In 1988, North Korean authorities suddenly decided to build a Catholic and a Protestant church in Pyongyang. North Korean refugees say that many Pyongyangites were shocked one day when they saw a building in the neighborhood that looked remarkably like a church (from propaganda pictures), with a cross atop its spire. For decades, North Koreans had been told that such places could possibly be only dens of spies and sadistic butchers (their reaction was perhaps similar to the average D.C. resident if they found a big al-Qaeda recruiting center in their neighborhood, complete with a large neon sign).
At present, there are four officially tolerated churches in Pyongyang (two Protestant, one Catholic and one Orthodox). Opinions are divided on how authentic these activities are. In any case, these political shows in Pyongyang should not distract us from the real revival of North Korean Christianity, which quietly began in the late 1990s in the Sino-North Korean borderlands. In the late 1990s, many North Koreans fled to China trying to escape a disastrous famine in their country. In 1998-99, the number of such refugees peaked at around 200,000.
Most of them established good contacts with ethnic Koreans in China. By that time, many Korean-Chinese had been converted to Christianity – which is increasingly seen worldwide as the major religion of the Korean diaspora. Thus, refugees came into contact with South Korean missionaries and/or their ethnic Korean converts, and many of them were converted. It helped that Korean churches in China were perhaps the only institutions that were ready to provide the refugees with assistance and a modicum of protection. Experienced refugees told novices that in the most desperate situation, when all else fails, they should look for a church.
Churches were also very involved with a kind of underground railway that helped North Korean refugees in China to move South. Inside South Korea, church communities are the major institution that provides otherwise generally neglected North Korean refugees with support and protection. One should not therefore be surprised that a significant number of North Korean refugees convert to Christianity soon after their arrival to the South.
Meanwhile in China, from around 2000, many missionaries began to train refugees to spread Christianity in North Korea proper. Many converts were indeed willing to take the risk and go back to their native villages and towns with Korean-language Bibles and other literature. Thus, North Korea’s catacomb church was born.
The North Korean government does not look upon such developments favorably. If a returning refugee is known to be in contact with missionaries he/she will face far more severe punishment. For the average non-religious border crosser, the punishment is likely to be a few months of imprisonment, but known religious activist is likely to spend 10 years in prison.
Nonetheless, the risks do not deter either missionaries or converts.