SEOUL, South Korea—Chae Yoon-kwon flipped over every charred corpse littered across the streets of Seoul, South Korea. It was late September 1950, soon after the United States forces attacked the city and forced the North Korean army to retreat. As they scurried to leave, the North Korean soldiers shot and burned hundreds of prisoners, most of them Christian preachers—and possibly Chae’s father Chae Sang-hyun.
Chae never found his father. That day, as he stared wretchedly at the smoking carnage of blood and ashes, a group gathered and started singing an old hymn: “In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.” By the 13th time they sang the song, everyone had stopped weeping. Chae too dried his tears, then dedicated his life to Jesus Christ, thinking, “This is the faith that can save our country. This is the power that can overcome communism and atheism.”
Now 82, Chae is a pastor who founded a seminary school (now Seoul Christian University), a Braille Bible school, a children’s home, and a Christian publishing company. He still preaches regularly for an international radio broadcast that travels all the way to North Koreans—a fact confirmed through letters sent from various North Korean defectors, who told Chae they used to secretly listen to his sermons every morning before work.
I met the cheerful, gray-haired pastor at Geon Christian Children’s Home, where he still spends several days a week with the kids when he’s not traveling overseas to speak and teach. Chae doesn’t intend to retire—and he has enough energy to run for another decade. I huffed after him as he marched up five flights of stairs to introduce me to the children and staff.
Even in his office, Chae bustled about, digging up a hand-powered radio (for smuggling into North Korea), his Confucian grandfather’s dissertation on a strange Western religion (Christianity), and black-and-white photographs. “That’s my father, right there,” he said, pointing out a bespectacled man in traditional Korean garb, standing next to a long-nosed American missionary who was at least a head taller than him. By the time I left the children’s home, mental pockets stuffed full of anecdotes, the moon was beaming.
Chae was born on Feb. 13, 1932, in Seoul, but his parents were born in a town close to Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea. His father was one of the earliest native pastors. During the Japanese occupation, his father defied Japanese persecution and persisted with his ministry underground. He became so poor that people called him “Hundred Patches Teacher,” nicknamed after his torn-and-mended suit. Chae remembers the one-meal-a-day bowl of soup, so watery that he could see through it. Instead of breakfast and dinner, his family laid Bibles on the dining table and worshipped.
When World War II ended, a more embittering war erupted. In 1950, North Korean communists invaded Seoul. Street fights, open courts, and public executions were daily events. The North Korean party asked Chae’s father to lead their puppet “Christian League,” but he refused, declaring, “I cannot serve four masters: Christ, Marx, Lenin and Stalin.” Chae too was imprisoned for refusing to join the communist army. He managed to escape by hiding in a communal pit of human feces, leaping from a 50-feet ancient castle wall, and fleeing a torrent of bamboo arrows. His father, however, never saw his family again.
In 1956, after the Korean War ended and he recommitted his life to Christ, Chae went to the United States and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from San Jose Bible College (now William Jessup University) and Lincoln Christian Seminary. His dedication to full-time ministry wavered once when he decided to become a medical doctor instead. But one afternoon, while bicycling to his anatomy class, a thought struck him: “Even if I heal someone physically, so what? Without spiritual healing, man is still sick!” He immediately stopped pedaling, repented, and prayed, “Lord, give me Korea.”
When Chae returned to South Korea in 1961, the nation was suffering from postwar devastation and great political turmoil. He and his first wife, Geon, settled in the slums of Seoul and led various “tent churches” and street evangelism ministries for war refugees, prostitutes, prisoners, and military officers. In 1963, Chae started a Bible school, and then a year later, a Christian publishing house, convinced that “spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope for Korea.”
At the time, the streets were crawling with young orphans who lost their parents to flood, fire, leprosy, suicide, starvation, or abandonment. The Chaes took them in one by one until about a hundred babies and toddlers crawled and tottered around their house. That’s when they bought the building next to the Bible school and established Geon Christian Children’s Home in 1966. His seminary students reared goats and provided milk for the children, while many of Chae’s American friends donated funds. Every month without fail, for 60 years, Chae wrote them letters with updates. All of the letters are compiled in books now. When a toddler finally stopped wetting her bed at night, they threw a party to celebrate. When a 2-year-old finally lost her mute, blank-eyed stare and smiled, they wept with joy. Many of the orphans became missionaries, pastors, or teachers.
Chae has witnessed South Korea bloom from a war-stained, inferiority-pockmarked country to today’s proud first-world nation. But he’s of the older generation who still grit their teeth at communism. The thought of a divided Korea still breaks their hearts. “We never expected the war can continue for more than 60 years!” he exclaimed. Then he paused and added, “Well, I didn’t even expect myself to live this long.”
But Chae believes reunification will happen soon, and he’s already preparing to run up north and plant a church when that finally happens: “I will preach this gospel to the height of my voice, and to the last breath of my life, because I know that this is the only hope for Korea, the only hope for the world.”