This post first appeared on the blog of our sister mission in Korea, VOM-Korea. It is written by Dr. Eric Foley, the CEO of that ministry.
I want to tell you about one of the great men of North Korea ministry upon the occasion of his martyrdom in Changbai, China this past Saturday, April 30, 2016.
His name was Pastor Han Chung-Ryeol (한충렬).
He was 49 years old.
He was married, with one son and one daughter.
He was ethnically Korean but Chinese by birth and citizenship.
He was a pastor in the Three Self-Church.
He graduated from the East-North Theological Seminary in Shenyang, China.
When he was finishing seminary, elderly people called him to come visit Changbai to preach because they had no church. So he went there to preach a little bit. But he never stopped preaching there. He planted Changbai Church in 1993.
Changbai borders North Korea. And in 1993, North Korea was gripped by famine. North Koreans flooded across the border, looking for food, clothing, money, anything. It was rumored along the border in North Korea that if you went to a building with a cross on top, they would help you there.
In Changbai, there was one building with a cross on top. That was Pastor Han’s church.
Pastor Han never sought to start a North Korea ministry any more than he sought to start a church in Changbai. He simply responded faithfully to whatever God gave him to do. So as North Koreans knocked on the door of his church, he gave them food, and clothing, and Christ. When North Koreans began to knock on the doors of the homes of people all over Changbai, Pastor Han trained ordinary people how to help North Koreans also.
There was a time when it was possible for Korean Chinese people to visit North Korea to see their relatives. Pastor Han’s wife did. She even went to jail in North Korea for evangelizing North Koreans. But providentially in the same jail cell with her was a fellow prisoner, a kotjebi, or North Korean orphan, whom she and Pastor Han had once helped in China. The kotjebi was wearing layers and layers and layers of clothing, because every time the kotjebi needed to buy something, off would come a layer of clothing as payment. So the kotjebi provided Pastor Han’s wife with enough clothing to stay warm in the cold prison cell, as a way of saying thanks.
What North Koreans always said about Pastor Han was that they could see his heart. That is far rarer in ministry than you might imagine, and it is especially rare in North Korea ministry. You can share food with North Korean people. You can share clothing. You can share the Gospel. You can give them lots of money and rice cookers. And you can throw big parties for them. But unless North Koreans can see your heart, unless the gospel is embodied in your life and not only your words or your business cards, they will never cross over the scary, shaky rope bridge over which we each of us must cross in order to move from the ideologies that enslave us, to enter the Kingdom of God.
Pastor Han was devoted to helping North Koreans enter the Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of South Korea. He insisted that the North Koreans that he helped should return to their homes and their family and their country, not abandon them. He told us, “Whether this person dies or not, they have to go back. If they die, God will honor them. But if they go to South Korea, they will turn their backs on God.” I believe this is why the Chinese authorities continued to permit Pastor Han to help North Koreans, no matter how frequently the North Korean government complained about him. Pastor Han was not a broker, not a human rights activist, not a guest on radio programs, not a speaker in pulpits. He was a pastor, and all he was doing was pastoring anyone who came to him. And then he would send them home.
In this and many other ways he was a wise man. Frankly, most workers in North Korean ministry end up losing their souls in this work. Bitterness inevitably corrodes their insides after they are betrayed by North Koreans and other North Korean workers enough times. They come to hate the North Korean government and start praying for its collapse and for North Korean officials to die. After a while they stop praying at all. They have to spend all their time on the phone, talking to North Koreans who need help, raising money, doing radio interviews, and, eventually, trying to cover up the sinful behavior they fall into because the work eats them up. They stop talking about the Messiah to North Koreans and instead become a messiah to the North Koreans they agree to help. Paradoxically, these North Koreans then become their god, because they serve them every waking moment as faithfully as a person can serve any idol, hoping to gain some sense of peace from placating the idol’s wrath.
But Pastor Han did not fall into this trap because he started each day in morning prayer. He said that if he didn’t pray, he couldn’t do the work. God gave him a piercing sense of discernment, and people often commented about his sharp eyes. Those eyes kept him focused on Christ, and this kept him alive for a lot longer than anyone else could have survived in his situation.
Pastor Han was our partner in Changbai, and over the years he helped many other North Korean ministries as well. But I also appreciated that there were people whom he would not help. He would not help North Koreans defect. He would not help governments with their spying. And he would not accept money from ministries or individuals whose motivation was to “buy” testimonies and stories from him that they could use for fundraising purposes. This happens a lot in North Korea work, and I note sadly that one of the people whose money Pastor Han consistently refused is already making the rounds this week, seeking to raise money ostensibly to help Pastor Han’s family.
There was only one disagreement I ever had with Pastor Han, and I always wonder if I should have pushed it further with him. One of Pastor Han’s deacons was kidnapped from inside China by North Korean agents in November 2014, taken back across the border to North Korea, imprisoned, and interrogated. I told Pastor Han that my experience with North Korean work has been that the best thing we can do in such a situation is to bring things to the light as quickly and loudly and broadly and publicly as possible. We go to the Lord, to the media, to the governments, and we say, “Remember our brother who is in chains!” It’s part of our Voice of the Martyrs heritage that we try to keep prisoners alive by advocating for them publicly. We never pay bribes or cut deals to get our workers out of prison.
But Pastor Han thought it best to try to deal with the situation quietly, through private channels. He knew that if we went public with the news about the deacon, his North Korean work in Changbai would have to close down or be transferred to someone else. I know he prayed about it. And I know he told us he would handle things himself. But he did agree to a whole new set of security precautions on which we insisted. He agreed not to drive along the border, not to go meet North Koreans alone who crossed the border and called, asking for his help.
When back inside North Korea the authorities started rounding up the North Korean people Pastor Han had helped in Changbai, we knew that information about the work had leaked. The last time we met in Korea, over the Chinese New Year holiday, we knew that North Korea had issued an order for Pastor Han to be kidnapped, brought to North Korea, and interrogated. But Pastor Han was his usual self. He talked soberly but without fear about returning to Changbai at the end of the holiday, and he was quite cheerful as he hung around our office and caught up on his phone calls. I can still recall him standing there, staring out the window in my office at nothing in particular as he talked very casually on the phone.
On Saturday, April 30, 2016, at 2PM, Pastor Han left his church building in Changbai.
At 8PM, his body was found on the China side of the Changbai mountain, mangled nearly beyond recognition. There were multiple knife wounds on his stomach from repeated stabbings, and his head was chopped by an axe.
All of his belongings were confiscated, including his phone.
The North Koreans who killed Pastor Han returned to North Korea, as everyone who encountered Pastor Han always did. They reported their story about their encounter with him. I am sure their superiors were eager to receive this report, in every detail.
But all over North Korea tonight, there are others, countless others…
They are the North Koreans who every day since 1993 encountered Pastor Han. Kotjebi. Sex-trafficked women. Soldiers. Professors. Housewives. The famine-starved. They heard a story from Pastor Han and saw his heart. And this enabled them to accept his invitation to cross the rickety rope bridge in their mind that led them to the Kingdom of God. And this enabled them to return to North Korea with the story about their encounter with him. They shared it with their friends and family members, who I am sure were eager to receive their report, in every detail.
It is the story that is continued.
As Pastor Han would describe it, it is a story about how though you may die, God will honor you.
A story about how God never turns his back on you.
A story about how even when at last you are compassed on every side by your enemies, bloodied, and left to die in this world
The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot put it out.