The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has become known for its aggressive nuclear test programme, the despotic rule of the Kim dynasty and the brutal repression of its people. It is often described as the “Hermit Kingdom” because of its isolation from the rest of the world. It is estimated that 40% of the population lives below the UN absolute poverty line and the country is in regular need of food aid.
In 2018, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un met the leaders of South Korea and the USA in quick succession amid hopes that the country was going to open up to the outside world. However, while the meetings were welcomed internationally as a first step towards peace and denuclearisation, there was disappointment at the lack of focus on human rights issues and there were no immediate signs of change in North Korea following the meetings.
North Korea came into existence at the end of the Second World War, when the Korean peninsula (a Japanese colony from 1910-1945) was divided into North and South Korea at the 38th Parallel, with Soviet troops occupying North Korea and US troops occupying South Korea. The Soviets withdrew in 1948.
In 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea and the Korean War began, with a US/UN force backing the South, while the Soviet Union and China supported the North. (China remains North Korea’s closest ally and biggest trading partner.) Most Christians fled to South Korea or were imprisoned or martyred, and churches were bulldozed or converted for secular use. Armistice was declared in 1953 but North Korea remains officially at war with South Korea. From the 1950s there was intense persecution of any remaining Christians, who were accused of being counter-revolutionaries.
Christians in North Korea
North Korea is internationally recognised as the harshest country in the world in which to live as a Christian. It is impossible to know how many Christians there are in North Korea and estimates vary greatly, up to as many as 300,000. In May 2018, Rev Dr Eric Foley of Voice of the Martyrs Korea estimated that there are approximately 100,000 Christians in North Korea, of whom 30,000 are in labour camps.
Missionaries brought Christianity to northern Korea from the late 18th century, with huge growth from the 19th century – especially in the northwest – and in 1887 the first Korean Bible was published. The Great Pyongyang Revival of 1907 led to the capital becoming known as the “Jerusalem of the East” as hundreds of churches opened and missionaries founded schools, universities, hospitals and orphanages.
The church was persecuted during Japanese rule but Christianity continued to flourish in the north of the peninsula. However, when Kim il-Sung came to power he imposed an atheistic regime and Christians began to flee south. Many more fled harsh persecution during the Korean War, when Christianity became viewed as an American religion. After the war tens of thousands of Christians were killed or imprisoned and the church went underground.
The official state ideology is the pseudo-religious Juche (see below), which is so pervasive that the majority of North Korean people have never heard the name of Jesus and instead venerate the Kims, whose portraits hang on the walls of every public building and home.
Christians meet secretly in homes, usually in small groups of three or four family members, taking precautions such as shading the windows and whispering rather than singing hymns, and if a Christian has a Bible it is torn into sections that are hidden around the home.
There is a high risk of being betrayed by neighbours or even by other family members. Anyone discovered to be a Christian is executed or sent to the kwan-li-so (political penal-labour camps). Being found in possession of a Bible or attending an “underground” church service can result in public execution. In such cases all family members are punished to the third generation.
Prisoners in the kwan-li-so live under brutal conditions, semi-starved, cruelly treated by the guards and forced into extremely hard labour in mining, timber cutting or farming enterprises. The atrocities include forced abortion and infanticide. Many of the prisoners are Christians and eyewitnesses report that they receive much more torture than other prisoners and that they are given the worst jobs in the prison camps.
While evangelism is forbidden, some foreign Christians have been allowed into North Korea to work with food relief and TB programmes. Chinese missionaries work amongst refugees in China and also inside North Korea, and they have led many people to Christ and trained and supplied some pastors. This is very risky work. Several foreign Christians have been arrested and imprisoned in North Korea, accused of crimes such as spying for South Korea, attempting to overthrow the government and spreading religious propaganda.
In the capital, Pyongyang, there are four official church buildings (two Protestant, one Roman Catholic and one Russian Orthodox) but they are considered to be “show-churches” for foreign visitors. Outside of them, all expressions of religion are ruthlessly repressed; hundreds of thousands of North Korean Christians have died because of persecution.
In late 2020 North Korea enacted an “anti-reactionary thought law”, which tightens controls over external information such as videos and radio broadcasts and increases punishments for infringements. This was followed in February 2021 by the authorities ordering the expansion of the political prison camp system, which it has been suggested was a response to the enactment of the new law. The Open Doors World Watch List 2022 comments: “The authorities appear to be preparing for a strict implementation of these measures and this may well mean that Christians will come under even stronger pressure, given that owning a Bible and being a Christian were explicitly mentioned in the law.”
The head of state is Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader. He succeeded his father Kim Jong-il (known as the Dear Leader), who died on 17 December 2011. He had succeeded his father Kim il-Sung (known as the Great Leader), who died in 1994 but remains the “eternal president”.
Kim il-Sung was born into a Christian family but rejected the faith of his parents. He became a guerrilla soldier with the Korean Communist Party, trained with the Red Army and was chosen by the Soviet secret police to lead the communist government in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-un is Kim Jong-il’s third son – his two older brothers were considered unsuitable for leadership. Kim Jong-un was educated in Switzerland under an assumed name and was aged only 28 or 29 when he succeeded, after his father’s sudden death from a heart attack; his youth and inexperience meant that, initially, he was thought to be merely the figurehead of a regime run by influential members of the ruling party, notably his uncle, Chang Song-thaek. In December 2013, however, Chang Song-thaek was found guilty of attempting to overthrow the state and was executed. In July 2012, it was revealed that Kim Jong-un was married to Ri Sol-ju, a singer – it is thought that they married in 2009.
Before communism, most North Koreans were followers of Buddhism or Confucianism – there are still secret followers of both – but North Korea is now an atheist state with an official state ideology, Juche (“joo-chay”), first pronounced by Kim il-Sung in 1955 and initially understood as “self-reliance”. Juche gradually became pseudo-religious as the personality cult of Kim il-Sung grew (“Kimilsungism”), and many elements are based on Christianity.
In effect, Juche replaces God the Father with Kim il-Sung, God the Son with Kim Jong-il and the Holy Spirit with the Spirit of the People, represented by a torch. Its holy books are the speeches and writings of Kim il-Sung, its hymns are songs praising Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il, and the Juche calendar begins on Kim il-Sung’s birthday, 15 April 1912. North Koreans must attend weekly “self-criticism meetings” where they receive ideologically training.
Famine and refugees
North Korea has experienced economic crisis due to a disastrous currency reform, high military expenditure (there are over a million soldiers in the army) and its attempt to become a nuclear power. Economic mismanagement and natural disasters have led to famine and chronic malnutrition. Poor agricultural practices and floods caused by deforestation have led to low crop yields and flooding of water supplies and sanitation systems. Over one million people died in a famine in the 1990s, and many have starved since then. Many governments are concerned about food aid being diverted to the army.
Thousands of North Koreans try to escape each year, but many are captured or killed in the attempt. The demilitarised zone at the South Korean border is almost impossible to cross, so they opt to cross the rivers bordering China (swimming, walking across ice in winter or bribing guards to let them cross by bridge). Others defect while visiting China or Russia on work visas. Most hope to reach South Korea eventually, where the government provides financial support, although it is often very difficult for North Koreans to adjust to life in South Korea.
It is estimated that there are between 100,000 and 300,000 North Korean refugees in hiding in China, where they live in terrible conditions. The Chinese authorities and North Korean agents in China – sometimes posing as Christians – hunt down refugees for a bounty and send them back to face prison, torture and possible execution. Some Christians are involved in running an “underground railroad” that conveys refugees to safety, usually in South Korea.
United Nations Commission of Inquiry Report
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea released its report on 17 February 2014, after a year-long investigation. The report concludes that the regime is committing crimes against humanity, and recommends that the UN refer the situation to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Kim Jong-un could face trial, as head of state and commander of the military, and hundreds of senior officials may be culpable also.
The Commission of Inquiry, established by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013 and chaired by Australian Justice Michael Kirby, concludes: “the gravity, scale and nature” of the violations of human rights in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world“.
The Commission was barred from visiting North Korea but took harrowing evidence from several hundred exiled refugees and defectors. Its 400-page report details crimes against humanity including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation“.
The report states: “there is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association“. It concludes that the regime “considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat” and as a result, “Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted“. Severe punishments are inflicted on “people caught practising Christianity”.
The report estimates that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are detained in four political prison camps, “where deliberate starvation has been used as a means of control and punishment“.
The Commission of Inquiry criticises China for forcibly repatriating refugees to internment camps, torture and death. It recommends sanctions against the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, an extension of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea, and the establishment of a UN-mandated structure and database to ensure accountability for human rights violations.
UK APPG Report 2021 shows no improvement
In July 2021, the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on North Korea published a report, “Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in North Korea 2014-2020/1”, which found that the human rights situation has not improved since the publication of the UN Commission of Inquiry report in 2014.
The APPG report – based on evidence from sources including members of the North Korean diaspora and human rights organisations – found that North Korean officials have been involved in severe human rights violations including murder, torture, slavery and persecution based on religion or belief and claims that the atrocities “amount to crimes against humanity” and “reach the threshold of genocide, particularly in relation to three groups: Christians; half-Chinese children; and the ‘hostile’ group”.
(Asia Link, Asia News, Martin and Bach  Back To The Jerusalem of the East, Fifth Estate, BBC, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Daily NK, Guardian, Mission Network News, Open Doors [North Korea Info & Action Guide, 2018], Operation World, Release International, RTE, World Watch List, United Nations)
Eric Foley (co-founder of Voice of the Martyrs Korea) gave many interesting insights
A new report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom describes the North Korean government’s religious freedom violations as an “absolute denial of religious freedom”
Korean-Chinese Christian Jang Moon Seok, imprisoned in North Korea in 2014 for his Christian ministry, has spent his 2,000th day behind bars.
Eric Foley of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, which supports persecuted Christians in North Korea, explains why 2018 has been the hardest year for him in his work.
A new report on human rights in North Korea has been launched by Christian Solidarity Worldwide.