A letter from Simon Park in Korea
March 2012 - North Korea Report #7
We were hoping to attend Sunday services at several churches around Pyongyang. We were able to do that only one Sunday, at Chilgol Church located near Kim Il Sung’s birthplace. According to an unverified story, Kim Il Sung’s mother (Kang Ban Suk) used to attend this church and she had had quite a bit of influence on Kim Il Sung. The story continues that initially Kim Il Sung was favorably disposed to Christianity until his ideology could not afford to have any “competition.”
We heard about Bongsu Church, which was rebuilt with the donations from South Korean churches and was the church visited most often by foreign visitors. Instead, we went to the Chilgol Church—I do not know whether it was the choice of our side or was assigned to us. Six of us went to the church for the 10 o’clock service on Sunday morning of December 4. It was a very cold morning and two lady elders of the church waiting for us at the outside entrance welcomed us.
As we entered the smallish sanctuary, we found the members of the congregation and the choir already seated. We thought we might have arrived late, but found it was five minutes to 10. The first four rows of the pews on the right side were reserved for foreign visitors. A big surprise to us was that Sue Kinsler, recently retired from Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission service, was visiting as the chair of the newly formed Green Tree Foundation, together with the Executive Director. Behind us sat members of the Nigerian Embassy, and some visiting American missionaries from the past were seated on the fourth row.
The service was in a very “Presbyterian” order of worship. The pastor preached from John 14, exhorting people to keep hope alive and live as God’s people until the return of Jesus. Although there was a passing remark on the wrongness of the Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and South Korea, it was a sermon that could have been delivered anywhere without much controversy. A very unusual part, for us, were very loud “Amen” responses from the congregation throughout the service; a man’s voice stood out as he was shouting! Although the demand must not be very large, the hymnals and Bibles were printed in Korean.
There were anthems by the choir, an offertory solo, and a voice ensemble. It was obvious the members of the choir were professionally trained musicians. The service ended in exactly one hour. Then the greetings by the visitors went on for an hour. We were surprised again when Rev. Insik Kim, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s longtime coordinator for Asia who retired three years ago, came to the pulpit and greeted the congregation. It would have been a surprise to see both Sue and Insik in the same worship service in South Korea or in the States, but in North Korea! With others, the greetings lasted another 30 minutes. Then we went outside to greet the leaders and took some photos. During the time we were in the church, our minders and the driver had to wait in the cold car outside. The warmth inside would have been a good incentive for them to join in the service, but they did not.
While we greeted each other and took photos, the pastor (Rev. Whang MinWoo) and four leaders of the Chilgol Church joined the visitors for fellowship and to bid us journey mercies; the members of the church stayed inside, waiting until our departure.
We all had to go back to our respective locations with our minders, according to the schedule for each group. We could not invite others to the PUST campus since we did not know whether it was possible.
We are also told that there are house churches not exposed to the outside. It is not surprising that there would be these communities of faith, as they existed in China during the Mao’s rule. After all, Pyongyang was known as the Jerusalem of Asia for its role in bringing and nurturing Christianity in Korea and beyond.
We heard conflicting opinions about whether the Christian churches sanctioned by the government are real or just for show. We couldn’t tell you for certain. We want to believe that they are real Christians living their faith in God and Christ within the bounds of their society. The state, however, does not want uncontrolled contact between the North Korean Christians and us. Our role is not to convert North Koreans into Christians but to share Christ’s love with them without our own designs. God will do the necessary in God’s time and way.
May God bless all his children, wherever they may be.
Simon & Haejung
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 196