Against All Odds: Faith Flourishes Quietly in North Korea

Janet Chismar | Senior Editor, News & Culture | Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Against All Odds: Faith Flourishes Quietly in North Korea

While our 'Religion Today' editor is out sick, please enjoy a past feature that is once again very timely with the arrival of President Bush in Korea today.

"North Korea used to be very much a Christian country before the Communists took over in 1945," according to Yoon Kwon Chae, whose father was one of the first Christian Church ministers in Korea. And Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, was once called the "Jerusalem of Asia."

Korean believers But now, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the government in North Korea suppresses all independent religious activity. People who engage in public religious expression or other unauthorized religious activities continue to be arrested and imprisoned.

During the Korean War, reports Christian Solidarity International (CSI), 300,000 Christians fled to South Korea. The others disappeared in camps. North Korea had, for decades, no officially recognized religious life.

In 1998, the government permitted the existence of three Christian churches in Pyongyang, if only for propaganda purposes. According to "official" statistics, there are approximately 10,000 Protestants, 4,000 Catholics, and 10,000 Buddhists in North Korea.

It is clear, according to CSI, that the three churches mentioned only serve propaganda purposes. When, for example, visitors once dropped by at Easter, they found them to be closed.

Believers pay a great price in everyday life. According to the U.S. State Department, North Korean officials have stratified society on the basis of family background and "perceived loyalty to the regime" into 51 specific categories. Religious adherents are by definition relegated to a lower category, receiving fewer privileges and opportunities (such as education and employment) than others. Persons in lower categories have reportedly been denied food aid.

Worse yet, reports USCIRF, people engaging in religious proselytizing or other "unauthorized religious activities," such as carrying Bibles in public or distributing religious literature, are arrested and imprisoned.

While the practice of imprisoning religious believers is apparently widespread, the U.S. State Department has been unable to fully document the number of religious detainees or prisoners. According to a press report, an estimated 6,000 Christians are incarcerated in "Prison No. 15" located in the northern part of the country. In April 1999, eyewitnesses testified before Congress that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs were treated worse than other inmates.

International Christian Concern (ICC) also has received reports of the abuse of Christian prisoners in North Korea. One woman reported seeing Christians killed when molten steel was poured on them. She also stated that Christian prisoners were often not given clothes and were treated like animals.

According to ICC, an estimated 400 Christians were executed during 1999 alone. Most of them were killed by public firing squads after being convicted on trumped up criminal charges.

In 2000, ICC reported, Younghee Lee was executed by firing squad in the market place of Moonsan, in Hanmkyung North Province. She was accused of being a traitor to the Labor Party. Younghee had received the Lord after escaping to China in 1998 and returned to North Korea to preach the Gospel.

Many North Koreans become Christians as refugees in China, thanks to a number of missionaries and Christian groups Koeran border fenceoperating near the border. The new believers later sneak back into the country to preach the Gospel to their family and friends, according to a number of local sources. The punishment for this "crime" is prison and in some cases, even death.

ICC learned that the government issued an open warning to its citizens that these Christian missionaries must be "ferreted out" as the "tools of imperialism." It claimed that certain underground guerillas have been posing as missionaries.

As a Seoul-based North Korea watcher told Compass Direct, "It is really a control issue. The regime still expects total loyalty, and when people believe in God behind (the government's) back, it is regarded as the deepest form of disloyalty."

Compass confirms that a number of Christians have fled to China and would claim asylum on grounds of religious persecution, "but Chinese government officials rarely allow the refugees to appeal to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, despite a legal obligation to do so. Most are forcibly returned to North Korea."

A spokesperson for Open Doors with Brother Andrew told Religion Today that the North Korean government has targeted "religious people" for extermination for three successive generations.

"Under this pressure type of pressure," said the Open Doors representative, "people are obviously not open about their faith. It is therefore very hard to know exactly how many North Korean Christians there are."

Many sources have told Open Doors that an underground Church does flourish in the northern areas but that it is strictly organized around family lines. ICC reports their sources estimate as many as 500,000 Christians live in North Korea.

Perhaps the reason for such growth lies in repression, as this report from CSI seems to indicate: "Having grown up in the merciless society of North Korea, many refugees feel drawn to the Christian message of love and empathy, previously entirely unknown to them. One refugee described his experience of the public execution of an entire family - 'They were tied to poles on the market square and shot to death. The children cried. I was so devastated that I fled to China and converted to Christianity.'"

"What will happen to the North Korean Christians?" asks Yoon Kwon Chae, the minister's son, who himsef is a missionary. "No one knows. However, these Christians will keep on meeting and will be increasing in number. Even from North Korean governmental reports, an increase of about 50 every year is apparent. The communistic government may be able to destroy freedom; they may be able to destroy democracy; but God they cannot destroy."

Editor's Note: Our series on Christianity in Korea will continue Tuesday.