The West is keenly aware of the terrible Nazi persecution of the Jews, but the story of Communist persecution of the Christians in Korea and mainland China remains to be told.
Glimpses of terror for North Korean Christians are given in the following interview with Dr. Kyung Chik Han, minister of famed Young Nak Presbyterian Church in Seoul. Founded in 1945 by refugees who fled the Communists in North Korea, where they hoped to return “after reunification,” this church today has a daily morning prayer meeting at 5 a.m. Its two Sunday morning services and its Sunday evening service are each attended by more than 2000 worshipers.
Dr. Kyung Chik Han ministered for 10 years on the Yalu River frontier. Born of Confucian parents, he had attended a small Presbyterian church school, and there made a Christian confession. He attended Soong Sil Presbyterian College (oldest in Korea); Emporia (Kansas) College; and Princeton Theological Seminary (where he studied under Professors J. Gresham Machen and Oswald T. Allis).—ED.
DR. HENRY: Dr. Han, what was the Christian strength in Korea at the end of World War II?
DR. HAN: The Christian community in Korea numbered a half million persons, two-thirds of them in North Korea. In the Yalu River frontier city of Sin Wiju, (pop. 130,000) one-fourth of the inhabitants were Christians.
DR. HENRY: Japanese authorities asked a small group of Christian leaders (of whom you were one) to organize the community and to maintain order until UN forces arrived. Is this so?
DR. HAN: Yes. That’s why we organized the new city council of Sin Wiju (the Yalu River frontier city). The late Ha Yung Youn, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, and I were vice chairmen of the new government. A Presbyterian layman was chairman. Ha Yung Youn’s church was then the largest in all Korea; it had 2200 worshipers.
DR. HENRY: You never expected, of course, that Russian Communists would arrive to stay, but rather that American forces would come in as representatives of the United Nations.
DR. HAN: That is right. When we first had the UN liberation, every church was filled and overflowing. And I think that if the American forces had come into North Korea instead of the Communists, the whole of North Korea would have become Christian, maybe.
DR. HENRY: So you all gave a great welcome to the Russians as representatives of the UN forces. Only 10 days later did you learn, I am told, that two forces would occupy a “temporarily divided” Korea—as you thought it would be at that time. When the Russian forces came into the city, what were the consequences for the Christian leaders who had been given the responsibility of organizing and restoring order?
DR. HAN: As soon as the Russians came in they began to recognize our city council, and they put Christian citizens and ministers out of the council and they changed many other members. They put in Communists in order to dominate the council.
DR. HENRY: How long was it before they organized the Communist party as such?
DR. HAN: As soon as they reorganized the council they organized the Communist party also.
DR. HENRY: Now what did the people as a whole do, inasmuch as so large a percentage of them were Christians?
DR. HAN: In those days we really didn’t know there were any Communists in the city. I think they brought some farmers from some outlying farms and they just more or less made Communists out of the tenants. They told the tenants that ‘if you join our Communistic party the land will belong to you’ and through some such word made a lot of ‘trick’ Communists out of them.
DR. HENRY: What did the people of the city do when the Communists organized their Communist party?
DR. HAN: Most of the leaders organized the democratic party to fight against this new movement which was contrary to the will of the people.
DR. HENRY: You said about 25 per cent of the people of the city were Christians. Did the Christians actively co-operate in this democratic party or take the leadership in it?
DR. HAN: Yes, Christians took leadership, and all co-operated—not only Christians but many non-Christians also.
DR. HENRY: Then how long was it before the Communists began to take active measures against this party?
DR. HAN: As soon as the Communists had organized, their Communist party dominated all city affairs and also provincial affairs and began to persecute all those leaders not in favor of communism. One morning they began to round up the leaders who opposed Communism.
DR. HENRY: What form did this persecution take?
DR. HAN: They interfered at all kinds of meetings. They made it impossible for those in favor of democracy to meet, and then they began to arrest the leaders of the opposition party. They would throw them in prison and leave them there on nebulous charges.
Fleeing the Oppressors
DR. HENRY: Were you also in jeopardy?
DR. HAN: Both Mr. Youn and I were no longer pastors. If we had been pastors in those days we couldn’t have escaped. I suppose we would have been arrested. One day in October, 1945, we learned that they were also planning to arrest Pastor Youn and myself. So we hurriedly had to leave our home and we rode by truck for about 50 miles down south, and then we took a train. When we came near to the separation line (38th parallel) we walked 50 miles over mountain paths through the night. That’s how we reached South Korea.
DR. HENRY: Did pressures mount against the Christians who remained behind in North Korea?
DR. HAN: When the Communists started to come in they proclaimed publicly that complete freedom of religion would be given the people. But they really didn’t keep their promise. Through many indirect ways they interfered with the Christian Church.
DR. HENRY: What were some indirect ways?
DR. HAN: Well, for instance, they would hold all kinds of meetings on Sundays that would interfere with church worship. Then they began to control the schools. They usually held meetings for the children so the children couldn’t come to Sunday school. And then later, of course, they almost systematically put Christians and democratic leaders out of jobs, especially from government offices. And that way gradually they shaped such conditions so that anyone opposing communism simply could not live in North Korea.
DR. HENRY: When did the Communists first show open violence and hostility toward the Christians—imprisoning them, and so on?
DR. HAN: Well, I think the persecution began about October of that year.
DR. HENRY: Already at about the time you left?
DR. HAN: Yes. Then later they rounded up practically all the leaders—I mean leaders in religious circles, leaders in the business world, and leaders in society.
DR. HENRY: All who resisted communism on Christian principles?
DR. HAN: Not only on Christian principles, but also on democratic principles. I mean, even non-Christian leaders were rounded up. And then they also began to hold those people who belonged, as they called it, to “the bourgeoisie.” For instance, usually business leaders who had fine homes were ordered to leave the home within two or three days. And landlords who owned land were sometimes ordered to get out within 24 hours. And the purge—the real crisis—began in late 1945. These leaders who lost their homes and who lost their business and did not know where to turn became refugees and began to move down from North to South, leaving everything behind.
DR. HENRY: What specifically happened to the Christians in Sin Wiju?
Persecution and Vitality
DR. HAN: In spite of persecution most Christian leaders remained in their position until they were imprisoned and sent elsewhere. Most pastors who had a church remained even if they knew what was coming. But some elders and most leaders, realizing that they couldn’t live in North Korea any more, just felt that they had to escape. Such people tried to come down to South Korea. Some succeeded and some did not. In spite of Communist persecution the churches in North Korea were going strong. They did fine until the Communist war. Then the Communists began to invade South Korea, and they arrested practically all of the pastors.
DR. HENRY: With the invasion of South Korea by the Communists, there seemed to be a systematic plan to get rid of the Christian leadership in North Korea?
DR. HAN: They arrested the Christian ministers and usually sent them off to coal mines and such places for hard labor.
DR. HENRY: Did they have a trial of any sort, or were they just removed overnight, or what happened?
DR. HAN: They just take you—they take you and nobody knows where you have gone, and no information whatsoever is given the family. In North Korea even today, if anyone disappears he just disappears; that’s all. Nobody knows what has happened with him.
DR. HENRY: What of the reports that many of the Christian leaders were summoned to a meeting by the Communists and that these Christian leaders vanished as a group?
DR. HAN: Yes, some such things happened in a good many places, I think. Now for instance, as I understand it, when the Communists temporarily occupied Seoul, during 1950, they called some kind of meeting for all Christian leaders. When they all got together in a certain place, they were ordered to ride in trucks and then taken some place.
DR. HENRY: How many leaders were there?
DR. HAN: Well, during the Communist occupation in 1950, during that summer, something over 500 Christian leaders were taken that way.
DR. HENRY: What was ever heard from them?
DR. HAN: We have never heard what happened with them.
DR. HENRY: Who were these leaders? Pastors and elders, and who else?
DR. HAN: Mostly pastors and elders. For instance, among them there was Bishop Yusun Kim who was bishop of the whole Korean Methodist church. Then there was Dr. Nankoong, who used to be the general secretary of the Korean National Council.
DR. HENRY: What do the Christians think the Communists did with these Christian leaders whom they removed?
DR. HAN: We do not know exactly. We believe that they were held in North Korea somewhere.
DR. HENRY: You think they are still alive?
DR. HAN: Yes, we believe that most would be alive. The most tragic thing that happened was, of course, when the United Nations forces marched up to North Korea. As you know, the Communists were defeated by MacArthur’s forces. The United Nations forces (UN soldiers and Korean national soldiers) were marching up to North Korea, so the Communists had to retreat. At that time, in many places, these retreating Communists would gather together Christian leaders and also civic leaders, and many cases of massacre happened. They would be gathered and shot down with machine guns.
DR. HENRY: Before General Mac-Arthur’s forces arrived, the Communists moved to destroy the Christian and civic leaders?
DR. HAN: Yes. In many places throughout all North Korea such massacres happened.
DR. HENRY: Why did they do this?
DR. HAN: That’s the way of a Communist.
DR. HENRY: Dr. Han, you managed to escape from North Korea. Now we want to learn some of your experiences in that process.
A Church Born in Prayer
DR. HAN: After I left, a good many young people followed me down to Seoul. We didn’t know what was happening and what was ahead of us. Everybody was lonesome, and naturally we got together for prayer meetings.
DR. HENRY: Did you go back to North Korea?
DR. HAN: No, except once. When the UN forces reoccupied Northern Korea, within a week I followed UN forces north. As soon as the way was open to go to North Korea, the churches in South Korea sent a deputation composed of Korean ministers and missionaries. And I think there were about 10 of us who went within a week of occupation to Pyongyang as a deputation from South Korea, in order to help those leaders who were in North Korea. When we got to Pyongyang many people who had been hiding under Communistic rule came out of their hiding places with long beards. We met many ministers who escaped death under Communistic rule. We had a great meeting, the one Sunday we stayed there. Everybody had some story to tell. It was a great experience which we can never forget.
DR. HENRY: What did these ministers say? How long had they been in hiding and what had they been doing?
DR. HAN: Some a few years; everyone was in hiding at least more than three or four months. They were the ones who escaped the Communist regime. And so the church was reopened, we had a big meeting with lots of people. We had a big Sunday.
DR. HENRY: Was this just in Pyongyang or was it duplicated in other places in North Korea?
DR. HAN: Many places. In fact, our delegation was planning to go further into North Korea. My object, of course, was to go to Sin Wiju, my old town. So in Pyongyang we planned to go further north. But at that time we were advised by UN authorities not to proceed to North Korea because the Chinese Communists were crossing the Yalu River and invading. Since they advised us not to proceed further from Pyongyang, we had to return to South Korea.
DR. HENRY: What did you think then of the Christians who still remained in North Korea, as the Chinese Communists pressed into North Korea?
Traveling 500 Miles on Foot
DR. HAN: At first we thought that these Chinese Communists could be resisted and could be driven out of the country. But they just came on, masses of soldiers, and at that time I suppose the UN authorities thought it best to retreat. And then, as you know, President Truman didn’t allow General MacArthur to bomb Manchuria. And so he had to fight only south of the Yalu River. In such a case, one can’t maintain an army in North Korea. So General MacArthur had to withdraw the UN forces from North Korea. And that, of course, gave all the people of North Korea a great scare, because they were so happy to welcome UN forces. Now they were bewildered. And when they realized that the Communists were coming back, they knew they couldn’t live under a Communist regime anymore. They tried to follow the retreating UN forces down to South Korea, most of them by walking. It was a very severe winter. Some of them had to walk 500 miles to reach South Korea, and many of them did.
DR. HENRY: Were you with a company of people who came to South Korea this way?
DR. HAN: No, we returned to Seoul rather early, while the UN forces were holding against the Communists. So we came back safely by mission jeep. But those who were following UN forces had to walk down.
DR. HENRY: Did you have great hardship? Were some lost on the way?
DR. HAN: Yes. One tragic thing was that the UN air force simply couldn’t distinguish whether they were infiltrating Chinese Communists or whether they were Korean refugees. So a good many of them were bombed on the way by UN forces.
DR. HENRY: Did some also die from the hardships of the trip?
DR. HAN: Yes. Later, when the Communists regained North Korea, there was also much loss of life as refugees sought to cross the 38th parallel. They had to escape Communist guards. They had to cross over by night. Some had to ride on small boats along the seashore. When they were found out by Communist guards, sometimes they lost their lives, and families got separated. That’s how we had so many orphans along the 38th parallel. And that’s how our orphanage was organized—to take care of these children coming to Seoul and not knowing where to go. Since our church was known as a refugee church, they would come to our church for help.
DR. HENRY: I understand that as some Christians died along the way from the rigors of the journey, they would commit their children to other members of their congregation to take care of them.
DR. HAN: Yes. There were many such cases. They usually would come down in groups. When they were found out by Communists and when shooting started, everybody just had to take care of himself as best he could. Then they got separated one from another.
DR. HENRY: Can you tell us about how many of the Christians fled the Communist persecutions and escaped from North Korea to South Korea? About how many remained, and what is the condition of the Christian witness in North Korea today?
DR. HAN: Of course, we have no exact figure; that is impossible. We wonder, maybe about 100,000 Christians might have come down from the North. But that means still the vast majority are still remaining in North Korea. But the tragic thing is after this Communist war they could not have open services in North Korea. And the Christian movement went underground entirely. So we have no open church whatever in North Korea. For 10 years many Christians, hiding in the different places and meeting in houses and in secret meetings, have prayed and cried to our Lord for the deliverance throughout North Korea.
A Land without Churches
DR. HENRY: There is not a single church, you say—so no pastors, no missionaries are at work there?
DR. HAN: That is right.
DR. HENRY: What lesson ought the events in North Korea teach the Christian community around the world about the attitude of communism toward the Christian religion?
DR. HAN: Well, we must tell to all Christians who are living in the free world that as long as Communists remain in power in any country, Christian activities will be almost impossible. That does not mean that you can’t have Christian faith. But as far as organized Christian witness is concerned, that would be almost impossible, unless the church is ready to compromise in some way to get along with the Communist regime—which is rather very hard for Christian conscience.
Prayer for the Brethren
DR. HENRY: What is the prayer of the Christian community in South Korea for the Christian community in North Korea?
DR. HAN: We always pray for our brethren who are remaining in North Korea, that God will strengthen them and give them courage to live through these dark days. But at the same time, we also pray for such a time when the Communists will be driven out of North Korea so that North Korea might be Christianized. We believe such a time will come.
DR. HENRY: What is the situation now in South Korea from a Christian stand-point?
DR. HAN: Since the liberation of Korea from the Japanese dominion, the Christian church has been greatly strengthened throughout South Korea. Such strengthening came from many sources. One of the main sources was the Christian refugees from North Korea. Wherever these Christian refugees came down from North Korea, the Gospel came with them. And through these refugees many new churches have been founded throughout South Korea, and many new converts made through them, because these refugees literally became evangelists wherever they went. So today you will find a large Christian community. It is said that there are about 2 million Christians in South Korea today—that means almost seven or eight per cent of the population in South Korea.
DR. HENRY: Dr. Han, you were born shortly after the turn of the century, and you are living through the clash between Christianity and communism. What do you personally expect as you look into the future of this generation with its terrible struggle between Christianity and the non-Christian faiths?
DR. HAN: I think a very hard, severe struggle is ahead of us. But I also firmly believe the day will come for the final victory of Christ. Until such a day comes, we Christians should fight the good fight of faith and give everything we have for the cause of Christ. There is always a sound rule in a time of trouble: preach the Gospel and cheer up.
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