SEOUL–On a typical Sunday morning, an unusual kind of parishioner moves quietly among the worshippers thronging the grounds of Manmin Central Church, home to one of South Korea’s largest congregations.
Unlike most of those gathered for weekly services, these churchgoers are from North Korea, one of the world’s most dangerous countries in which to practice Christianity. And rather than spiritual fulfillment, some, at least in part, are attracted by a most earthly reward: money.
For their weekly attendance, the North Koreans among the congregation receive about $170 each month.
Manmin is perhaps the most prominent example of a culture of churches paying North Koreans that has taken root in South Korea, where defectors often struggle to make ends meet and Christianity is a flourishing industry.
While modest on paper, the benefits at Manmin, which also include rice and Korea’s staple side dish kimchi, are a significant incentive for defectors. Despite starting new lives in a country with incomparable wealth and freedom compared to their homeland, they remain economically deprived as a group. In a survey carried out last year, escaped North Koreans reported earning an average of just $1,250 a month, some 50% less than their South Korean peers. Perhaps in part because of their low economic status, they were also some three times more likely to commit suicide than the general population last year, according to data from the South’s Unification Ministry.
“200,000 won ($170) each month is quite a lot of money to North Korean defectors,” says Lee Sang-ho, a defector who attended Manmin several times and whose uncle remains a member.
To make attendance even more attractive, the church even operates buses to ferry parishioners to and from its services.
“Grandmothers, older people, especially, nearly all go,” Lee says. “There are also cases of college students going and sitting in church on Sundays when they have free time.”
Manmin, which claims to have some 9,000 branches at home and abroad, is controversial in South Korea, with many Christians regarding it as a cult, a charge denied by the church. In 1999, the Christian Council of Korea, the country’s largest association of Protestant churches, ejected the sect over what it saw as heretical claims made by founder Jaerock Lee.
The church, which claims to have several hundred North Korean members, the largest such congregation in the country, is known among defectors for providing the most generous benefits for attendance. But it’s far from alone in the practice, which is described as common by defectors and South Korean religious.
Yaksu Church, a medium-sized church also based in Seoul, provides about $42 each month, ostensibly to cover travel costs, according to another defector.
Cho Min-ho, who says he attended the church for about 8 months, recalls an incident in which one defector lost her temper at a pastor for taking too long to perform his service.
Tap multiple churches
“It was all in the pamphlet but she got angry and asked why he was repeating things and to give her the money quickly,” Cho says. “I was so shocked. She said to finish fast because she had to go to another church to get money.”
Yaksu Church could not be reached for comment by Asia Times.
The phenomenon of paying worshippers is largely the result of a vacuum in state support for defectors that has been filled by religious communities, according to Kim Young-sik, secretary general of the Pastors’ Association for North Korea Missions. He says the genesis was a large influx of North Koreans in the mid-1990s, the result of famine across the border, which caught the South Korean government unprepared.
“So officials in the Ministry of Defense and National Intelligence Service began to request support from private organizations through unofficial channels,” Kim says. “Among private groups, churches especially were asked to help.”
Before long, Kim says, defectors began to start expecting payment for going to church.
“After that, North Korean defectors attended churches a lot, and if I speak frankly, there was gossip like, ‘If you go to church they give you money,’ and that certain churches gave out a lot of money,” Kim says. “There were sometimes cases of people touring around and attending different churches that give out money.”
It’s impossible to say how many worshippers at such churches have a genuine spiritual conviction, but those familiar with the situation agree that many are motivated by the financial rewards.
Cho believes that around half of the defectors at his old church came for money; Lee says most of those at Manmin did.
As a general estimate, Kim suggests that as much as 70-80% of churchgoing defectors are effectively praying for pay.
Kim says the association between money and Christianity became so strong that one church lost around 100 North Korean parishioners at once several years ago when it stopped giving out money. As a result, he says, churches have become much more cautious about supporting their North Korean members financially.
“Now they pay attention and are selective, and take interest in the real change and growth of a single defector,” he says. “The churches have become enlightened to the fact that financial support can’t change defectors.”
For the churches themselves, the motivations for offering financial support can range from supporting a financially hard-up segment of society, to introducing God to a population whose homeland represses all forms of religious expression. For some pastors, reaching out to defectors can be seen as a way to help prepare for the eventual reunification of the two Koreas, a long-cherished goal of many on both sides of the border.
“We look at it in terms of the goal of securing people’s salvation,” says Park In-chol, a pastor at Manmin church.
While he acknowledges that there will be worshipers who feign a spiritual interest, Park insists the church only gives money to defectors who both need assistance and who demonstrate a real interest in the church — and that it also helps South Koreans who find themselves in dire straits. For him, the possibility of bringing at least some people closer to God makes the payments justified.
“While we are helping disadvantaged people, we are transmitting the Gospel,” he says. “It would be great if 100 people out of 100 came into the fold, but some are coming to us. That’s God’s way.”
Even those critical of the practice are sympathetic toward those drawn to the pews by the promise of practical rewards.
Cho, who now attends Every Nation Church of Korea, which doesn’t pay its members, says he can understand the mentality of his peers who are often struggling to get by.
“A 29-year-old (defector) in my apartment block committed suicide,” he says. “They say that if you come to church, God will love you and give you help, but the reality is very hard. If you want to go to church, you need to pay for transportation, and if you have no money how can you go?”
*The names of the defectors in this article have been changed to protect their identity.
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others.