Battle of Two Persecution Hotbeds: North Korea vs Afghanistan

January 10, 2018 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

For the first time since the inception of the World Watch List, the countries in the #1 and #2 spots on the World Watch List are within one point. North Korea scored 94 points, with Afghanistan scoring only one point less. The two countries nearly tied for the #1 spot. In this article, we examine the two persecution hotbeds. Both have maximum scores in all spheres of life. How is that possible considering these countries are so different?

What’s happening in North Korea and Afghanistan?

North Korea: Understanding North Korea means understanding its leadership and personality cult. In its early years, from independence in 1945, the country followed the Communist path and faced an early war against UN troops in the Korean War (1950-1953). Soon after that, it became clear that North Korea would not be a Communist country led by a collective leadership, but rather by one person, Kim Il Sung.

After his death in 1994, he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong II, who was in turn succeeded after his death in 2011 by his son, Kim Jong Un. The country has two ideologies as its basis. One is called “Juche,” which basically says that man is self-reliant. The other is “Kimilsungism,” the worship of the leaders who are the all-powerful entities guiding North Korea. The 200,000 to 400,000 Christians in North Korea are seen as traitors of the state.

Afghanistan: Officially, there are no Christians in this 99 percent Muslim state, apart from international military staff, diplomats and NGO workers (who, if at all, are worshipping in highly secured military compounds and are not considered for the purposes of the WWL). Indigenous Christians (mostly those with a Muslim background) are in hiding as much as possible.

Some 90 percent of Muslims follow Sunni Islam, while a slim 9.7 percent adhere to Shiite Islam. Afghanistan faces a grim security situation due to the influx of radical Islamic militants in the form of the Islamic State group. The radical Islamic Taliban also seem to be increasing in strength and are present in more regions and provinces than in the last few years. The few thousands of secret Christians are seen as traitors to Islam and apostates.

Who are the persecutors?

In our World Watch Methodology, we make a distinction between persecution engines (what’s driving the persecution) and persecution drivers (who is driving the persecution).

Communism Mixed With Dictatorial Paranoia

In North Korea, persecution is driven by Communist and post-communist oppression. The country is run according to communist administrative customs. Christians continue to be seen as dangerous and their religion as “opium for the people”–as in classical Communist ideology–but they are also part of the hostile class in the country`s social stratification system.

However, this persecution engine is mixed with dictatorial paranoia. Everyone in North Korea must revere the leadership and because of this personality cult, Kim Jong Un is an irreplaceable figure in society–he rules the Worker’s Party, the army, the country’s administration and all strands of society. Even though his power may not be as absolute as his father’s or grandfather’s, no one can challenge Kim Jong Un’s authority. The godlike worship of the rulers leaves absolutely no room for any other religion. Consequently, anyone daring to revere anything or anybody besides the Kim dynasty is seen as dangerous and a threat to the state.

The obvious persecutor (the persecution driver) is the North Korean state, which uses a variety of national, regional and local institutions–such as the police and “national security services”–to find Christians. These government officials employ spies and informants to help them as well. Neighbors also spy on each other, and even children are trained from their early years to report their own parents if they note suspicious behavior.

A Lethal Mix of Forces at Play

In Afghanistan, we see totally different engines and drivers. At play is a lethal mix of Islamic oppression, ethnic antagonism and organized crime and corruption.

Islamic oppression: In this persecution engine, extremists adhere to a strict version of Islam to oppress the people. When it comes to Islamic oppression, Afghanistan is one of the most extreme countries. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan neither allows any Afghan citizens to become Christians nor recognizes converts as such. Conversion is seen as apostasy and brings shame to the family and the community. As a result, converts hide their faith as much and as deep as possible.

Though the state is a driver of persecution, extremist groups, the local community and family members of converts are a much bigger danger in Afghanistan.

Ethnic antagonism (hostilities between different ethnic groups (tribes, etc.). The concept of nation is alien to the Afghan way of thinking. One’s own family comes first, followed by the clan and then the tribe–and all of these are much more important than the country. People are deeply entrenched in caring for their families, villages and tribes. When someone dares to turn from his tribe to embrace something new and maybe even foreign, pressure ensues. The person’s family and/or tribe will exert extreme pressure and even violence to make him return to traditional norms. If he doesn’t, he will be viewed as a traitor to the community, resulting in exclusion from family and society. While this protocol applies to all “deviations,” the pressure and violence intensify if it involves someone turning to  Christianity. The Christian religion is considered to be Western and hostile to Afghan culture, society and Islam. In this respect, conversion away from Islam is seen as treason.

Organized crime and corruption is alive and well in Afghanistan, an extremely poor country. One of the main economic problems the country faces is the fact that illicit drugs like opium are much more lucrative than virtually any other crop. Compared to wheat, farmers can earn 11 times the amount of money with poppy production. The Taliban are heavily involved in drug production; estimations indicate that 70 to 80 percent of all drug trafficking gains end up in the Taliban’s pockets.

Everyone who’s in the way of the drug lords will simply be pushed aside, a practice that has intensified. The situation is made additionally volatile by drug barons pressuring citizens and making parts of the country uncontrollable. In most cases, this pressure isn’t relegated to Christians only (they’re not visible anyway). However, believers are affected because they don’t have an alternative or someone to turn to for help.

What are the risks for Christians?

In North Korea: When a Christian is discovered, he or she will be taken away by the police. Not only the Christian, but also his or her spouse and children. Sometimes even his/her parents too. To North Koreans, anyone who knows a Christian is “guilty by association.” If you’re guilty, so are the people who live or even just know you. After arrest, a Christian will be locked up in a small but overcrowded cell in a detention center. There, he/she will be interrogated for hours and subject to “light” or even heavy torture. Prisoners hardly receive any food and water; many don’t survive their detention.

After a few months, the courts will decide if the Christian will be prosecuted. When someone must go to court, he/she will be sent to a re-education labor camp with his/her family members. Prisoners in these camps receive on average of 500 calories of food a day and must work 10 to 12 hours a day. They will receive one day of rest every 10 days. At night, lengthy ideological training sessions are testing for the exhausted prisoners.

If someone is not sent to court, he/she will be transferred to a political labor camp. There, the circumstances are even more gruesome than re-education camp. Here, the prisoners have no hope of escape or release; they don’t receive ideological training. These camps are like the Nazi death camps of World War II.

A last possible fate for Christians is execution. Until a few years ago, Christians were sometimes publicly executed by a firing squad. But civilians found those executions too upsetting. Nowadays, political enemies, such as Christians, are killed in prison or labor camp basements by North Korean soldiers.

In Afghanistan, the state is hostile towards Christians, as we reported above. However, the family, clan, tribe or local extremist group will “take care” of converts. Very often, there’s only one possible outcome for exposed and caught Christians: they will be killed. The family, clan or tribe must save its “honor” by disposing of the Christian. Extremist groups will surely not show mercy either.

Why do North Korea and Afghanistan score maximum points in 5 categories of the list, but are so different?

Our WWL methodology measures persecution in five spheres of life: private (your personal space), family, community, national and church. The reasons and actors for persecution are different, but North Korea and Afghanistan are simply so extreme in all these categories that they both received maximum points.

For example, Christians in North Korea are not allowed to have a Bible. If a Bible is discovered at someone’s home, the person will be arrested, tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment in a labor camp, which equates to a death sentence.

In Afghanistan, if a Bible of an Afghan Christian is discovered, the government will not take away the person; instead, that work will be done by family or local community. In the Middle Eastern country, torture with the purpose of forcing a believer to renounce Christ is the modus operandi. Again, just like in North Korea, if someone remains true to his/her faith, he/she will be surely killed.

Why do these countries score 94 and 93 points and not 100?

This relates to the violence category. An estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Christians live their lives inside North Korea’s vast prison system, where starvation, physical and mental abuse are part of every day. So there is a lot of violence in this country that we know of.

Because the church in Afghanistan is much smaller (several thousand believers) we cannot give specific details about violence incidents against Christians for security reasons. But we need little imagination to know that Afghanistan is a severely violent country.

However, both countries score zero points for several kinds of violence we measure, such as rapes or forced marriages for North Korea (which are unknown of), and shops and businesses or Christians destroyed in Afghanistan (where we lack reports.) Maybe, even most likely, this is happening, but a lack of reports in terms of scores counts in favor of the country.

Why is North Korea #1 and Afghanistan #2?

As mentioned above, the church in North Korea is much larger (200,000-400,000 compared to several thousand in Afghanistan) and in a way, more visible compared to that of Afghanistan. That means persecution takes place on a larger scale; so it’s easier and more likely to receive reports. Second, Afghan Christians are able to leave the country easier than North Korean refugees, who face repatriation if they’re caught in China. However, many (Western) countries do repatriate Afghan refugees, even when they’re Christians.

What is the good news?

In both countries, we know that there are faithful believers who will follow Jesus until death. Twenty years ago, the church in North Korea was much smaller. But during the famine in the ’90s, many refugees came to China, and heard and brought back the gospel to their own country. This allowed the underground Church to grow massively.

Twenty years ago, there were hardly any Afghan believers inside Afghanistan. Today, there’s a relatively small number of them–a miracle in itself.

How can we pray?