Worshipping in Pyongyang

‘Do you believe in God?’ The minister asked. In fact, it was his first question, after the handshake.

‘Do you believe in God?’ He repeated. ‘In the DPRK you need to believe in God to worship in a church’.

I was a little taken aback, not so much because of such a question in the DPRK, but because this was the minister’s form of welcome. We had arrived only moments before, taken to the church for a worship service by our guides. Two women in traditional Korean dress smiled from the doorway, while the minister and an older man (who turned out to be his father), came down the stairs to welcome us before entering the church.

How did we end up in such a situation? This was my second visit to the DPRK (my partner’s first). We had opted for a tour with only the two of us. This would – we hoped – provide a more in-depth engagement on matters that interest us.

I had requested a visit to Chilgol Protestant Church, since I knew that when he was a child, Kim Il Sung used to attend the church with his parents. Originally a Presbyterian mission church from the nineteenth century, it had been destroyed during the Fatherland Liberation War, or Korean War (as with the rest of northern Korea and twenty percent of its population). As part of the reconstruction of the north, Kim Il Sung had suggested the church be rebuilt. Later, other churches were either rebuilt or built, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox. But it was to Chilgol church I wanted to go, as well as the memorial nearby to Kim Il Sung’s mother.

I expected perhaps a weekday visit, a brief tour and possibly a discussion with the minister and staff. But no, our guides arranged for us to attend a worship service on a Sunday morning. So it was that I stood there, at the foot of the stairs to the church’s front door, asked by the minister whether I believe in God. How did I respond?

‘That is a very direct question’, I said. ‘In Australia, we would rather say “do you go to church?” It means the same thing’.

The minister’s father smiled, understanding my point.

‘Yes, I do go to church’, I said, ‘in Australia and China’.

The father may have been satisfied, but the minister – a quiet man – was still not sure. Nonetheless, I was guided to a seat right at the front of the church. Behind me were three other visitors: my partner, who came in later after some hesitation; a younger man of Korean background; and an older Korean man who seemed to be from the south and took many pictures and videos.

Who was in the congregation? Mostly middle-aged worshippers, a mix of male and female, with some younger people. The choir of about 15 people sung powerfully and passionately, with a distinctly Korean style (so also the soloist). In all, there would have been 60-70 worshippers present. Were they all – as some have speculated without a shred of evidence – a ‘rent-a-crowd’ for the benefit of foreigners, with a sprinkling of government spies for good measure? I hesitate even raising this question, since it is simply ludicrous to suggest so.

The liturgy was clearly of the Reformed tradition, with which I am so familiar: prayers and hymns of approach, followed by confession of sins; Bible readings from the Old and New Testaments; a long sermon with careful interpretation of the text; a soloist after the sermon; prayers of supplication and collection (to which I contributed); final hymn and benediction. Although I cannot understand Korean, I could easily recognise the liturgy and its style. Indeed, the liturgy, the simple style of the church, a the reverence of the minister and the careful and calm approach to the sermon – all these reminded me of so many country churches in which my father had been minister and preached, coming as he did from the same Reformed tradition.

One moment will always remain with me, for the minister was at the beginning of the service not entirely sure of my motives for attending worship. As each hymn was announced, an attendant would make the sure the visitors had found the hymn in question (occasionally with an English version). We used the hymn book that had been published under the auspices of the Korean Christian Federation in 1983. The second hymn I recognised and sang lustily. As I did so, the minister looked over, realising I was quite familiar with this type of activity. He caught my eye and smiled ever so slightly. The recognition was clear. The announcements at the close of worship included a welcome for the visitors. It was said with genuine warmth.

After the benediction, the visitors were ushered out of the church. A handshake and farewell from the minister was followed by a number of other handshakes. The congregation remained in the church for further activities. Perhaps a Bible study, perhaps a parish meeting – I can only guess.

The question remains as to how all this is possible, especially in a country so systematically demonised. We must begin with the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and state support for church buildings and ministerial staff. Of course, one must obey the laws of the land, which include the forbidding of proselytising and any breach of sovereignty. Foreigners are free to worship, as are Koreans. This includes Christianity, as well as Buddhism and the uniquely Korean religion, Chondoism.

Further, since the late 1970s, Christians, who had been worshipping informally but had developed a form of Christian socialism, began to worship openly again. Among Protestants, the Korean Christian Federation was reactivated (originally formed in 1948). Churches were rebuilt or built anew, a theological college opened, Bibles and hymn books were printed, and a religion department (within philosophy) was opened at Kim Il Sung University. Today, Protestants number over 12,000, with more than 30 ministers and 300 church officials. They been actively encouraged to worship openly, although some continue in informal house churches.

The Federation has been increasingly engaged internationally. A crucial period was during the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the Korean economy all but collapsed due to the end of support from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, along with devasting floods and hail storms. The Federation was instrumental, through the World Council of Churches, in securing significant food aid during the period. It became clear to the government and society at large that Christians in the north have the good of the country at heart.

All of this leads to the situation we have now, in which I and my partner were able to worship in Pyongyang in 2018. I hardly need to state the obvious: it was one of the most significant services I have ever attended.

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