North Korea may well be one of the most violent countries in the world. Yet, because most violence takes place behind iron bars and barbed wire fences, it’s extremely hard to confirm what happens on a day-to-day basis. But North Korea still ranks #1 on Open Doors’ World Watch List. Why? Because the squeeze factor is incredibly high. What is ‘squeeze’ and how does it affect Christian life in North Korea?
Open Doors uses an accredited method to compile its annual World Watch List. Every year, hundreds of field workers, contacts and experts are asked to fill in a questionnaire and score the level of persecution in countries. We measure violent incidents such as arrests, beatings, attacks, torture and murder. We call this the ‘smash factor.’
But we also measure ‘squeeze,’ or, in other words, the non-physical pressure on Christians. We do this in five spheres of life: private, family, community, national and church. Here’s how the squeeze factor applies to North Korean Christians:
Private life is the inner life of the Christian, the freedom of thought and conscience and expression of your faith. How free are you to relate to God in your own space?
The truth is obvious and shocking. North Korean Christians have no freedom to relate to God. Simply being a Christian is forbidden and punishable by death or a lengthy sentence in a concentration camp. It’s not permitted to worship, to read the Bible, to listen to Christian radio, to keep a Bible or other Christian materials or to share about your faith with others.
Family life describes the freedom to live your faith among your immediate and extended family. It also describes how free Christian families have been to conduct their family life in a Christian way.
It makes sense that if you are not allowed to be a Christian privately, it’s impossible to be one among your family. Parents cannot even share their faith with their (young) children because it’s too dangerous. Christian weddings, baptisms and funerals are not allowed.
Community life is the interaction of Christians with people around them, such as neighbors, colleagues, teachers, businesses, local government officials etc. The guiding questions we research are: how free are you individually and with other Christians to live out your convictions among your community and how much pressure does the community put on you by acts of discrimination, harassment or any other form of persecution?
In many countries where Open Doors works, it’s the community that plays a major part in persecuting the Christians. In North Korea, persecution is driven by the government. However, communities are employed by the government to expose Christians. They provide informants, for example. And the neighborhood watch unit (inmanban) monitors and brings out reports about all people living in that particular unit’s area. If someone is exposed, that person will be arrested and taken away from his/her community. More often than not, the immediate family will be detained as well. (The guilt according to association principle.)
National life is the interaction between Christians and the nation they live in. This includes rights, laws, the justice system, national public administration and public life. The main questions we try to answer are: how free are you to live your Christian conviction beyond the local community? How much pressure do agents of national life (i.e. usually governmental institutions) put on you by acts of misinformation, harassment or any other form of persecution?
North Korea’s constitution officially guarantees freedom of religion and belief, but another section undermines that completely. The government won’t allow anybody to be a Christian. Discrimination, arrests, torture and murder are methods the North Korean government uses as Christian punishment. The threat of this is always above a Christian’s head. Christians are also accused of being traitors and spies in North Korean media. All churches in the country have been closed by the government, except for a few ‘show churches.’ People who persecute Christians will be rewarded, not punished for their deeds.
With ‘church life’ we mean that Christians can express their faith in fellowship with other Christians without interference, and in the public domain. The question we ask is how persecution affects the collective life of Christians in churches, organizations and institutions.
As said, all churches were confiscated and demolished or turned into something else decades ago. Older Christians regularly pray that one day their churches will re-open. But gathering in different locations is absolutely forbidden and often impossible. Meeting other believers is very risky for Christians.
‘We are doing well’
Despite all the limitations, God is faithful. Such is the testimony of underground believers in North Korea. One secret Christian recently said, “We are able to walk in faith even though there are many difficulties. We try to keep our faith pure in Christ in any suffering. We put our hope in the place that God prepared for us before He even created the world. Until we reach that place, we will keep going forward. Even when there are many barriers and limitations. It is our desire that we will follow our calling to keep the faith and to spread the gospel. But we always remember your love and concern for us. We are doing well thanks to your prayers.”