SEOUL — North Korea, an atheist one-party state, does not allow celebrations of Christmas or other religious holidays. But, many North Korean defectors do mark the holiday, because they are rescued by Christian missionaries who convert them and bring them to South Korea.
A Christmas service is not unusual in heavily Christian South Korea but most of the Durihana church members are North Korean defectors.
In 14 years the church has rescued about 1,000 defectors, who flee through China to Southeast Asia, and many convert.
Pastor Chun Ki-won said the help they provide the lonely and desperate North Koreans naturally leads them to Christianity.
“We can view North Korea as a cult. Everything is centralized to focus on Kim Il Sung like we focus on God. The atmosphere is similar. So North Korean defectors easily adopt themselves into the church system when they come to South Korea,” he said.
Church member Han Min said he never heard of Christmas or Christians in North Korea until the age of 11, when he escaped.
“There are many people who pray for God in underground tunnels. You can watch the videos on Youtube. Even though there are many churches in South Korea, people here cannot pray as hard as the prayers in North Korea,” he explained.
Pastor Chun said although some believers may attend North Korea's few state-controlled churches they are propaganda to show “freedom of religion."
“I do not recognize their church because the intention is not sincere. But there are churches that we call churches. They are called underground churches," he said. "There is no building where people hold services. Two or three people hold services in secret at home. In doing this, they are putting their lives at risk.”
Pastor Chun takes monthly trips to Southeast Asia where he helps defectors transit through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
But he has only risked one trip to China after he was caught in 2003 and jailed for eight months.
“It has become difficult to rescue defectors since two years ago," he said. "Those without an ID cannot use the train or internet cafés. Since it is difficult to use public transportation, defectors need to get a car but this is also difficult. We used to rescue about 30 to 40 people in a month, but this month we rescued only 3 people.”
Han Min left China three years ago, leaving behind his mother as well as a brother in North Korea he has not heard from in 16 years.
He said Christmas is about spending time with people you love but, for him, it would be good enough to learn whether his family are still alive.