Today, an historic meeting took place between US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. President Trump has already hailed the summit as “great progress” towards the stated US aims of nuclear disarmament. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the news that Chairman Kim verbally affirmed a commitment to denuclearisation “came like a miracle.” China has also welcomed the “political courage” of the extraordinary détente developing in the Korean peninsula.
Mr Trump’s visit has echoes of US President Nixon’s strategic visit to China in 1972, which led to the fruition of diplomatic efforts to harmonise the US relationship with China and essentially paved the way for China’s introduction to the global trade community of the present day. As momentum grew with other countries forming diplomatic ties, Communist China became increasingly open to the West, integrated with global economics and exposed to Western ideas of freedom. With Mao’s death in 1976, there was no turning back.
In the nineteenth century, another determined Westerner made a voyage to the isolated “Hermit Kingdom” of Korea. Rev Robert Jermain Thomas, a Welsh-born missionary, had begun working for the Lord in China with the London Missionary Society in 1863. But the tragic death of his young wife in childbirth led him to question his plans and he took up a post as a Customs Officer in Chefoo. There, he renewed his connections with the National Bible Society of Scotland, becoming their agent, and encountered two Korean Christians who had never read the Bible.
Possibly inspired by their need, Thomas then set his heart on bringing the Bible to Korea, a country extremely hostile to foreigners and the Gospel, and set about learning the Korean language from Roman Catholic Koreans. Thomas spent two months on the Korean coast in 1865 where he persuaded local people to take a few Bibles (in classical Chinese), although they were at risk of decapitation or imprisonment for doing so. Authorities were brutally oppressing the small, but growing, number of Protestant Christians and had been severely persecuting the Catholic Church for 65 years. Some 8,000 Korean Catholics were killed for their faith as well as nine French priests.
The French government wanted to punish the Korean authorities for this and sent a fleet. In 1866, Thomas accepted the position of interpreter to the French admiral. While this decision may have been a means to the end of returning to Korea to continue his mission, it inextricably entangled him with the French invasion. When the French fleet was diverted to China, Thomas transferred to an American merchant ship, the General Sherman, and seemingly became even more deeply enmeshed in the military context.
Travelling up river towards Pyongyang, the American vessel was mistaken by the Koreans as part of an invading force. They did not believe assurances of its peaceful purposes and the ship ignored warnings and commands to return to China. The Koreans attacked the ship, which fired her cannon, killing a number of Koreans. Later the Korean defence floated fire boats down the river and the General Sherman caught alight.
Thomas tried to distribute the Christian literature he had brought with him to Korean villagers who had gathered to watch. One account of his death states, “After he had distributed all the books but one, he left the schooner, when it was already in flames, with his last copy of the Bible. He humbly knelt down before the soldier waiting for him, begged him to accept the Bible, and shut his eyes to pray.” Thomas was beheaded. He was just 27 years old.
Thomas is called the first Protestant martyr of Korea and the Bibles he left there had a considerable impact, even the one his executioner took from him, in leading souls to the Lord. After the soldier papered the walls of his house with the pages of the Bible, many people read the Word of God from them and some became Christians.
But can Thomas’ military involvement be truly separated from his mission? Was he executed as a foreign invader or as a Christian missionary?
Today, a group of defectors regularly sends information back into North Korea by launching plastic bottles filled with materials from the outside world into the ocean eight miles from the border. The launch, funded by South Korean churches, includes bottles filled with rice, dollar bills, USB sticks containing a copy of the Bible, a hymnal, and an animation about Jesus, as well as South Korean dramas, documentaries, and a video of President Trump’s speech in Seoul about human rights abuses in North Korea. Taped on to the outside of each bottle is a plastic-wrapped book of Genesis and a study guide. Like Thomas, these present day “missionaries” send the Gospel into North Korea mingled with the agendas of a secular world order and foreign national interests.
While we welcome talks aimed at creating peace and stability in the Korean peninsula, our response as Christians must be one of both discernment and prayer. We should exercise great caution in allowing the Christian faith to be allied to US foreign policy. But at the same time we must pray for peace in the region and for the political authorities who can bring about that peace. Our prayers in particular must be with Christians in North Korea who have suffered terribly in recent decades as we pray that, as a consequence of the process that has been started today, the sufferings of Christians in North Korea will be relieved.