Gahee-Dong Catholic Church, Seoul.
Gahee-Dong Catholic Church, Seoul.Flickr / CC / Republic of Korea

On 15 August 1945 the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel: Russia and Japan to temporarily administer the North, the USA to administer the South. This arbitrary division of Korea exactly 70 years ago has resulted in the very different halves of the peninsula we see today – one “god-less”, the other (one could say) “super-godly”.

The legacy of the first Christian missionaries in the 1800s could not look more different in North and South Korea. In the North is a regime which 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 anywhere except the US.

But what of Korea before it was divided? The rich Christian history of the North is a surprising fact. In the early 20th Century Pyongyang came to be known as the “Jerusalem of the East”, with so many church crosses dotting the horizon.

Unlike today, the North was always more open and tolerant than the traditionally agricultural backwater of the South. With its position bordering the rest of the continent, it was the place for commercial and cultural exchange with China and Manchuria. The young American missionaries who came in the 1880s found success using a three-pronged approach of evangelism, education and medicine. They built churches, schools and hospitals and used the recently translated Korean Bible. 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. Mass conversion meant churches sprouted up everywhere.

However Japan’s formal rule from 1910-1945 was a traumatic time; Buddhist and Confucian traditions suffered, along with the Church. After the end of the Second World War and partitioning in 1945, the North began attacking the Church. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was officially established in 1948 – and thus began the steady persecution and elimination of Christianity from the national psyche under the leadership of Kim Il Sung. Many Christians at this time escaped the Stalinist utopia and fled to South Korea.

Following the Korean War (1950-53), any form of public Christian worship was banned and surviving Christians had to take their belief “underground”.

North Korea is today atheistic and totalitarian, but missionary activity is still alive and well along the north-east Chinese border. According to Andrei Lankov, a political scientist, the regime is “deadly afraid of Christianity”, fearing it could spread as it has in South Korea and become an alternative power source and ideology. As testimonial evidence points to the growth of underground “catacomb” churches with Christians ready to face torture, prison camps and execution, perhaps it should be.

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 1950s were dark days, following that war. There was a sense of national emergency to rebuild the country and the Protestant work ethic appeared to encourage hard work as a way towards achieving worldly success. Some also saw this as a sign of God’s blessing. The Church’s association with the US appealed to Korea’s striving for modernity, but its growth was also authentically spiritual.

Prior to the war – under 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, but now at purpose-built retreat centres. Korean prayer is intense, often with many voices out loud, simultaneously. Many churches still have early morning prayer before the day begins, as well as overnight prayer on a Friday night.

However, in the 1990s church growth began to slow. Some analysts point to complacency with rising living standards, and also to scandal and bickering in some of the larger churches, although the Koreans’ attitude of resilience and hard work, coupled with their desire for community, means the Church today remains very strong.