Billy Graham, a charismatic American evangelist, died Wednesday at age 99. He was often known as “America’s pastor,” but his influence extended around the world, and he was well known for traveling to poor nations and international war zones as well as taking positions on contentious foreign-policy issues.
One of Graham’s most significant foreign trips was to North Korea in 1992. He was one of the first international religious figures — in fact, one of the first significant noncommunist foreign figures — to visit the country, which was reeling from the end of the Cold War. That trip paved the way for other Americans, including former president Jimmy Carter and basketball star Dennis Rodman, to independently visit the “hermit kingdom” and pursue closer ties.
That Graham went to North Korea at all was somewhat surprising. He was a staunch anti-communist and a famous religious leader. North Korea was not only officially communist but also atheist, discouraging religion and persecuting Christians.
But Graham had already made a name traveling to other communist nations in visits he dubbed “crusades,” and evangelicals had long considered Korea a vital place for the growth of Christianity in Asia. Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, had once been dubbed the “Jerusalem of the East,” and Graham’s wife spent three years there at a missionary school in the 1930s. Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, big things may have seemed possible.
The visit appeared to go well. Graham lectured at Kim Il Sung University and had a personal meeting with Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader at the time. Although he wasn’t an official U.S. envoy, Graham was closely watched in diplomatic circles. He spoke with President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker before his visit, and conveyed an oral message from Bush to the North Korean founder. The Korean Central News Agency later reported that the meeting took place in “a cordial and friendly atmosphere.”
Afterward, Graham was optimistic about North Korea’s future. “I think there’s going to be some changes,” Graham told a reporter from Newsday after he left. “They’ve lost the support of the Soviet Union. I got the impression they’re reaching out toward other nations for some friend.”
Soon, however, North Korea and the United States were at loggerheads over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. By 1994, the Clinton administration was seriously considering war. Graham returned to Pyongyang that year, this time with a new urgency. His traveling companion, academic Stephen Linton, told the New Yorker that Graham spoke to Kim in detail about the political pressures on President Bill Clinton.
“He provided an explanation for the U.S. position in a way that made sense to an old village elder,” Linton said. Kim would soon agree to allow international inspectors access to North Korean nuclear sites. A few months later, former president Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang and helped to negotiate a nuclear deal. Kim died the next month and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il.
“In person, I found President Kim to be a forceful and charismatic leader, and I could understand why he was held in such high esteem by his fellow citizens,” Graham said after Kim’s death in 1994. “Although he met few Americans, he always expressed the hope for better relations with the United States.”
Graham never visited North Korea again and appears to have met neither the younger Kim nor Kim Jong Un, the country’s current ruler. However, his wife, Ruth Graham, visited without Graham in 1997; their son Franklin visited a number of times after that.
Graham’s trips paved the way for other Americans to visit North Korea. They also opened the door for Christian groups to work in North Korea despite official restrictions on missionary work in the country. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine noted that four of the five nongovernmental organizations that had worked with the U.S. government to bring food aid into the country before 2009 were evangelical Christian organizations; the country’s first privately funded university, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, was mostly bankrolled by evangelical movements.
Franklin Graham told Fox News in 2008 that his family’s close relationship with the Kim dynasty was what allowed them to get aid into the country for those in need.
Like subsequent high-profile American guests, however, Graham would have found that many of the positive signs he saw during his visits to Pyongyang didn’t translate into action. North Korea is still pursuing nuclear weapons and remains in a standoff with the United States a quarter-century later. Human rights abuses are widespread, while religious freedom is still limited and Christian missionaries are arrested.
Graham’s visits have been the subject of recent controversy, too. In 2016, North Korea’s official newspaper reported that Graham had called Kim Il Sung “the God who rules today’s human world.” Jeremy Blume, a spokesman for Graham, later suggested that the quotation was fake, telling WorldViews that the words “do not even remotely resemble Mr. Graham’s theology or his language.”
In the 2005 book “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty,” journalist Bradley Martin spoke to a North Korean named Ahn Hyuk who had escaped the country in 1992 and had scathing words for Graham on religion under the Kim regime. “I want to write a letter to Billy Graham,” the defector said. “‘If you want to know religion in North Korea, go to a prison camp.’ ”