RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Is there a stranger place on earth than Panmunjom?
Probably. But I’ve never been there.
I have been to Panmunjom, the bizarre “truce village” that straddles the 38th parallel dividing North and South Korea. It’s only a short drive from Seoul, the South’s huge, bustling capital. When I visited years ago, grim-faced North Korean guards stood inches from their United Nations counterparts. They faced each other across a painted line on the ground marking the North-South division. Crossing the line meant probable death, but tourists walked around the southern side, gawking as if the place were a Disney attraction.
Other soldiers on both sides carefully watched the desolate landscape — and each other — through binoculars. A North Korean “town” stood just to the north, silent and empty. Our military tour guide informed us it was a facade, a Hollywood set built to represent the North’s proclaimed prosperity.
More than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, the heavily militarized “Demilitarized Zone” — 151 miles long, two and a half miles wide — still divides North and South Korea. It’s an open wound on the landscape, an ever-present reminder of separation and hostility. It’s visible even from space: Satellite photos of the Korean Peninsula at night show patches of vibrant light below the line in Seoul and other southern cities — and virtual darkness in the impoverished communist North.
July 27 marked 50 years since North Korea and United Nations forces representing the South agreed to the cease-fire that “ended” the 1950-53 Korean conflict. When it was over, more than 40,000 American troops were dead or missing, along with 415,000 South Korean soldiers, more than 1.5 million North Korean and Chinese troops — and several million Korean civilians. An estimated 10 million Korean family members were torn apart by the division; few have seen each other since.
The formal peace treaty expected to emerge from subsequent talks never materialized. So North and South remain in a technical state of war. Fighting could break out again at any moment, and often seems on the verge of doing so. The developing nuclear weapons crisis in the north is only the latest in a seemingly endless series of tensions. About 37,000 American troops still stand alongside 650,000 South Korean soldiers, facing the 1.2 million-member North Korean military across the line.
The North faces its own challenges. The South has made amazing economic progress, but is experiencing growing pains: persistent political turmoil, plus generation-dividing debates over the continuing presence of American forces and how best to reconcile with the North.
Yet for all the struggles of the last 50 years, the Christian church of this one-time Hermit Kingdom has emerged as one of the world’s most powerful engines of missions and evangelism — at home and abroad. Why? Several reasons have become clear in recent decades:
— Revival: After slow progress in the early days of Protestant missions, church growth soared following the 1905 revival, which displayed the classic revival signs of repentance, moral zeal and evangelistic fervor. The growth has continued ever since, despite the brutal years of Japanese rule (1910-45) and later turmoil.
— The Korean character: Koreans are proud and independent, but more open than some of their Asian neighbors, with an ancient tradition of spirituality.
— No colonial religious heritage: Christianity was introduced to old Korea by returning Korean converts, not foreign invaders. Missionaries who came later generally weren’t tagged with the “colonialist” label.
— Prayer: Korean believers are the acknowledged world leaders in committed, fervent prayer. Many begin at 4 or 5 a.m. daily.
— Persecution: Korean believers have suffered repeatedly for their faith. They count many martyrs under the Korean royalty of the 19th century, under Japanese rule and under communism.
— Wars and rumors of wars: The sufferings of the first Korean War — and fears of another — have spurred many Koreans to search for peace through faith.
“God has abundantly blessed South Koreans because of their faith,” says a Southern Baptist mission strategist in the region. “Even though only about 25 percent of (South) Koreans are Christian, this 25 percent is bold and committed. Christians have highly influenced South Korea. I strongly believe that Korean Christians will play a major role in the evangelization of Asia and the world.”
By one estimate, Korean Christians have sent about 10,000 missionaries abroad. They believe God has given them a vision — and a responsibility — to evangelize the world.
“God has used Western missionaries to reach the Korean Peninsula, and now He is using Koreans to reach other people groups that are harder for Westerners (to reach),” says Ho Joong Cho, missions director at the Korean-led Global Mission Church in Rockville, Md. “Korean missionaries are welcomed because of their passion and effectiveness” — and a toughness honed by historical hardships.
“Many Korean Christians feel that God has placed an important burden of world missions upon the shoulders of the Korean Christians because of the rich spiritual blessings God has bestowed upon the nation. If they fail to carry out the God-given mandate, then God’s chastening hands will be upon the nation.”
In many places, Korean missionaries have become strategic partners for Southern Baptists and other evangelical mission workers.
“One of our priorities is to mobilize the Kingdom resources we have in Korea to impact the rest of Asia,” says Tom Williams, a Southern Baptist representative in the region. “The Koreans have developed a global vision. At one time they were focused more on China, but they’re sending missionaries around the world right now. They’re focusing on India, on west Africa, on Southeast Asia and Central Asia.”
Back home, Koreans are praying for a resolution of the latest crisis, for peaceful reunification of the divided nation, for lost souls on both sides of the 38th parallel — and for the church in the North.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for South Korean believers: to avoid the pride and complacency that befalls affluent societies — and churches.
“South Korea has become economically strong,” says an American observer. “I am concerned that the more wealthy Korea becomes, the less they will depend on God. Koreans are hard workers. My fear is that many think Korea’s great achievements have occurred only because of their own efforts and they leave God out of the mix.
“We have this problem in the United States, too.”
Amen to that.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. His column appears in Baptist Press twice each month.