WASHINGTON (BP) -- The release of three American Christians from North Korea is hopefully an early sign of Christian revival in the Asian nation, Southern Baptist consultant and native Korean Paul Kim told Baptist Press.
"It's bigger than just releasing the three individuals," said Kim, Asian American relations consultant to the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. "It's much, much bigger, (which) history will tell later. I think there will be very exciting things happening."
He anticipates change from a more spiritual than political trajectory.
"My hope and desire is that North Korea will (experience) a spiritual awakening," said Kim, a former pastor, church planter and International Mission Board trustee who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
Released prisoners Kim Hak Song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong Chul, all Christians, arrived early today (May 10) at Joint Base Andrews near Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the prisoners' release ahead of a historic June 12 meeting with North Korean president Kim Jong Un. The prisoners had been held on erroneous charges levied between October 2015 and April 2017, according to news reports.
"It's the beginning of a sign, a step forward," Paul Kim said. "Other Christians are praying and targeting for North Korean doors to open (to the Gospel). So maybe God has answered their prayers, is (what is) happening now, because a lot of Christians are praying for North Korea."
Freed prisoner Kim Hak Song was ordained as an evangelical Christian pastor by the nondenominational Oriental Mission Church in Los Angeles, CNN reported, but was not serving as a pastor upon his arrest. He was working at a Christian school, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), when he was arrested in May for supposed "hostile acts" toward the state, Time reported.
Historically, Christianity was strong in North Korea before the Korean War, Paul Kim told BP, stemming from the work of missionaries in the late 19th century. Christian persecution during the war forced Christians to flee to South Korea, where they planted churches and started a prayer movement.
"Now, God is bringing (Christianity) back to North Korea," Paul Kim said. "Hopefully, this (will be) the trend." Even today, he said, underground Christians serve the Lord in the nation, although hundreds of thousands have fled to China.
"God is the one who builds up the kingdom and He destroys the kingdom, throughout the history," Paul Kim said, "and I see that something is happening. I really believe that God is at work on that, that God is in control. He reigns, and I want to praise God for what God is doing in that part of the world."
According to religious persecution watchdog Open Doors USA, about 305,000 Christians worship in hiding in the nation of 25.4 million people. Others are considered atheists or traditionalists. "Unknown numbers" of Christians die each year of torture, beatings, overexertion and starvation while imprisoned in hard labor camps, Open Doors said in its 2018 Watch List of global Christian persecution.
Biographical details of the three prisoners are still unfolding. They released a statement ahead of their return home.
"We would like to express our deep appreciation to the United States government, President Trump, Secretary [of State] Pompeo and the people of the United States for bringing us home," they said. "We thank God, and all our families and friends who prayed for us and for our return. God bless America, the greatest nation in the world."
Tony Kim (also known by his Korean name of Kim Sang Duk) also worked as an American professor at PUST. Upon Kim's 2017 arrest for unspecified charges, PUST said his detention was "related to an investigation into matters not connected in any way with the work of PUST," Time reported.
Kim Dong Chul, 62, was arrested in October 2015 on charges of espionage and undisclosed crimes, Time said. He was convicted in March 2016 and was serving 10 years in prison with hard labor.
Open Doors lists North Korea as the most oppressive country in the world for Christians to live.
"In this totalitarian Communist State, Christians are forced to hide their faith completely from government authorities, neighbors, and often, even their own spouses and children," Open Doors said in its 2018 Watch List. Christian worship and fellowship are practically impossible, and worship of the ruling Kim family is mandated.