Korea: Land of the mourning calm
Sang Yang speaks softly — no anger or defiance in his voice, just sadness — as he stares across the Imjin River into his parents’ homeland of North Korea.
On a chilly Sunday evening, after a full day of Bible classes and worship in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, Yang stands on a hillside next to a small, manicured cemetery. Behind him, patrons file into a restaurant that serves octopus — a delicacy for Japanese tourists.
Here, “it’s only a river between South and North,” says the Church of Christ minister and Christian educator, pointing across the two-and-a-half-mile strip of land known as the “DMZ.”
The Demilitarized Zone, 155 miles long, has separated the two Koreas for 60 years. On the other side of the barbed-wire fences is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. A small cluster of plain, brick buildings stands among its foothills — unoccupied, built only for show, Yang says. Unlike the lush vegetation around him, North Korea’s landscape is bare, stripped of trees by a people struggling to survive.
“I have my relatives right there,” Yang says. “I don’t know whether they are still alive or not.”
Of late, the words out of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, sound increasingly warlike.
The enigmatic, supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, has ordered his missile units ready to strike South Korea and its ally, the United States. U.S. forces practiced bombing runs in the South. The North has at least one ballistic missile with an estimated 2,000-mile range fuelled and ready for launch, the BBC reports.
Such threats — whether real or merely “blustering,” as South Korea’s government calls them — are part of daily life in Paju. Here, workers produce LCD televisions in a factory owned by electronics giant LG. They shop at a massive outlet mall miles from the DMZ.
And they dine on octopus as they overlook the barbed-wire fences.
Every time he comes here, Yang is reminded that the terrible conflict that birthed the DMZ never really ended.
Nor did the spiritual war for souls on this troubled peninsula. Yang asks God to guard and guide his countrymen to the north.
“We know, and we believe, God has his timetable,” he says, “and I hope and I pray God will open their doors — hopefully in my lifetime — so that we can reach them, so that we can spread the Gospel to North Korea.”
‘I COULD SEE ALL THE DESTRUCTION’
Returning home, Yang navigates the streets of Seoul in a small Hyundai hybrid, alongside compacts made by other Korean companies, including Kia and Samsung. (Yes, they make cars here.) Video screens advertise vacuum cleaners and a touring production of “Les Miserables.” Neon crosses, perched atop multilevel megachurches, flicker to life as the sun sets.
The meeting place of the Church of Christ is more humble — the old penthouse of an apartment building next to a 7-Eleven. The facility is home to the Bible Correspondence Center, or BCC, a ministry training program Yang directs. Christians from across Asia come here to improve their Bible knowledge. Thousands more have studied via mail and, more recently, through the ministry’s online courses.
Yang, 54, remembers reading the BCC lessons by the light of a kerosene lamp in a home with no electricity.
His parents fled from the North during the Korean War, a three-year conflict that claimed 2.5 million lives, though some historians estimate the number was much larger. South Korea, once called “The Land of the Morning Calm,” was a land of mourning — and poverty.
“I could see all the destruction in my childhood,” says Yang, who lived in a tiny farming village in Gochang County. “I ate only two meals a day. I assumed everyone did the same. I didn’t complain.”
SEOUL SEARCHING, GANGNAM STYLE
Though poor, the South Koreans adopted a mantra — “do not transfer this poverty to our next generation,” Yang said. When Yang was 16, his father gave him 3,000 Won (less than $5) and told him to make a better life for himself in Seoul.
In 1975, after an 11-hour train ride to the capital, the self-described “country boy” found himself in the midst of big-city culture shock. He walked to the top of a mountain overlooking Seoul and prayed, “God, I have no idea where to go. I need your guidance. Please help me to get a job today.”
He wandered the streets. At one point, he attempted to take shelter in a comfortable-looking home, only to learn it belonged to the country’s president. Police kindly asked him to move on.
Eventually, he arrived in the city’s new business district, Gangnam, where he saw a sign in the window of a laundry shop, “Wanted: Healthy Man.” By day he ironed shirts. By night he slept under a table in the shop.
He also visited the home of the missionary who had mailed him the correspondence courses — Bill Ramsay, who baptized Yang in his bathtub.
FIGHTING FOR KOREA — THEN AND NOW
Like Yang, Ramsay also remembers standing on a hillside overlooking the Korean DMZ — at a time when “you could see shells lobbing back and forth.”
The Massachusetts native served as an radio mechanic in the U.S. Air Force. Nine months before his deployment to Korea, he was baptized while stationed in Topeka, Kan. In Korea, a chaplain directed the infant Christian to a small group of believers, who asked him to conduct his first Bible study.
“It changed my life,” Ramsay said. After his tour, he studied ministry at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., and tried to return to South Korea to teach in an Army school, but he was unable. Then Haskell Chessir, a minister in Nashville, Tenn., invited Ramsay to join a mission team bound for Seoul.
Ramsay moved to South Korea in 1961 and launched the Bible Correspondence Center three years later, modeled after a similar program in Japan. He translated “Studies in the Bible” by Monroe Hawley into the Korean language and mailed them to villages across the country. Within six months, he had 8,000 students.
Nine years later, Yang was student number 61,873.
After his baptism, Yang worked diligently to fulfill the wishes of his fathers — the one in heaven and the one on earth. He studied the Bible and school textbooks, making flash cards and memorizing them as he ironed shirts.
He earned his high school equivalency diploma and studied in a winter ministry training program launched by Ramsay and directed by Korean Christians, including Chang Ho Lim.
He served in the Korean military and later studied in the U.S., improving his English. He translated U.S. publications, including “Power for Today,” into Korean for the BCC. In 1995, Ramsay asked Yang to work full time for the BCC.
“Sang’s the kind of person who can get a job anyplace,” Ramsay said. “He kind of brought himself up by his own bootstraps … a self-taught student.”
Yang’s first goal for the BCC was to get the center online. He secured the website, www.bible.kr, which now has hundreds of Bible lessons and video devotionals, translated to Korean.
“He said, ‘Young people are not interested in books anymore. They’re going to the Internet,” Ramsay said.
“He was right.”
MEGACHURCHES AND SMARTPHONES
Yang’s transformation, from penniless country boy to ministry school director, mirrors the transformation of his country. In the past 60 years, South Korea has emerged as one of Asia’s most affluent nations, a major exporter of technology.
Gangnam, where Yang once ironed shirts, is a metropolis of banks, bistros and high-rent apartments. “Gangnam Style,” a video by Korean rap artist Psy, topped 1 billion views on YouTube. The video pokes fun at Gangnam’s socialites, who spend 6,000 Won on cups of coffee at Starbucks — twice what Yang had to live on when he came here.
South Korea’s churches have grown alongside its economy. Living in poverty, the people found hope in the Bible, said Chanjin Shin, a graduate of the BCC, now pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.
After the war, “the situation was very dire,” Shin said. Koreans “wanted some kind of hope. They were searching for something beyond.”
Buddhism is popular in South Korea, Shin said, and the nation is second only to the U.S. in the number of Christian missionaries sent abroad. Seoul is home to the Yoido Full Gospel Church, with an estimated 1 million worshipers.
By comparison, “the Church of Christ is small and still in its infancy,” Shin said. Young ministers face heavy pressure, he added, to emulate the megachurches around them, adding instrumental music to worship and adopting practices outside of biblical teaching.
In 2004, the BCC became an associate school of Lubbock, Texas-based Sunset International Bible Institute. Church of Christ ministers from the U.S. teach courses at the center, which enrolls 20 to 25 students. Once per week, Yang teaches Bible at a prison in Seoul.
The minister’s techno-savvy could play a greater role in assisting churches, Shin said. About 4,000 students study the Bible through the BCC’s website, which Yang updates continually.
He also is developing a mobile version of the site for his country’s omnipresent smartphones — most of them made by Samsung — and has received good reviews from Koreans who have tested it.
“Many thanks for the lesson,” one reviewer said in a text message. “Now I am born again and am free from legalism.”
Yang’s goal is “to reach people with every means at our disposal,” Ramsay said. “And that’s what he’s doing.”
BALLOONS AND PRAYERS FOR NORTH KOREA
To reach souls in North Korea, Yang and fellow church members developed a more low-tech approach.
The Christians tie “waterproof gospels” — the book of Matthew, printed in Korean on sheets of plastic — to large balloons and release them near the DMZ, making sure that the wind will carry them northward.
As each balloon drifts toward the heavens, they whisper “Hallelujah.”
One day, Christians will be allowed to enter North Korea and share the Gospel soul-to-soul, says Ramsay, now 82 and living in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
“It’s going to be gradual, but it’ll come,” he says. He notes the words of Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. Army general who led the United Nations forces during the Korean War.
Seeing the devastation in Japan after World War II, MacArthur reportedly urged Christians to “send me 1,000 missionaries” to rebuild the country.
At least that many, Ramsay says, are needed for North Korea.
For now, the fences remain and the threats continue. Yang’s 20-year-old son now stands on the DMZ, guarding the border as part of his compulsory military service — not far from where his father once served.
As his family waits for the day they will be reunited with relatives they’ve never met, Yang shares his faith with all who will listen.
He also thanks God for the prosperity he shares with the nation of South Korea.
“This is a small peninsula,” he says, “but we are very blessed.”