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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 17:25 GMT
North Korean defectors find Christianity
Congregation at Pongsu church, Pyongyang
The US says religious freedom is denied inside N Korea

The Sunday service at Doorae church in southern Seoul is like many others across the country - except that the congregation includes about 20 North Korean defectors.

Many of them, like 28-year-old Kim Song Gun, turned to Christianity when they encountered missionaries helping North Koreans on the Chinese border.

This is our role, the Christian role, to save the people from drowning. It's almost like Noah's Ark

Douglas Shin, Korean-American missionary
Kim Song Gun left his home in the northern province of Chongjin six years ago, fearing he would die from starvation.

"I think it's almost impossible to lead a normal Christian life in North Korea. I've heard rumours there are underground churches, but I haven't seen anyone who has been there," said Kim Song Gun.

"Mentally, Christianity helps a lot. When you are going through a lot of hardships, religion is the only thing you can rely on," he said.

Perilous trip

Other members of the congregation agree.

During Sunday's service, North Korean mother Park Young Ae and her 14-year-old son went to the altar to sing a song that has become popular with North Korean defectors - telling the story of a sparrow's perilous journey.

North Korean asylum bid in Beijing
Between 80% and 90% of defectors turn to Christianity
After four years apart, they were only reunited a few days earlier.

Park Young Ae said she had been on a business trip to China - but had been unable to return to the North and her family for reasons she said were too complicated to go into.

"A lot of the time, I was trying to escape, and people were trying to capture me. At one point I was also jailed. I went through a lot of pain, but I finally made it to South Korea," she said.

"When I received orientation in South Korea, I learnt about Christianity and spiritually I'm now very reliant on being a Christian. It gives me inner power."

Spiritual help

After the service ends, Park Young Ae - who now runs a restaurant - is able to earn some extra money selling North Korean style sausages to members of the congregation.

The Church can help people like her - not only financially but more importantly by providing them with a sense of community.

Farming in North Korean
The North Korean migrants are fleeing a starving homeland
"North Koreans are looked down upon and marginalised socially," said Douglas Shin, a Korean-American missionary and activist working with North Korean immigrants.

"So when they need some kind of consolation, they turn to church," he said.

But for 24-year-old Kim Kun Il, the Church is about to become his vocation.

Kim Kun Il, who left the North after his father died from hunger six years ago, is now studying to be a reverend at a missionary school.

He said he goes to church for the mental help, not the material help, the church groups give.

"Money and food has its limitations. Once you are back to a normal state, it doesn't really help," he said.

Douglas Shin agreed. "When you recover from malnutrition or absolute starvation, the human body adapts very quickly. So one or two meals in freedom will be enough to get you on your own feet," he said.

"But it takes a long time and a lot of effort to be revived spiritually. They need some kind of comfort, mental and spiritual."

"This is our role, the Christian role, to save the people from drowning. It's almost like Noah's Ark," he said.


Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

TALKING POINT
See also:

05 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
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