North Korea: Faith remains alive

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NORTH KOREA — In college, Yong* learned the questions to ask when meeting a foreigner: "What is your name? What do you do for a living? What is your religion?"

He asks questions to get a glimpse of life beyond the borders of North Korea, one of the world's most isolated countries.

Yong asks tourists one more question: "Do you believe in God?"

The young father has never seen a Hollywood movie, talked on a cell phone or surfed the Internet. Working at a government-assigned job, he goes home to the three-bedroom apartment he shares with his parents, brother, wife and child.

He doesn't own a car. To get to work he stands in a queue with fellow North Koreans waiting for an old-fashioned electric bus.

He wears a portrait of his country's "eternal leader" Kim Il Sung pinned over his heart, a sign of allegiance to a man dead for 13 years. In many ways, Kim still reigns over the land Yong repeatedly refers to as "my country."

Yet, even while the portrait of the "father among the Koreans" covers his heart, proof of the true Father's work in Yong's heart is evident from his questions and curiosity.

One believer says of questions like the ones Yong is asking: "Our Great Leader is really working there, but it is very much underground. My hope is that the Light would shine in that dark place and the people would have an opportunity to hear a different message than what's been put upon them."

Stories trickle out of the reclusive country of North Korean Christians worshipping quietly in homes or in small gatherings at restaurants, while hiding Bibles to avoid internment in gulags (labor camps). The number of Christians is unknown among the country's 20 million people.

Many of those believers are the legacy of a revival that dates back to 1907. Thousands of Koreans gave their lives to Christ during the revival, which has been compared to Pentecost in the Book of Acts. It broke out in the capital city, P'yongyang, nicknamed the "Jerusalem of the East" at the time.

During the Korean War in the early 1950s, thousands of Koreans fled the Soviet-controlled North for the South. When a cease-fire was declared in 1953, a line drawn along the 38th parallel separated millions of Koreans from family members. Christians fleeing south formed the foundation for South Korea's dynamic church movement of today. Those who remained in the North went underground. Many died for their faith.

As socialism took hold in North Korea, so did Kim Il Sung, who became both their leader and their god.

Homages to Kim Il Sung are everywhere. Evidence of the "eternal leader" is stamped on every corner of the communist state now led by his son, Kim Jong Il.

Kim's effigy is on a painting hanging above the gray, cement P'yongyang airport. It rises above the city on Mansu Hill as a 65-foot bronze statue, arm outstretched, welcoming Koreans who still honor him with flowers and bows. Under his reign and that of his son, he is president forever, even in death.

To North Koreans, the ideals Kim Il Sung set forth also live on.

However, this once-prosperous land is feeling the effects of a sluggish economy and a series of natural disasters, including floods and drought. Families in the capital city have six to eight hours of electricity a day and sometimes go without running water.

In addition to clinging to the hope of "Juche" — Kim's religion of self-reliance — North Koreans also are bound together by a common enemy — America.

North Korea maintains the fourth-largest army in the world in a constant state of readiness. World War II-style propaganda billboards depict a fist smashing into North America.

North Koreans think of Americans as the "imperialists" who caused the division between North and South.

In contrast, most Americans rarely give North Korea much thought. Some know about its nuclear interests. Others know it only as one of the nations President Bush targeted in a 2002 speech.

Christians with a heart for Koreans hope Americans will see past these stereotypes and view North Koreans as a people in need of Christ.

Koreans like Yong are beginning to question if there is a true God beyond the man they worship. They seek answers that could lead to prison or death. As they turn toward God, even with the threat of persecution, some believers pray the door will open just a little so the people can accept Christ without dire consequences.

Name changed for security reasons.


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