The suffering North Korean Christians endure defies one’s imagination. We are simply unable to fully comprehend what these believers go through. The All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief in Britain published a report which gives some insight. It is entitled Religion and Belief in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK] and available on the internet. Although reliable information is scarce, the inquiry on which this report is based was able to hear credible testimonies from refugees, non-governmental organizations, experts, and academics. It is especially the Christian religion that is targeted by the regime.
Korean authorities use the songbun system which categorises citizens into three groups: core class, wavering class, and hostile class. Religious people are assigned to the lower rungs of the hostile class and when found out are banished to remote areas and prison camps. “One refugee described how he and his wife hid under a blanket to sing hymns, whereas another reported how their friend was taken to one of the most notorious prison camps in the DPRK after being seen saying grace over dinner.” In addition, there is a system of three-generational guilt. For example, “in 2009, Ms Ryi Hyuk Ok was executed for distributing Bibles. Her husband, children and parents were sent to a political prison camp.” In these camps, the oppression follows them. “When in a camp, religious followers and particularly Christians are subject to especially harsh treatment. One woman, arrested for her faith, was ‘assigned to pull the cart used to remove excrement from the prison latrines. Several times the guards made her lick off excrement that had spilled over in order to humiliate and discipline her.’”
While the religious persecution goes on, North Korea authorities are imposing on the population their own religious ideology called Juche. It has no tolerance for any other belief and all citizens must adhere to it. According to Juche each citizen must “accept the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary thought as your belief and take the Great Leader’s instructions as your creed.” In the words of one defector this means that “from birth to adulthood all worship Kim Il-Sung. There is no other faith— so we can’t compare it to anything. It was all we knew. We worshipped because if we didn’t bow down we would be killed.” Another escapee put it this way: “In North Korea we call ourselves ‘Kim Il Sung people.’ The only ideology is Kimilsungism, and no other ideology is allowed.” There are many reports and witness statements testifying to the deification of Kim II-Sung and Kim Jong-il. He is to be honoured like God. The civil religion which the authorities have established combines “a relationship with God [i.e., the Supreme Leader Kim II-Sung] and a sincere faith . . . with a religion that prescribes loyalty to the nation.”
The North Korean authorities want total control over their people. If you are a Christian, you are seen as undermining the authority of the Supreme Leader for you do not acknowledge him as the supreme Lord of your life. Now, to be sure, the authorities have built a Protestant and a Roman Catholic church in the capital of Pyongyang. But this is for foreigners to see as evidence of “freedom of religion.” There are no other such projects anywhere else in North Korea. Tellingly, when a foreign Christian tried to enter one of these churches in the capital on Easter Sunday without prior consultation, the doors were locked.
Still, the Lord is working in North Korea. In spite of horrific persecution and punishment dealt out to three generations of those caught, there are verified reports of house churches meeting in absolute secrecy in private homes. Due to the nature of the situation, no one knows how many Christians reside in that oppressed nation. Let us not forget these people in our prayers.
(This article appeared in Clarion 31 July 2015 and is published here with permission of the author.)