North Korean ‘Stairway to Heaven’?

The May 4th article in the official Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) News Service is entitled “Stairway to Heaven.” It tells of a visit by a high-level PCUSA delegation to a “house church” in North Korea. The “stairway” in question is the four flights of steps up which the PCUSA officials had to climb to reach the Pyongyang apartment where the house church worshiped.

“Heaven” is the feeling experienced by the visiting delegation, including top executive Linda Valentine. “This small upper room immediately feels like God’s house … and a family reunion,” said Jerry Van Marter, author of the article and director of the PCUSA News Service.

Van Marter’s rapturous report would be a huge journalistic coup if this were indeed a “house church” in the usual sense—an unofficial, clandestine gathering of Christians inside the world’s most repressive state. But it was no such thing. This Pyongyang “house church” visited by the U.S. church delegation is affiliated with the Korean Christian Federation (KCF), controlled by North Korea’s communist government. The KCF is “the partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in this extremely isolated country,” Van Marter stated.

“Extremely isolated” is, to say the least, a very restrained description of the awful situation inside North Korea. But it’s the strongest language that the PCUSA News Service can muster. The rest of the article paints with bright hues. There are precisely “ten North Korean Christians gathered here for worship” in the Pyongyang apartment. They are polite and friendly, greeting the PCUSA officials “like some close relatives were coming.”

Each worshiper is provided with identical accessories: a straw mat, a Bible, and a soft-cover hymnal. “The time together slips easily and quickly into worship,” Van Marter writes, “with periods of prayer, the singing of at least three hymns—accompanied by the piano and an accordion—an offering, and lengthy readings from the Bible. The service concludes with the Lord’s Prayer.” Just the same way Presbyterians do it in Wichita, Kansas, or Charlotte, N.C.

The sermon, however, does seem rather political. A recently retired PCUSA mission coordinator preaches on “the inevitable reunification of North and South Korea”—coincidentally, a frequent theme in North Korean government propaganda. The house church leader responds in kind: “The PC(USA) is very well-known to Christian believers in Korea and is well-loved for your support of peaceful reunification.”

Parting is such sweet sorrow for North Korean hosts and U.S. guests alike: “Tears of joy at newfound Christian fellowship mix with tears of regret that our time together is so short. One thing is certain: God is in this place.”

There is not a raised eyebrow, not a single skeptical word in the entire PCUSA News article. The “house church” is taken at full face value. Figures provided by the government-controlled KCF are conveyed with complete credulity. “This ‘house church’ is one of 500 scattered throughout North Korea,” Van Marter informs readers. “House churches are now the life blood of the KCF, which claims about 15,000 members in the country.”

These round numbers look even stranger when one realizes that they have not changed much over North Korea’s history. A 2005 KCF report indicates that “[t]here are more than 10,000 Protestants and about 5,000 Catholics in our country,” with two Protestant churches and “500 other tabernacles.” In 1988, the Institute on Religion and Democracy reported that the KCF “has claimed to consist of some 10,000 Protestants in 500 house churches,” with 2,000 Catholics besides.

What are the chances that the North Korean Protestant population has remained stable at exactly 10,000 in precisely 500 house churches? The thought does not occur to the PCUSA News reporter. Nor does he betray any doubts when told by the KCF that, of some 14,000 Christian churches in North Korea in 1945, “all were destroyed in the Korean War.” Apparently, the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s had extremely advanced church-seeking missiles that eliminated all houses of worship, even in the smallest hamlets. The possibility that the late Kim Il Sung’s communist dictatorship might have shut down those churches is not raised.

Reputable human rights monitors paint a very different picture of religion in North Korea. “The government controls most aspects of daily life, including religious activity, which is allowed only in government-operated religious ‘federations’ or a small number of government-approved ‘house churches,’” according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Other public and private religious activity is prohibited. Anyone discovered engaging in clandestine religious activity is subject to discrimination, arrest, arbitrary detention, disappearance, torture, and public execution. A large number of religious believers are incarcerated in kwan-li-so [penal labor camps].”

The U.S. commission states that, although religious federations like the KCF may contain some sincere Christian believers, they “are led by political operatives whose goals are to substantiate the government’s policy of control over religious activity.” Worship services under the federations “are heavily monitored and the sites exist primarily as showpieces for foreign visitors.”

Nevertheless, credulous foreign visitors have often been taken in by the show. When Billy Graham visited in 1992, he praised Pyongyang as “one of the most beautiful modern cities I have ever had the privilege to visit.” In a glossy trip report, Graham described his meeting with the dictator Kim Il Sung as the “highlight” of his visit. “President Kim is highly revered by the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” according to Graham’s report, “and is often referred to as ‘The Great Leader’ by the nation’s citizens.” Graham’s report, like the recent PCUSA News report, made no mention of any religious persecution or human rights abuses in North Korea.

Some had hoped that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, Western church delegations would learn to be less trusting of dictators’ propaganda about supposed religious freedom. National Council of Churches General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell confessed in 1993: “We did not understand the depth of the suffering of Christians under communism. We failed to … cry out under the communist oppression.”

Unfortunately, it appears that the lesson has not been fully learned. There are still those who fail to cry out—who, as the biblical prophet Jeremiah once remarked, cry “’Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.”

  • Ron

    Billy Graham was not ignorant of the situation in the former Soviet Union many years ago, but was able to begin speaking about his faith there, which opened the door for many others to do the same. His message was the only one to get to the root cause of people's dissatisfaction and to offer them a remedy. Neither was he ignorant about the situation in North Korea.

    • Rifleman

      So did Ronald Reagan. Lines hated and derided by the dp/msm from several of his speeches, along with the news of those speeches reached the deepest darkest holes in the soviet union by Morse on the pipes.

      I don't know what Billy Graham said or did (The Pope helped organize and helped to physically support the Solidarity movement) about the soviets, but what President Reagan said and did brought the remedy to reality.

  • Rifleman

    When anyone speaks glowingly of commie h*llholes like the PRK, they help prop the regime up and perpetuate the horror.

    • faithiej

      I agree, Rifleman. It is a betrayal of the actual Christians, who are being persecuted, to go quiet and seem to give authenticity to such regimes.

  • USMCSniper

    In 1951, General Douglas MacArthur, World War II hero and commander of the UN forces in Korea, wanted complete victory in Korea and advocated attacking bases inside Communist China that were supporting forces in North Korea. But U.S. President Harry S. Truman and other leaders of the UN forces feared that attacking China would lead to a larger conflict, so 33,000 Americans were killed and 142, 000 wounded so here we are in 2010 59 years later, with a nuclear power headed by a madman. So much for Wars of Containment as a strategy.

  • Ghostwriter

    "Stairway to Heaven?" From what I've heard about life in North Korea,the title of that article should have been called "Stairway to Hades." That would have been far more accurate.

  • badaboo

    What some here dont seem to understand is that the N.Koreans dont give a rats ass about ANYTHING , if there is a valid christian movement in N.Korea , no matter how small or large , visiting christians from the outside , have no choice other than to speaak politely . Else these congregations , of which no one knows how or why they are tolerated , would simply be ERASED. There are no people with even half-a-brain ,who are unaware of the nature of this strange and cruel regime .
    Does anyone really think the N.Koreans could care less about world opinion, if they did in fact jail all the christians there ???
    So what can be expected from visiting christian organizations ?

    • Fabio P.Barbieri

      Yes, but DID Billy Graham have to visit the place? DID our Presbyterian friends have to follow him? If they had stayed out, and prayed for the North Koreans, they would not have found themselves in the disgraceful condition of shaking hands with murderers – and God would still have heard them. There may be reasons for an atheist to behave like this. There are none for a Christian.

  • Fabio P.Barbieri

    Joan Brown Campbell – of the National Council of Churches? Would that have anything to do with the World Council of Churches? The one which the Soviets, through the Orthodox Church, infiltrated from top to bottom and turned into a support machine for pet causes – and that has kept that bad habit even after the Soviet Empire had fallen?

  • Samurai Hit Woman

    The only thing wrong with the religion of the Left is everything, but its treatment of the truth is the most egregious.

    The truth when exposed to light holds up every time and this includes the truth revealed in the Bible. When the prophesies of Daniel, for instance, are laid on top of historical events they fit without the need of intervention.

    Furthermore, the Old Testament foretells the tribal God of the Jews would be known as the God of the whole earth, and that God would make the Jewish people jealous of the gentiles who would one day follow Him and be called His people, too. And sure enough the Jews denounce the “replacement” theology of the Christians while He has become known as much more than the tribal God of the Jews. The rest of the prophecy, God over the whole earth, is yet to come.

    The present falling away of Christians is also foretold by the Bible and the prophesies of the Christ as a suffering redeemer are strewn throughout the Old Testament and is unmistakably completed in the New. For instance the Old Testament predicts “with his stripes we are healed” and the New Testament tells us whose stripes would heal us.

    Also a flawed humanity, a fallen race such as ours is unmistakable in its need of redemption. That’s why God in His love has provided one in Christ.

    The Jews, however, of Jesus’ day, were expecting a conquering liberator who would set the Jewish people free of Rome. That’s why it was foretold God would lay a rock of offense; a stumbling stone in Zion that Christians believe foretells Jesus.

    Because Jesus, the stumbling stone, was a disappointment as a messiah setting people free of Rome, but would set people free of a deeper evil than Rome. An evil we cannot see, but one we experience all the same.

    Moreover Christ’s sacrifice is beyond our comprehension and must be accepted by faith because God, in His wisdom, confounds the wise and intelligent of this world and reaches out to the humble and meek.

    Further, the Bible has a consistency throughout although written by different people over centuries. Plus the Bible’s wisdom and advice promote good mental health and its perceptions give us insight. Insights such as the Bible saying that the powers that be are under the influence of the dark powers that we struggle against. Can we doubt it?

    Beyond this I sometimes know what I have no way of knowing through my senses alone. (But know through ESP or ESPN or something mysterious like that.)

    Anyway these are some of the truths that make this world understandable, cut through the darkness, and give me hope of a future. While the “gospel” that’s coming from the religious Left is simply stupid and unappealing.

    • badaboo

      …and this is why the Founding Fathers , determined Seperation of Church and State was the best way to go . THERE IS NO "GOSPEL of THe Left " , There is the Gospel of Jesus , and that's it , and it disqualifies all politics , including yours , and for obvious reasons . So much so that it got Jefferson kicked out of schoolbooks . Your politics has become your religion .
      As for the gospel being spread in N.Korea , and as one mentioned ,in the Soviet Union ? How easily all "good christians " forget the words of Jesus Himself , on 'how will they hear the gospel nunless someone takes the word to them " [paraphrased] What they do with that word after hearing it , is God's concern . not yours .