North Korea’s third nuclear test, announced early last week, has produced an explosion of international concern. The United Nations Security Council strongly condemned the test, calling the latest nuclear test “a clear threat to international peace and security.” More sanctions are expected against Pyongyang. Even the patience of North Korea’s closest ally China is running out.
North Korea’s paranoid, dictatorial rulers remain defiant in the face of international opinion. After the nuclear test, which produced an earthquake measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale, a North Korean propagandist urged the communist Korean People's Army to prepare to “blow up the stronghold of aggression at a strike” and “wipe out the brigandish U.S. imperialists and South Korea puppet army to the last man and thus accomplish the historic cause of national reunification.” Earlier this week North Korea threatened South Korea with “final destruction.”
Beneath all the bluster from Pyongyang and geopolitical fears from the rest of the world lies a brutal reality that has received too little attention from the international community. The fanatical regime, which rules the destitute country of 24 million people with a proverbial iron fist, has a special hatred for Christians.
North Korea is in a league of its own when it comes to persecution of Christians. Research estimates there are as many as 70,000 Christians in the country’s gulags out of an estimated 200,000 prisoners.
For the eleventh consecutive year, North Korea tops the World Watch List ranking of Open Doors, which tracks the persecution of Christians around the globe. With consistent human rights offenders such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it’s hard to gain the top spot on the WWL even once — much less for 11 years in a row.
But North Korea has an advantage that even its unsavory “competition” does not. Whether it is run by “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il, or “Great Successor” Kim Jong-Un, the country is run like a giant religious cult. The dynastic regime has two ideologies: Juche, which asserts that man is self-reliant, and “Kimilsungism,” the worship of the leaders.
Due to that ideology, citizens must attend at least weekly meetings and memorize more than 100 pages of propaganda. Approximately 100,000 Juche “research centers” are said to be scattered across the country. In this environment, Christianity is seen as a Western-instigated threat to the regime.
Defectors, circumstantial evidence, and international observers’ reports show that the situation for North Korean Christians is deteriorating rather than improving. The new leader, Kim Jong-Un, may have a different leadership style from his father, but persecution of Christians is likely to continue or even to worsen.
Many North Koreans attempt to escape to neighboring China, and an informal network of Christians seek to provide practical assistance when they cross the border. However, the reach of Pyongyang extends even into China. Police officials follow the refugees over the border and hunt down and vigorously prosecute those who convert to Christianity while in China or those who attempt to bring Christian literature back to North Korea.
Every defector caught and repatriated is forced to answer questions such as “Did you meet any Christians in China?” and “Have you visited a church in China?”
Open Doors has confirmed the recent deaths of two Christians in North Korea. One was shot while returning for Bible training in China. “He was very excited about his new faith and wanted to share the gospel with his family,” says an Open Doors worker. “He wanted to come back to China to study the Bible more so he could explain the Christian faith better to his family. It is heartbreaking that he was killed.”
Another Christian recently died in a labor camp. This man had also studied the Bible in China.
However, some arrested Christians face torture and then are released. The regime is hoping that they serve as bait to betray their families and other Christians.
“This is extremely tragic,” says one ministry worker. “It’s so dangerous to help Christians who have been released by the government. Some have been tortured so severely they cannot walk anymore. Often we cannot help them, because that would bring too much risk to us. All we can do is pray for them. We know that Jesus will not leave them, nor forsake them.”
The number of trained North Korean spies inside China is growing. They are attempting to track down human rights activists and Christians helping North Korean refugees. Border patrols have been taken over by the North Korean National Security Agency, which pressures smugglers to turn in Christians in China who are helping defectors.
In September 2011, a South Korean missionary was assassinated by North Korean agents. Another narrowly escaped. A South Korean pastor who was working for North Koreans in China, meanwhile, was killed in an unexplained car accident.
So despite lack of attention that the global community is paying to their plight while nuclear fears grab the headlines, North Korean believers are grateful for the help and prayers of other believers. They are also firm in their faith.
One underground church leader wrote, in a letter smuggled out of the hermit kingdom, “No matter what circumstances we face, we stand firm in the mighty hands of God, and we will continue to march strongly towards the eternal kingdom.”
Jerry Dykstra is media relations director for Open Doors USA (www.OpenDoorsUSA.org, based in Santa Ana, California), the American arm of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry supporting persecuted Christians since 1955.
Publication date: February 19, 2013