North Korea’s Christian Martyrs Remembered at Christmas


Christmas is a time of great celebration for the world’s two billion or so Christians. In one part of the planet, though, the lights are out. There is not be a flicker of recognition of the festival in North Korea – or not in public. It may be celebrated secretly, particularly as 2016 is the anniversary of a great Christian martyrdom on the banks of the Taedong river in Pyongyang.

Nobody knows how many North Koreans celebrate the birth of Christ just over two millennia ago. For them, displays of faith can lead to prison or worse.

And nobody knows either who will remember the death 150 years ago of a missionary on the banks of the Taedong river.

The Welshman, Robert Jermain Thomas, was one of the big figures who brought Christianity to the Korean peninsula. Befitting his contribution, his death, around the end of August in 1866, has been marked with loud and joyous celebrations in churches in Cardiff and Seoul.

But from Pyongyang, where Thomas was martyred, there has not even been a peep of the smallest trumpet.

The exact circumstances of his death are unclear but it is known that he was a missionary who became fascinated by Korea. At a time when Western influence was feared and rejected, he voyaged on an American ship to spread his faith. There was an altercation and fierce fighting broke out between the crew and the Koreans ashore.

In one version of the story, Thomas abandoned the burning ship and was captured by hostile troops on shore. He is said to have kneeled and given his executioner a Bible before being killed.

That legend resonates loudly 150 years later in South Korea, where Christianity thrives, and in my native Wales, where Korean missionaries now work in a reversal of the old role – once Welsh missionaries tried to convert the “savages” in exotic lands; now missionaries from prosperous countries like South Korea settle in Wales to spread the faith that once was strong.

South Koreans think Thomas, and his example, were very influential in spreading Christianity. Gi Jung Song, the Korean pastor of the International Church in Cardiff, told the BBC: “Korea was in darkness spiritually and this young man from Wales brought the Bible.

“He was killed soon after his arrival but his death influenced the whole of Korea. The person who killed him became a Christian and his house became a church.”

The influence grew after Thomas’s death. Pyongyang became a strong Christian centre with a hundred churches only fifteen years later. As the century turned, Korea started looking to Wales for inspiration, so the Welsh Religious Revival of 1904 was echoed by a revival of Christian belief in Korea in 1907.

These days, some devout Christians do visit North Korea but they do so understanding that they keep their Christianity to themselves. Doctors from Wales, for example, are helping to set up a medical school in Pyongyang, but they have been invited for their expertise and they leave their Bibles at home – those who didn’t in the past were arrested and imprisoned.

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Stephen Evans

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