SANTA ANA, Calif. – Persecution of Christians in North Korea shows no sign of abating under the country’s new leader, Kim Jong-Un, according to a report by the worldwide ministry Open Doors.
“The fanatical regime, which rules the destitute country of 24 million people with a proverbial iron fist, has a special hatred for Christians,” Jerry Dykstra of the California-based Open Doors USA noted. “North Korea is in a league of its own when it comes to persecution of Christians.”
Dykstra’s and other reports parallel incidents in North Korea chronicled in the U.S. State Department’s religious freedom assessments.
Of an estimated 200,000 prisoners in North Korea, 70,000 of them are Christians, Open Doors reported. For the 11th consecutive year, North Korea tops Open Doors’ list of the worst countries for its brutal treatment of believers.
North Korea is run like a giant religious cult, Dykstra wrote. He noted two ideologies that drive the regime: “Juche,” which asserts that man is self-reliant, and “Kimilsungism,” which is the worship of leaders.
Based on defectors, circumstantial evidence and international observers’ reports, Dykstra has concluded that the situation for North Korean Christians is deteriorating rather than improving.
“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,” Dykstra wrote. “However, the reach of Pyongyang extends even into China.
North Korea’s nuclear exploits are “how they keep their people in chains: through military tension,” including thousands in “Holocaust-like camps,” as observers put it.
“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,” he wrote.
North Koreans who return to their country are interrogated about whether they met any Christians in China and whether they visited a church in China, the Open Doors report said.
Recently a Christian was shot and killed while returning for Bible training in China, Dykstra wrote. An Open Doors worker reported, “He was very excited about his new faith and wanted to share the gospel with his family. He wanted to come back to China to study the Bible more so he could explain the Christian faith better to his family.”
Another Christian, who also had studied the Bible in China, died in a labor camp, Open Doors reported.
“The number of trained North Korean spies inside China is growing,” Dykstra wrote. “They are attempting to track down human rights activists and Christians helping North Koreans refugees.”
Amid such hardships, the faith of North Korean believers is strong, Dykstra wrote. Open Doors obtained a letter from an underground church leader who noted, “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.”
Dykstra confirmed to Baptist Press that although Open Doors must protect their sources by not attributing information to specific individuals, “the facts we report are correct as stated. We put a lot of resources into helping North Korean believers.”
A report by Mission Network News Feb. 7 corroborated the Open Doors accounts, stating that Kim Jong-Un is “making life difficult for Christians.”
Mission Network News, in conjunction with Christian Aid Mission, explained that in the early 1900s, Pyongyang was known as the “Jerusalem of the East” because Christianity had taken root and about 3,000 churches were established and growing.
Persecution of Christians began shortly thereafter, in 1910, when Japan seized control of the Korean peninsula, and it worsened with the rise of the current communist regime at the end of World War II.
Mission Network News said a North Korean man who leads three underground churches was arrested and charged with espionage for helping North Korean refugees escape into China. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but after someone gave the government money on his behalf, his sentence was reduced to five years.
“Christian ministry leaders in North Korea are encouraged as God’s love shines forth, bringing light to darkness and transforming hearts,” Mission Network News said. “Whatever the political situation, they can experience spiritual freedom through the redeeming power of Jesus Christ.”
Writing for World Magazine Feb. 22, Mindy Belz reported that one week after North Korea’s recent nuclear test – which entailed a 5.1-magnitude explosion – two survivors of the country’s state gulag testified before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“Shin Dong-hyuk and Kang Chol-hwan say the state’s political prison system is incarcerating 200,000 ‘criminals’ – many of them Christians – in Holocaust-like camps: ‘Fundamentally, it’s the same as Hitler’s Auschwitz,’ testified Kang.
“‘People think the Holocaust is in the past, but it is still very much a reality. It is still going on in North Korea,’ Shin told reporters on the sidelines of the human-rights summit,” Belz wrote.
Kang testified that Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test was meant as a warning sign not just to the international community but to potential regime opponents within North Korea, according to Belz.
The nuclear arsenal is North Korea’s way of getting Washington’s attention, Belz reported. She quoted Sohn Gwang Joo, director of Daily NK, who wrote, “A North Korea without nuclear weapons is just a regime burdened by economic woes, inflicting human rights abuses on its people…. Only with nuclear weapons are they able to maintain their regime, hidden away from the world. This is how they keep their people in chains: through military tension.”
The U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2011, the most recent year available, noted that since 2001 the secretary of state has designated North Korea as a Country of Particular Concern for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
Representatives of foreign governments, journalists and other invited guests, though, are not allowed the freedom of movement within North Korea that would enable them to fully assess human rights conditions or confirm reported abuses, the State Department said.
According to reports by refugees, defectors, missionaries and nongovernmental organizations, religious people who engage in proselytizing in North Korea and those who have contact with foreigners or missionaries “were arrested and subjected to harsh penalties,” the State Department said.
“Refugees and defectors stated that they witnessed or heard of arrests and possible executions of underground Christian church members in prior years,” the report said.
North Korea’s constitution and other laws and policies provide for religious freedom, the State Department said, but “members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured or killed because of their religious beliefs.”
“An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 persons were believed to be held in political prison camps in remote areas, some for religious reasons,” the report said. “Prison conditions were harsh, and refugees and defectors who had been in prison stated that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs were generally treated worse than other inmates.”
There are four state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang, and “some foreigners who visited the country stated that church services appeared staged and, in addition to religious themes, contained political content supportive of the government,” the State Department recounted.
Also, “some reports claimed, and circumstantial evidence suggested, that many if not most of the government-controlled religious organizations were created for propaganda and political purposes, including meeting with foreign religious visitors.” Foreigners who met with representatives of these organizations reported that some members “appeared to know little about religious doctrine.”
The North Korean government had persistently persecuted truly religious persons, typically categorizing them as “hostile elements,” the State Department said, “and there were indications that practicing religion gave rise to persecution.”
Kim Jong-Il, along with his father before him, sought to assert an ideological legitimacy by promoting a cult of personality and emphasizing a “military-first” policy, the State Department said. Kim Jong-Un reportedly has followed in their footsteps.
“Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority, who exemplified the state and society’s needs, was regarded as opposition to the national interest and sometimes resulted in severe punishment,” the report said.
The threat of persecution is so intense in North Korea, the report indicated, that “religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society for fear that their activities would be reported to the authorities.”
Rather than clamoring for Washington’s attention by testing nuclear weapons, the State Department suggested it would be more amenable to North Korea changing its treatment of its people.
“The United States has made clear that addressing human rights, including religious freedom, would have a significant effect on improving the prospects for closer ties between the two countries,” the report said.
Mission Network News offered these prayer requests on behalf of the North Korean people:
Pray for wise, bold missionaries and the rapid expansion of underground churches.
Pray for spiritual encouragement for believers who are enduring extremely harsh prison conditions.
Pray for a wide dissemination of Bibles and that believers will have a clear understanding of God’s Word.
Pray for Christians to know how to work within the system to evangelize, build up believers and plant churches.
Pray for God to protect missionaries and other Christians from the authorities and to enable them to minister undetected.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press.)