Evangelicals in Korea poised to move north

At Asia's largest church, fundraising and renderings of churches to be be rebuilt

The clergy at Yoido Full Gospel Church are pretty sure that North Korea's Kim Jong Il doesn't want a host of earnest Christian missionaries coming to his country - holding prayer meetings or Bible study, singing subversive hymns like "Onward Christian Soldiers" or "Joy to the World."

But at this expansive four-building beehive of evangelicalism in downtown Seoul - the largest Christian church in Asia, if not the world - they are ready to cross into the North, if the spirit should so move.

Indeed, Korean evangelicals - a huge and influential subculture here - have already divvied up North Korea among themselves for future ministry. Like evangelicals anywhere, they are ready for the coming of the Lord. In the meantime, they are preparing for change in the North, even if the prospects seem bleak.

At Yoido's entrance, for example, one can view artists' renderings of 12 different contemporary churches and prayer-meeting complexes - all labeled with North Korean addresses. Above, a sign reads: "North Korean churches we must rebuild." Below each is the date they were first built - 1909, 1905, 1884 - and a description of where the original churches were established, usually by Methodist or Presbyterian missionaries. Worshipers are urged to donate to one of the North Korean projects.

"If the defense chairman [Kim Jong Il] will open the doors and allow freedom of religion, we are ready now to go in and construct churches," says assistant pastor Ho-Youn Jun. "We will start with a church site in south Pyongyang. We pray about this strongly. Sometimes we pray all night."

In every sermon preached by Yoido head pastor David Cho there are references to the people of the North, and reminders of their hardships. The Rev. Mr. Cho leads prayers for peace and reconciliation. But there is also a call for the liberation of God's children in the North, a Moses-echoing "Let my people go."

Considering that Full Gospel has a roll call of 750,000, with more than 200,000 members, and conducts several services a day - that's a lot of reminding. Such messages also ring loudly in a society that has officially remained very low-key about human rights conditions in the North.

To be sure, the Full Gospel Church - which has some 550 clergy - is mainly devoted to the business of gospel preaching in Seoul, and providing a religious and family church experience for Koreans. Walk off the elevator on Sunday in any of the two high-rise buildings adjoining the sanctuary, and one is greeted by a flurry of activity. Each floor has a warren of rooms devoted to activities ranging from Internet outreach to overseas work

Cho started in Seoul as a pentecostal preacher, though he has taken Full Gospel in a more mainstream evangelical direction in recent years.

What is striking, say experts, is that evangelical Christians are really the only broad-based group in Korea that maintains a focus on the problems of famine and ill treatment of North Koreans.

An exhibit in the foyer of Full Gospel has maps depicting where Kim Jong Il has located nuclear facilities, as well as the most infamous labor camps - Hoiryang and Yodok, among them, which are the size of large cities. The church maintains a North Korean relief committee that raises money for food aid, visits defectors in Seoul, and helps the networks of Christians who desire - somehow - to get the "good news," as they see it, into the North.

"If evangelicals are lining up on the border with Bibles, they are about the only group in Korea that is ready to help inside the North," says a US diplomat. "I don't see a lot of other groups doing very much."

Hang Soon Po, who heads the North ministry project at Full Gospel, says it is difficult to conduct outreach to the North. Unofficially, Full Gospel tries to support North Koreans ready to take the risky step of reentering their country, and ministering inside the North. But so far only a handful have tried. "It is difficult to do missionary work in the North, but some do," Hang says. "We have lost about four that way," meaning they disappeared.

Hang's group shares a simple logic: Kim Jong Il must open his country, because he can't keep it shut forever in today's interdependent world. "We feel strongly that the North will fall. It is evil, and the evil will go."

The subject is extremely sensitive. South Korea has officially de-emphasized conditions in the North, concerned that too much finger pointing could endanger a fragile rapprochement between the Koreas. The national human rights commissioner, in testimony before the South Korean parliament in April, stated he had "no details" about rights violations in the Kim Jong Il regime. Also, many South Koreans who support unification prefer that it not take place any time soon - since the cost of rebuilding the North could set the South back several years economically.

"The churches here constitute the cutting edge of those facing the realities of unification," says Tim Peters, a Christian aid organizer. "They help refugees, raise money, send aid; they are way ahead of the government."

To the degree that Mr. Kim may ever worry about his people worshiping something other than himself, some Western diplomats feel he might someday worry about groups like the Full Gospel Church.

For reasons of temperament and history, local pastors say, Koreans seem especially attracted to expressive group- oriented Christianity. Sociologists say as many as 40 percent of Koreans may have some connections to the faith.

At night, visitors to Seoul can walk through any neighborhood and see dozens of red neon crosses dotting the skyline.

"Koreans love to join groups, and Korean men love to lead groups," says an American lawyer here. "Every Korean guy wants to be a leader, so you get a lot of small churches."

This is not a new phenomenon. At the turn of the century, Korea was considered such a fertile ground for missionaries that Pyongyang itself was widely known as "Asia's little Jerusalem."

Leaders here say that while their message is tailored for a Korean audience, they sometimes borrow from American evangelical techniques of organizing. Though officially apolitical, evangelicals do represent a strong "pro-America" faction in the South. Last January, as the streets of Seoul began to fill with younger Koreans protesting American troops here, Cho took the unusual step of filling the Seoul City Hall square with 30,000 evangelicals who supported US troops, and prayed for the denuclearization of the peninsula.

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