Every Christmas, Lou Gallo dresses up as Santa Claus in Busan, South Korea.
At the school for young North Korean defectors, Gallo and his wife, Lisa, bring gifts, teach children to decorate gingerbread houses, and talk about the real meaning of Christmas. One year, the Gallos organized a pageant and guided the students through the story of the Nativity, complete with angels, shepherds, wise men, barn animals, a pregnant virgin, and a God who became a baby.
Most people who have fled North Korea, however, have never heard of Christmas. The communist regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) does not allow Santa Claus or nativities. The North Korean government completely banned Christmas in 2016 and declared December 24 a day to commemorate Kim Jong-suk, Kim Jong-un’s grandmother.
If North Koreans do know about Christmas, they may perceive it as an American holiday. Some have had the chance to watch smuggled movies like Home Alone, said the Gallos, the founders of NK Missions. The couple, originally from Virginia, see the day of Jesus’ birth as a prime opportunity to share the gospel with those who know nothing about the good news of great joy.
It’s also a chance to help change North Korean mindsets about America, since they were taught from an early age to view the country as evil. “Wherever we can, we like to bring American culture to them,” Lou Gallo said.
So Gallo, as Santa, preaches about Christ. He tells them a bit about America and the practice of gift-giving and uses The Jesus Storybook Bible to illustrate how Jesus is the greatest gift of all.
But other ministry leaders and pastors in South Korea are less convinced they should use Christmas as an opportunity for outreach to the roughly 33,000 people who have defected from the North since 1998. Sung Eun David Choi, senior pastor of Global Mission Church in Seoul, said North Koreans who live in the South (also called “settlers”) don’t have deep resonances with the holiday that would draw them into conversations about its meaning.
They may, in fact, find it offensive. South Korean Christmas celebrations can appear consumeristic, according to Choi. And the religious aspects can seem bizarre and superstitious. They have been taught that Christianity is “a religion of the Devil” in the communist country.
Su Ok Choi, a university student who grew up in the North (no relation to Sung Eun David Choi), said she first thought Christmas was all about gifts. It wasn’t until she became a Christian that she saw it had more meaning.
“As I got to know God, I realized that that day was Jesus’ birthday. So now, when Christmas approaches, the first thing that comes to my mind is gratitude,” she said.
She tried telling that to her brother.
“So what?” he said. “What does that have to do with me?”
Global Mission Church organizes a party for settlers every year. It combines Christmas traditions with more familiar New Year’s celebrations. The church currently cares for about 100 North Koreans, including women and children who are separated from family. At the party, the North and South Koreans sing carols and hymns and also hold a talent show. The event allows them to “share their longing for family, along with a time for prayer,” Sung Eun David Choi said.
These efforts are part of the church’s vision for a reunified Korea, drawing from Ezekiel 37:17. Choi said they want to “bridge the gap between the divided North and South with our hands.”
It’s hard to say if Christmas is an opportunity or an obstacle for evangelizing to North Korean defectors, according to Stephen Cha, lead pastor of Onnuri Church’s English ministry. One has to be sensitive to the situation.
“The effectiveness of South Korean Christians in ministering to and sharing the gospel with North Korean refugees during Christmas depends on the individual stories and personal connections with defectors,” he said.
Onnuri, a Presbyterian megachurch, has run a ministry for North Korean defectors for two decades. Five of its 11 campuses have established communities where North and South Koreans come together for worship and Bible study. One campus, for example, runs two dormitories for college-aged North Korean students. Another has services in Korean and Chinese.
The Presbyterians have found other holidays better for connecting to settlers. There are more heart-level connections at Seollal (Lunar New Year) or Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving). These are “times when family is greatly missed,” Cha said. “During these holidays, North Korean refugees often lack a place to go.”
Part of the problem with Christmas outreach, according to Eric Foley, the CEO of Voice of the Martyrs Korea (VOMK), is that it is too wrapped up in the cultural context of South Korea. Instead of communicating the message of a messianic baby born in a manger and heralded by angels proclaiming peace on earth, Christmas’s cultural trappings can make Christianity seem completely alien and inaccessible to North Koreans.
“We’re trying to help North Koreans to experience Christianity,” Foley said, “not as a South Korea cultural element but rather as something that is actually indigenous to North Korean culture.”
The DPRK is currently a hostile place for Christians—it ranked first on Open Doors’ 2023 list of countries where it’s most dangerous and difficult to be a Christ follower. But it was once a land where the Christian faith flourished. At the close of World War II, more than 90 percent of Christians on the Korean peninsula lived in the North.
“When the gospel came to Korea, it first came to people in the North, and when the Bible was first translated in Korea by the missionary John Ross, it was done in a North Korean dialect,” Foley said.
Foley believes it’s important to not create more cultural barriers to the gospel. When he meets settlers, he gives them printouts of the Ross Bible and asks them to help update the translation for modern-day readers. Whatever their beliefs, they jump at it.
“When we approach North Korean defectors, we don’t approach them from a standpoint of them having a deficit that needs to be overcome. We approach them as unique assets capable of contributing to our understanding of the Christian faith,” Foley said.
Too often, Foley said, South Korean Christians see settlers only as objects of pity.
“If you go to the home of a North Korean defector and you open their refrigerator,” he said, “what you’ll see is that they have bags and bags of kimchi. It’s because churches only know how to interact with North Koreans from a position of giving to them.”
An outreach program built around a gift-giving holiday might only underscore the inequality that settlers are already struggling with—and that the South Koreans often don’t see.
“South Korean churches are always really good at remembering North Korean defectors at every holiday,” Foley said. “[But] why do North Korean defectors kill themselves at such an alarmingly high rate? They feel useless.”
Suicidal ideation among these settlers is more than double the rate of South Koreans, according to a Seoul Institute survey.
Christmastime can, however, be a time for North Korean defectors to give instead of receive, Foley said. It just takes some cultural awareness and creativity. In the US and Europe, it is considered rude to show up at someone’s home unannounced. But among Koreans, it is often regarded as a compliment, since it demonstrates that the host is known to be so welcoming and hospitable that they don’t need any notice. They will invite you in immediately.
So Foley and others have started going to settlers’ homes during the Christmas season. They show up unannounced, “placing ourselves in a position of dependence and need,” Foley said, and recognizing the dignity and pride of their refugee hosts.
“That’s Christmas to us,” the director of VOMK told CT. “It’s not giving but it’s receiving, because that is what Jesus did. … He came to earth, and he received the hospitality of those to whom he came.”
Isabel Ong is CT’s associate Asia editor.
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