North Korea, known to Americans for the totalitarian rule of the family of Kim Il Sung and a decades-long pursuit of nuclear weapons, once was the center of Christianity in Northeast Asia, its capital Pyongyang renowned among American Christians in Asia as the “Jerusalem of the East.” This forgotten era, which lasted for half a century from the late 19th Century to 1942, has renewed relevance in the 21st Century as reports of underground Christianity come from North Korea and while the grip of the regime on society weakens.

Unknown to the general public and ignored by the academic and foreign affairs establishments, Americans once were leaders of religion, education, and intellectual life in Pyongyang, as missionaries who created the foremost Christian community in Northeast Asia. Before the Soviet Union installed an atheist Communist regime in Pyongyang headed by Kim Il Sung, the city was the center of the Presbyterian Church in Asia, and hundreds of thousands of Korean Christians lived there and elsewhere in what is now North Korea. It was a union of Koreans and Americans that set the course that made South Korea the majority Christian nation that it is today, and whose memory has contributed to the exceptionally severe persecution of Christians by the North Korean regime.

West Gate Church in Pyongyang Korea
West Gate Church in Pyongyang (Presbyterian Historical Society)

American Christians first arrived in Korea in 1884. There had been earlier attempts to spread Christianity in Korea, with Catholicism introduced in the 17th Century, and Presbyterians making converts in the 19th Century. The Korean monarchy had banned Christianity since 1758, however, and it punished Christians with death, executing thousands of Catholics including missionaries from France in its last great persecution in 1866. The opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and Korea in 1882 created an opportunity exploited by a Presbyterian medical doctor named Horace Allen, who in 1884 became physician to the king of Korea and received royal permission to proselytize after saving the life of a royal family member severely wounded during an attempted coup. Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries from the United States followed, and along with Catholic and Protestant missionaries from other countries, they found Koreans to be receptive to their message in large numbers. A quarter of a century later in 1910, Korean Christians numbered over 200,000, two thirds of them Presbyterians and Methodists, in a country of approximately 13 million people.

The churches brought by Americans first arrived in Seoul but flourished most in Pyongyang and the north. A Presbyterian mission in Pyongyang opened in 1895, and revival movements that rapidly brought thousands of new converts originated in the north. The most significant was the Great Pyongyang Revival of 1907, which occurred soon after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 that had been fought across Korea and ended with Korea becoming a colony of the Empire of Japan—a traumatic event in a country that had not lived under foreign rule since before its unification in 668 AD. The Great Pyongyang Revival became nationwide as inspired converts spread word of it throughout Korea. By 1910, Pyongyang and its surrounding region counted 60,736 Christians in the Presbyterian Church alone. They made the Pyongyang region the most heavily Christian in Korea.

Missionary from Pyongyang with a 1913-15 Harley-Davidson
Missionary from Pyongyang with a 1913-15 Harley-Davidson on a river ferryboat near Haeju, 60 miles south of Pyongyang and just north of the 38th Parallel (United Methodist Archives & Historical Center)

The American Protestant missions in Pyongyang and other cities made converts in rural areas far from their home cities, partly because of their unique organization. The missions in Korea followed the methods laid down by Dr. John Nevius, a Presbyterian missionary in China who advocated a new type of independent mission. The Nevius method called for overseas missions to become self-supporting, self-governing entities in which local members would run the churches and support their own church activities, not relying on support and leadership from their parent churches in the United States, with all members involved in the preaching and educational activities of the church. American missionaries would found churches and travel around the countryside to reach the people, leaving the security of their mission compounds, and they would turn over leadership as soon as possible to local clergy whom they had educated. As a result, Christianity spread widely in both urban and rural Korea, and Koreans took over leadership of the churches after the ordination of the first Korean Protestant clergyman in 1907.

Map of the Presbyterian mission and Union Christian College in Pyongyang
Map of the Presbyterian mission and Union Christian College in Pyongyang during the 1930s (Helen McCune)

The influence of American missionaries in Pyongyang and elsewhere in Korea extended far beyond religion. An integral part of their work was bringing modern western medicine, science, and education, which young Koreans concerned about the future of their country eagerly embraced along with American political ideas. Americans founded hospitals and schools as parts of their missions, some of which survive today as leading institutions in Seoul, such as Yonsei University, founded in 1915 as Chosun Christian College by Presbyterian missionary Horace Grant Underwood with the assistance of the family fortune made in Underwood typewriters; Severance Hospital, founded by Horace Allen in 1885; and Ewha Womans University, founded in 1886. In Pyongyang, Union Christian College, also called the Sungshil School, was the flagship institution. Founded in 1897, it had schools for boys and girls from elementary school to college level. Along with Union Christian Hospital, the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and other institutions, Union Christian College educated a generation of Korean Christians in Pyongyang and northern Korea, many of whom became noteworthy Korean nationalists leading resistance against Japanese rule. By the 1910s, Korean nationalist leaders were predominantly Christians, disproportionately from the less populous north.

Reverend George Shannon McCune with his wife Helen and children George, Anna, Shannon, and Catherine (Presbyterian Historical Society)
Reverend George Shannon McCune with his wife Helen and children George, Anna, Shannon, and Catherine (Presbyterian Historical Society)

The Reverend George Shannon McCune was the outstanding figure of Union Christian College and the American presence in Pyongyang. From 1905 to 1936, Rev. McCune headed the college and was at the center of the most significant conflicts with the Japanese authorities. He first served as superintendent of Presbyterian schools in Pyongyang, then headed the school in Sonchon, a heavily Christian city northwest of Pyongyang. In 1911, he and many of his teachers and students were among 600 people arrested in Pyongyang and Sonchon, of whom 105 were put on trial, on false charges of conspiring to assassinate the Japanese governor of Korea. Although the court acquitted him, the Japanese authorities repeatedly pressured for his removal from Korea during the 1910s, resulting in his departure in 1921 after death threats against him and his family. He returned to Pyongyang in 1927 and served as president of Union Christian College until 1936, when he refused to lead his students in worshipping the Emperor of Japan, which he declared to be a violation of the Second Commandment. For his role in bringing religion and education to Korea, the Republic of Korea in 1963 made him one of a small number of Americans awarded the Order of Merit for National Foundation, its award for significant contributions to the cause of Korean independence.

Missionary villain character from the 1951 North Korean anti-American story “Jackals”
Missionary villain character from the 1951 North Korean anti-American story “Jackals”

The expulsion of Rev. McCune from Korea in 1936 was the first act of the eradication of the American Christian presence in Pyongyang. After Rev. McCune’s stand, the Presbyterian Church withdrew from its schools in Korea in 1938. In the fall of 1940, with war with Japan believed to be imminent and the State Department warning American citizens in Asia to return to the United States, approximately 400 Americans departed Korea, and the mission boards allowed only a few to remain. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the last 99 Americans in Korea were placed under police surveillance, and in June 1942, the Japanese sent them away by ship to be returned to the United States. The missions in Seoul and southern Korea re-opened after the war, but the missions in Pyongyang and the north never did, barred from returning by the Soviet Union’s occupation force north of the 38th Parallel. The Christian population of North Korea became part of the vast flow of approximately 1.5 million refugees—15 percent of the north’s population—who fled to South Korea from 1945 to the end of the Korean War in 1953.

The North Korean regime has vilified the American Christian missionaries of Korea from its beginning, recognizing the potency of their memory as a symbol of both Christianity and the United States, and their treatment in the United States has not been much better. American historians have completely overlooked them, with a leading leftist historian dismissing the significance of Christianity in 20th Century Korean history and intentionally ignoring the existence of the American presence in Pyongyang. The foreign affairs field appears to be completely unaware of its existence, which does not fit into the boxes of regional strategy, nuclear proliferation, or North Korean regime-watching that are the main occupations of those involved with North Korea. With the long-term survival of the North Korean regime in question and dissent visible in the society over which it rules, including from remaining Christians, the time has come for a revisiting of this long-forgotten era, which may hold part of the solution to North Korea’s future.

Robert S. Kim is a lawyer who served as Deputy Treasury Attaché in Iraq in 2009-10.

Photo Credit: Missionary from Pyongyang with a 1913-15 Harley-Davidson on a river ferryboat near Haeju, 60 miles south of Pyongyang and just north of the 38th Parallel (United Methodist Archives & Historical Center)

Other parts in the series:

Part II: Christianity and the Korean Independence Movement, 1895-1945

The story of the American Christians of North Korea and their service as U.S. intelligence officers in the Second World War will be told in Robert Kim’s book Crusade in Asia, to be published by the University of Nebraska Press in spring 2017.