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‘Praise the Lord’: A tale of 2 Koreans

International Herald Tribune (12/19/05)

By Norimitsu Onishi (New York Times)

SEOUL- In from the freezing cold on a recent Sunday morning, sitting on the heated floor of a cozy apartment in northeast Seoul , the North Korean defector seldom looked up at the South Korean missionary who had been trying, for a year, to convert him to the Christian faith.

The North Korean mechanically checked the messages on his Samsung cellphone and restrained his two daughters from using hymn sheets as telescopes to peer at the half-dozen North Koreans in the home church.

When the South Korean started strumming his guitar and led his congregation in a hymn, the North Korean’s lips barely moved, even as a young man next to him raised his palms upward and intoned, “Can’t replace the Lord with anything!”

“Even when I pray, I’m not sure it comes naturally,” the North Korean said after the service. Perhaps realizing that the South Korean missionary, Peter Jung, sat within earshot, the North Korean softened his words.

“When you’ve had the kind of life I’ve had, it’s difficult to believe in anything,” said the North Korean, who, fearing for his relatives in his hometown, asked that he be identified only by his surname, Park. “It’s even difficult to believe in myself.”

The South Korean made no attempt to hide his frustration after Park left, holding himself “responsible” that the North Korean, after a year, had yet to “feel the Holy Spirit.”

“If I can’t spread the Word,” the missionary said, “God might as well put a stone around my neck and throw me into the ocean.”

As the two Koreas have moved closer in recent years, the complicated relationship between defector and missionary has come to symbolize, perhaps more than anything else, the yawning gap of a half-century division. While the North remains communist, the South has grown into the foothold for Christianity in Northeast Asia .

With a Christian population of nearly 30 percent, the South has the world’s second largest missionary movement after the United States , with 14,000 people abroad. An estimated 1,500 are deployed in China , evangelizing secretly and illegally among Chinese and North Korean defectors. South Korean missionaries shelter North Koreans and have brought thousands to the South; others train them to return home to proselytize, as well as smuggle Bibles into the North.

For the South’s missionaries, converting those of the North, where Christianity first spread before the peninsula’s division, dovetails with their dream of a reunified peninsula. “Oh Lord, please send us, for our brethren up North,” reads a verse in the most popular hymn among missionaries working with defectors, “Evangelical Song of Unification.” It is also part of a larger dream of spreading the Gospel along the Silk Road back to its source.

Behind these movements, though, are personal ties between defector and missionary, complicated by a balance of power tipped in the South Korean’s favor and the inevitable mix of religion, politics and money.

To the North Korean defectors, some South Korean missionaries seem more concerned about brokering deals to smuggle them out of China and using them in Seoul as publicity tools against Pyongyang . To South Korean missionaries, who have risked their lives to evangelize in China , some North Korean defectors appear ungrateful, a sentiment punctuated by the fact that only a fifth to a third ever become Christian.

It was a year ago that Park and Jung, now both 38 years old, met in Seoul through a mutual friend. The missionary had just returned here after spending several years in China , the last 16 months in jail for proselytizing. The defector had arrived here with his wife and two girls after spending several years in China .

Although the defector’s wife had converted to Christianity in China , he remained ambivalent, despite his friendship with the missionary.

“There are missionaries who look like con men to me – they’re just interested in taking money from defectors in China ,” said Park, who fell victim to such a swindler before making it out of China . “But Peter even went to jail to help North Korean defectors.

“He’s a pastor, he’s a good friend, we’re the same age, so I go to church,” the defector added. “But if you’re a Christian, you have to feel from the bottom of your heart. Even though Peter is right next to me, I still haven’t felt that. But I’m very, very grateful to him.”

Jung became a missionary after spending a chunk of his childhood studying and sleeping in the local church where his mother sent him when his father had drunk too much. He studied theology in the 1990s, just as South Korea ‘s missionary movement was growing furiously, and decided that there was only one place to spread the Gospel: China .

From 1997, the missionary worked in northeastern China , near the border with North Korea , evangelizing among Chinese and North Koreans there. China views the North Koreans as illegal economic refugees and often deports them back to the North.

Jung was more cautious than other missionaries, refusing to send North Koreans to smuggle Bibles across the border and sing hymns inside home churches. Still, in mid-2003, he and his colleagues, as well as several North Koreans in their care, were arrested. After 16 months in a Chinese prison, Jung was deported back here.

It was around the same time that Park, the defector, found his way here. In the North, he lived in a town along the border with China , not far from the Chinese city of Yanji . A Communist Party member, he said he had been assigned to work at a mining company, but never showed up.

Instead, Park made money in the growing unofficial trade between the North and China . A strong swimmer, he smuggled people back and forth across the Tumen River , charging about $60 for the 30-minute swim and sometimes making as much as $1,000 a month. He often bribed a North Korean intelligence official to protect him.

At the time, while most people in his town counted themselves lucky if they ate three corn meals a day, he and his family ate chicken, pork and rice daily.

To read the whole story, click here: Praise the Lord