I’ve just finished reading The Emperor Far Away, a 2014 book by David Eimer, a British journalist, in which he describes his travels around the borderlands of China. Most of the book is about regions where there is next to no Christian presence (Muslim Uighurs in the west, Buddhists in the south). But the book became particularly interesting when Eimer turned his attention to the provinces in the north east, bordering North Korea.
I don’t think I’d previously known that there was a fairly large ethnic Korean minority in these areas – the Chaoxianzu (“North Korean race”). Apparently the ancestors of these people moved to China first in response to famines in northern Korean in the 1860s, and again following the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1910. The Koreans appear to be among the best treated of China’s ethnic minorities – for example, some government funded schools teach in Korean.
The choice between China and North Korea over the last few decades has been a tough one. It is a little hard to believe now, but apparently until the 1980s material living standards in North Korea were better than those in China, so deeply destructive were the early decades of Communist Party rule. And if the famines in North Korea caused the deaths of huge numbers, the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s was perhaps the most costly act of depraved indifference by any government ever. Tens of millions starved to death, while China’s government exported what little grain it had.
These days, North Korea is kept going by China, concerned about what might happen when the regime collapses, and perhaps about the risk of a US-ally right on its border. China now clearly has the edge materially – failed middle income state that it is by most east Asian standards. Neither China nor North Korea is exactly welcoming of Christian belief. The Chinese Communist Party regards religious practice and belief as inconsistent with party membership, but in fact the gospel has flourished and it is generally reckoned that there are now at least as many practising Christians as members of the Party. Hudson Taylor and Matteo Ricci would give thanks to see how the seeds planted long ago have borne fruit. Many Christians still face either persecution or the temptations of compromise – belonging to a Party-approved neutered “church”. (Sad as the neutering is, I found it intensely moving to visit a very old church building, where worship services are held to this day, just down the road from my hotel, on my one visit to Beijing.)
The tragedy is North Korea. I was aware that 100 years ago Pyongyang had been known as the “Jerusalem of the east”, so fertile a ground had northern Korea been for the gospel. Kim Il-sung had been raised Presbyterian (late in his life he apparently still liked to play hymns), and his uncle was a pastor, but after the Korean war, the church buildings were burned down, and tens of thousands of Christians were imprisoned. These days, very few Christians are believed to survive – although five churches are maintained in Pynogyang, perhaps just for external appearances. North Korea must rank as practically the most antagonistic regime on earth to anything Christian, at least matching Saudi Arabia
And yet in this Korean area of China, Eimer finds many churches. Many more believers – perhaps the majority – worship in “house churches” – illegal gatherings as far as the government is concerned. Missionaries can’t get into China as missionaries, but Eimer also finds many South Korean Christians (a total estimated at around 5000) who have taken jobs in this northern province of China, to help strengthen the local church, to assist those who escape from North Korea, and to prepare for the day – surely not to be long delayed – when North Korea is once again open to the gospel. These days only the church in the United States sends out more missionaries than the South Korean church.
What can we do for the cause of the gospel in North Korea? Not much directly, but we can read, and pray, and carry in our hearts a burden for a land where the gospel has been so ruthlessly driven out. And we can thank God for those South Korea Christian brothers, and the brave ethnic Korean Christians in China, who witness to the gospel, sometimes at considerable personal sacrifice, with a longing to see their ethnic kin won back to Christ.
And perhaps we can openly complain when our governments cosy up to the government of China – which represses and persecutes the church in its own country, but supports and sustains the brutally repressive North Korean regime. To my shame, I have been a small part of that. In the last two years of my Reserve Bank career, I gave lectures to groups of high-flying Communist Party officials. They were part of a programme supported by the New Zealand and Australian government, at which the Prime Minister and other ministers spoke. One can rationalise involvement with talk of helping to show these Party officials how we (rather better) run the economy and the government. And yet I cannot avoid the sense that we were assisting to strengthen the repressive grip the Party has had on the country for almost 66 years now. And our fellow Christians are among those who pay the price. Would I have done the same for officials of the Soviet Communist Party or the Nazi Party. I hope not, but I can’t say so with any confidence. The world sucks us (me) in too easily.