The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is often described as the “Hermit Kingdom” because of its isolation from the rest of the world. Its 23 million people live under a brutally repressive regime, kept in ignorance of the outside world and fed anti-Western propaganda, and it is internationally recognised as the harshest country in the world in which to live as a Christian.
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 and conflict breaks out sporadically. From the 1950s there was intense persecution of any remaining Christians, who were accused of being counter-revolutionaries.
The head of state is Kim Jong-un, known as the Supreme Leader. He succeeded his father Kim Jong-il (known as the Dear Leader), who died on 17 December 2011. Kim Jong-il 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 and 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 to groom for the leadership. He was made a four-star general and given top ruling party posts in 2010, in an apparent attempt to prepare him for the succession. The preparation was incomplete, however, and Kim Jong-il’s death at 69 from a heart attack seemed to take North Korea by surprise, although he had suffered from various ailments for years.
Kim Jong-un was educated in Switzerland under an assumed name. He was aged only 28 or 29 when he succeeded, and 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. It was hoped that eventually Kim Jong-un would introduce new policies to open up North Korea, but at first his leadership brought little change and continued the policies of his father and grandfather. In December 2013, however, Chang Song-thaek was found guilty of attempting to overthrow the state and was summarily 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 and some reports claim that they had a child in 2010.
Before communism, most North Koreans were followers of Buddhism or Confucianism, but now North Korea is an atheist state. The official state ideology is 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, 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 services called “Self-Criticism Meetings”. Juche is so all-embracing 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.
Famine and refugees
North Korea is in an 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, and there is heavy dependence on foreign aid. 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. About 40% of the population lives below the UN absolute poverty level, and in spring 2011 the World Food Programme estimated that six million North Koreans need food aid. 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. 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. It is often very difficult for North Koreans to adjust to life in South Korea.
Christians in North Korea
In the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, there are four official church buildings (two Protestant, one Roman Catholic – with no priest – 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.
Anyone discovered to be a Christian is executed or sent to prison camp, and 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. It is impossible to know how many Christians there are in North Korea – 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 concentration camps.
North Korean Christians meet secretly in homes, usually in small groups of three or four family members, taking precautions such as shading the windows and whispering their hymns. There is a high risk of being betrayed by neighbours or even by other family members. If a Christian has a Bible it is torn into sections that are hidden around the home.
In May 2010, the police discovered a relatively large house church in Pyongan province and arrested 23 Christians. They were interrogated at length, tried and the three leaders were sentenced to death and executed. The others were sent to the kwan-li-so (political penal-labour colonies).
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.
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.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide Report 2016
In September 2016, CSW released a report, Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea, based on testimonies from North Korean escapees. It presents evidence of brutal persecution of Christians and discrimination against followers of other religions and beliefs, and confirms that North Korean Christians suffer severe persecution, imprisonment, torture and execution. Christianity is viewed as a foreign religion, a means of conducting espionage and gathering intelligence by South Korean and American intelligence agencies, and therefore a security threat.
The report states: “Christians suffer significantly because of the anti-revolutionary and imperialist labels attached to them by the country’s leadership. Christians usually practice their faith in secret. If discovered they are subject to detention and then likely taken to prison camps (kwanliso); crimes against them in these camps include extra-judicial killing, extermination, enslavement/forced labour, forcible transfer of population, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, persecution, enforced disappearance, rape and sexual violence, and other inhumane acts. Documented incidents include Christians being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges and trampled underfoot.“
Church in Chains in Action
Church in Chains is one of many organisations that encourage prayer for North Korea. It has also, in association, with its partners, provided aid in the form of food, clothing and shelter to desperate North Korean refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries.
In 2011, Church in Chains supported a project run by AsiaLink to distribute tiny MP3 and MP4 players to North Koreans. AsiaLink began to deliver MP3 (audio) players, pre-loaded with the Bible and other Christian material, into North Korea in 2008, and during 2011 the project was developed to include MP4 (audio plus video) players, containing the Jesus film in Korean. There is huge demand for these units, and many North Koreans have become Christians through them.
In 2013, Church in Chains supported projects run by AsiaLink to provide food, medical aid, water purification and assistance for orphans in North Korea, care for refugees, and discipleship training and supply of materials.
The summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un on 12 June has been closely analysed around the world for its implications for US/North Korean relations, for peace on the Korean peninsula and for human rights.
On 9 May, US businessman and missionary Kim Dong Chul was released, along with US citizens Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang-duk (also known as Tony Kim), who had also been detained in North Korea.
US missionary and businessman Kim Dong Chul has been moved from labour camp to a Pyongyang hotel.
A new report on human rights in North Korea has been launched by Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
On Sunday 13 August, Canadian pastor Hyeon-soo Lim (62) was welcomed home to Light Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ontario, and told the congregation about his two and a half years in labour camp in North Korea.