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Korea – 70 Years later – Still Divided
August 21, 2015 by Open Doors in Asia
On August 15, 1945, the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel: Russia and Japan to temporarily administer the North, the USA to administer the South. Since this arbitrary division of Korea 70 years ago, the peninsula has developed into two very different halves.—one attempts to maintain a society that is “god-less,” the other has gained a reputation as “super-godly.”
The lasting legacy of the first Christian missionaries to the Korean peninsula in the 1800s could not look more different in North and South Korea. In the North is a regime that routinely jails, tortures and executes people for their faith, while the South has some of the largest churches in the world and sends out more missionaries than any nation except the US.
What was Korea like before it was divided? The rich Christian history of the North is a surprising, little-known fact. In the early 20th Century, Pyongyang was known as the “Jerusalem of the East” because there were so many churches crosses dotting the horizon.
Unlike today, the North was then generally more open and tolerant than the traditionally agricultural backwater of the South. With its position bordering the rest of the continent, it developed more rapidly due to commercial and cultural exchange with China and Manchuria. The young American missionaries who came in the 1880s were widely successful in their three-pronged approach of evangelism, education and medicine. They built churches, schools and hospitals and used the recently translated Korean Bible to share the gospel. Decades of missionary work culminated in the Great Pyongyang Revival of 1907, with emphasis on public prayers of confession, including repentance for hatred of the Japanese, who had been occupying the city since 1904. In the wake of mass conversions, churches sprang up everywhere.
However, Japan’s formal rule from 1910-1945 was a devastating time for Koreans; Buddhist and Confucian traditions suffered, along with the church. After the end of World War II and the partitioning in 1945, the new government in the North began aggressively attacking the church. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was officially established in 1948—ushering in the relentless persecution of Christianity and its elimination from the national psyche under the leadership of Kim Il Sung. Many Christians escaped the communist utopia during the early years of the regime and fled to South Korea.
Following the Korean War (1950-53), all forms of public Christian worship were banned in North Korea and surviving Christians had to take their belief “underground.”
Today, North Korea is atheistic and totalitarian, but missionary activity is still alive along the northeastern border with China. According to political scientist Andrei Lankov the regime is “deadly afraid of Christianity,” terrified that it could spread as it has in South Korea and become an alternative power source and ideology. As testimonial evidence points to the steady growth of underground “catacomb” churches with Christians ready to face torture, prison camps and execution, perhaps these fears are not unfounded.
In South Korea today, about a third of the population is Christian. This phenomenal growth (from just 2% before the Korean War) can be explained partly by social and economic factors. The period of the 1950s immediately following the war held dark days for many South Koreans. There was an intense national urgency to rebuild the devastated country and the Protestant work ethic appeared to encourage hard work as a way toward achieving worldly success. Some also saw business success as a sign of God’s blessing. Though the church’s association with the US appealed to many Koreans striving for modernity, its dramatic growth was also authentically spiritual.
Prior to the war—throughout the Japanese occupation and during times of persecution—many Christians had ascended the mountains around Seoul in the hours before dawn to pray and intercede for their country. They became known as Prayer Mountains and the practice continues to this day at mountain top retreat centers built for that purpose. Korean prayer is intense, often involving many voices praying out loud, simultaneously. Many churches still have early morning prayers before the day begins, as well as overnight prayers on Friday nights. In the 1990s, however, the phenomenal church growth rates began to slow. Some analysts point to complacency with rising living standards, as well as scandal and bickering in some of the larger churches, as reasons for the decline. The prevalent attitude of resilience and hard work among Koreans, coupled with their desire for community, has helped to ensure that the church today remains very strong.
Source: World Watch Monitor
Heavenly Father, we lift before Your throne of grace today the people of Korea, both North and South. We pray for believers in the North who worship in much isolation and in fear of discovery. Many are in prison for their faith, and we pray for their protection and encouragement that their faith may remain firm, and that they may know Your incomprehensible peace. We give thanks for the clear evidence that Christ is building His church in North Korea and the promise that “the powers of hell will not conquer it.” Thank You, too, for Your strong church in South Korea, a church that not only spreads the gospel within her own borders but sends out missionaries to other nations as well that Your gospel might be spread abroad to all nations and tongues. Protect her, Father, against complacency; continue to strengthen her and build her up. And, as she cries out on behalf of her brothers in the North, grant her opportunities to encourage them with Bibles and their prayers; that one day there might be a united Korea freely bringing glory to You, the King of kings and Lord of lords! In the Name of Jesus who rules over all nations, Amen.