Christmas is a special time to reflect on the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. But in North Korea, generally Christmas is not known, and Jesus is not known. There are only a handful of people that have heard of Jesus and even less who are followers of Christ.
The only deities are Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. People must honour only them and bow down to their portraits. Christmas just doesn’t exist in North Korea…or does it? The following stories are based on true persons and situations among North Koreans in China.
Pil-Soo picks up the phone and goes through the motions of dialing his family in North Korea; but stops short before pressing the call button. Calling is too dangerous so they must call him. It is Christmas morning and Pil-Soo reads from his Bible while eating a breakfast of cold noodles. In the Gospel according to Matthew, he reaches the murder of the children in Bethlehem and he sees images of children’s corpses in his home city in North Korea; children who succumbed to malnutrition and disease. Later he walks to church and greets other worshippers with a polite “Annyung-hae-seo” and sits alone in the back. When Pastor Choi enters, he nods to his North Korean friend. Except for Choi, nobody in this Chinese-Korean church knows anything about Pil-Soo’s background. As Pil-Soo sits in the pew he longs for the day that his aged father and mother can join him. Perhaps next year?
After the service Pil-Soo quickly exits skipping the Christmas meal. Although he is fond of the Christians in this congregation, he cannot speak openly about his past. Since social contacts are risky, he instead will spend Christmas day alone hoping that maybe his parents will call.
Eun-Yeong now lives cross the river in a North Korean prison. She, too, met her Savior in China, but has since been forcibly returned to North Korea. For Eun-Yeong celebrating Christmas day in a prison cell is a private matter. As she reflects her memory flashes to the grave of her first husband and utters a silent prayer. Her mind next relives crossing the river to China, the kidnapping by human traffickers, a forced marriage to a Chinese alcoholic, the birth of three children, the drowning accident that killed her 12-year-old daughter, the sudden appearance of her now grown up, North Korean daughter in China, and finally her own arrest. She squeezes her eyes even tighter and tries to focus on beautiful memories, like the moment she finally started to understand the Bible, and the conversations she had with her children about Jesus Christ. She knows that one day in heaven she will sit with them at one table.
This morning she commits these memories and her life to Jesus, who sustains her through all of her troubles. The other prisoners are awake now in a flurry of activity, but for Eun-Yeong, this moment between waking up and getting out of bed is for her and the Lord God. In that short moment she is free and holds her children in her arms. Maybe she will never see them again in this life, but one thing the guards cannot take away is her faith in the Son of Man who came to save the world. He will wipe away all the tears from her eyes.
North Korea is the number one country on the Open Doors World Watch List of countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. If a person’s faith in Christ is discovered they are either imprisoned, along with their family members, or put to death. Nowhere in the world is Christian persecution so fierce. Christians have to hide their faith; Christian parents can’t even share their beliefs with their children until they are old enough to understand the dangers. Owning a Bible could get you killed, or sent to a harsh labor camp. In 2010 hundreds of Christians were arrested. Some were murdered, others sentenced to labor camps. Despite the risks, the church is growing. There were an estimated 400,000 believers in North Korea at the end of 2010.
Father, we pray for Eun-Yeong and Pil-Soo and the many North Koreans who have found You in China. We pray for their protection and we pray for those who, like Eun-Yeong, have been returned and are in prison. We ask You to be their presence and comfort. And we pray for people all over North Korea who are cold and hungry, victims of famine and of a harsh regime. Soften the hearts of the leaders that they might turn to You. Bring about the light of Christ in this dark land that countless people might praise Your name. In the name of Jesus who protects and sustains us in times of trouble. Amen