worst. The frozen ground and freezing 20-degree temperatures only reinforced his loneliness. He also saw what the cold weather brought to those even less fortunate than him. Almost every morning, he went out to check on the kotjebis (homeless street children) a few blocks away from where he lived to show them some attention and perhaps share some food with them.

Young-Sik soon learned that Byung-Chul also had a heart to serve others. He was caring for  several families in the village. And he had medical skills, which he frequently used to help other families free of charge.

But Byung-Chul’s selfless actions didn’t go unquestioned. In a place where people fight for survival and neighbors spy on neighbors, that degree of charity is rare. Byung-Chul’s habits raised suspicion. Why would anyone help another without asking for something in return? In North Korea, when someone makes a drastic lifestyle change, like quitting smoking or drinking, or is serving others unconditionally, they are immediately scrutinized and suspected of becoming a Christian. Several times, the local police investigated Byung-Chul, yet never discovered his faith.

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Discipling secret believers

For decades, Byung-Chul carried out the role of spiritual leader to many; the underground church in this remote village grew, thanks to his evangelistic work, Young-Sik says. He served the Lord by serving others in this desolate place. Even when he had the unexpected opportunity to leave, Byung-Chull stayed.

“One day, a high official visited Byung-chul’s home,” Young-Sik says. “He asked him for his medical advice on the illness of someone of a higher position. Byung-chul thought this was a special opportunity from God. He quickly prayed to himself, went with the guard, and carefully treated the man. When he was well, the man offered Byung-Chul an opportunity to move to an inner city and have his identity level raised.”

But instead, Byung-Chul passed on the favor to one of the street children Young-Sik was caring for and helping to survive. A few weeks later, the child was sent to a large city for a much better education and better life.

“Byung-Chul was very convinced of his own calling,” Young-Sik says. “He would have never left the village and the fellow believers he took care of.”

As he and Young-Sik continued to meet together, the two men grew in their love for God and each other. And like the apostle Paul trained the younger Timothy, Byung-Chul discipled and trained Young-Sik to one day take his place as spiritual leader of the village.

That day recently came. Byung-Chul passed away peacefully. Before his death, he prayed a blessing over Young-Sik—a moment the young man will never forget. For him, it was when he realized that God had orchestrated his steps from day one to bring His gospel to people who needed to hear about Jesus.

“When he blessed me as the new leader, that was another joyful and spiritually significant moment,” Young-Sik says. “But it’s not just the role I’ve been given; it’s also my calling. I know that I will serve the Lord until my death in this village. This is where God placed me, not the government. Byung-Chul always said, ‘If I live here, I’ll live here. If I die, I will die here.’”

Young-Sik thinks back to the day he met Byung-Chul. How from barren fields, God used an almost inaudible prayer and two faithful men to grow and multiply a harvest he could never have fathomed. A secret church he would have never thought could come from seemingly God-forsaken circumstances.

As one of our Open Doors field team members says, “Christian life in North Korea is beyond anyone’s imagination, but we all pray that God is faithful.”

This story first appeared in the January/February issues of Open Doors’ bi-monthy Presence magazine. To subscribe or learn more about Presence, click here. 

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