When “America’s Pastor” Rev. Billy Graham took his message to South Korea in 1973, North Korea took notice.
The globe-trotting evangelist drew Pope-sized crowds — more than three million people over five days — including one service with an audience of more than one million people.
“The North Korean response was the ‘witch doctor from America came and performed a witch act,'” recalls Billy Kim, Graham’s translator during the Seoul trip.
But two decades later, in 1992, the staunchly anti-communist Graham was invited to Pyongyang as an honored guest of North Korea’s late President Kim Il Sung.
It’s not exactly clear why he was invited but at the time of Graham’s first visit to North Korea, the nation was reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and looking to improve ties with the United States.
Graham’s gift for North Korea’s founder: a bible. It was a simple but extraordinary gesture.
Though North Korea officially insists it permits freedom of religion, it is widely suspected of extreme religious persecution. Even possessing a bible can lead to criminal charges.
Graham, who visited Pyongyang twice, died last week. He will be remembered at a funeral Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina. The preacher is said to have evangelized nearly 215 million people over six decades, including many in Asia.
Fishing with Kim Il Sung
In 1992, the North Korean economy was imploding and a devastating famine was on the horizon. Foreign aid was desperately needed, but penetrating the secretive society was nearly impossible for Christian aid groups.
US officials warned Graham of the dangers of traveling to North Korea — words that ring as eerily true then as they do today.
“I was told that war could break out at any minute. That’s how dangerous it was,” Graham recalled at a 1994 press conference after he was invited for a second North Korea trip.
Graham brought a private message from President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and explained in detail to Kim Il Sung and other high-ranking officials the US position on North Korea’s nuclear program.
Billy Kim recalled how President Kim Il Sung asked Graham to go fishing with him. “I said, go fishing with him, but make sure that you get a favor in return. And that favor would be Kim Il Sung could get people — 200,000 people in a stadium in five minutes. That’s North Korea,” said Kim.
Graham never did preach to a full stadium in Pyongyang, or realize his dream of bringing Christianity to the North Korean masses. Kim Il Sung died shortly after Graham’s second trip to Pyongyang in 1994.
But Graham did leave a lasting legacy in North Korea. He was the first foreigner allowed to preach at Pyongyang’s Bongsu Church, one of a handful of Christian churches in North Korea. Human rights and religious groups say it is used for propaganda purposes.
Opened door to North Korea
Graham paved the way for other Americans and aid workers to visit the reclusive nation, including his son Franklin, whose charity Samaritan’s Purse provided badly needed aid such as agricultural supplies and mobile dental clinics.
Graham’s two trips to Pyongyang — in 1992 and 1994 — helped shape US policy.
He offered insight to US Presidents and peacemakers — including Jimmy Carter, whose trip in the spring of 1994 deescalated tensions, just as the Clinton administration was seriously considering military action to stop North Korea’s fledgling nuclear program.
As Graham told reporters in 1994, “I said Jimmy, what they’re looking for is a friend.”
Graham’s wife, Ruth, had spent part of her youth in Pyongyang, prior to the Korean War.
“My wife went to school in North Korea. That was one of the reasons that we could get in and talk to the leaders that made it possible for us to go. And we had a wonderful reception,” Graham said after the trip.
Ruth Graham returned to North Korea in 1997 and later “summarized the experience as one of the true highlights of her life,” according to the Graham Foundation website. Her parents were Christian missionaries in Pyongyang, a city once called the “Jerusalem of the East.”
“Almost nothing remains from my school days here during the 1930’s,” she told her hosts, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website.
“But two things have not changed: the beauty of the two rivers that flow through the city of Pyongyang and the warmth and hospitality of the people.”
Popular throughout Asia
Graham and his wife also had close ties to another Communist and ostensibly atheist country: China, which they visited several times.
In 1988, they visited Jiangsu province, where Ruth Graham had also spent parts of her childhood. And in 1997, Graham met with then Chinese President Jiang Zemin when he was visiting the US.
In South Korea, Billy Graham’s popularity helped make Myungsung megachurch in Seoul, the largest Presbyterian Church in the world, with a weekly attendance of around 100,000 people.
“We certainly believe that we need to follow the legacy of Billy Graham,” Senior Pastor Kim Sam-whan told CNN.
“What he did in North Korea really pushed us to go to the people who are suffering. His resolution was to solve this problem between the North and South through the Christian faith, which is by peaceful means. Instead of weapons, he wanted peace.”