China, Dandong. A South Korean man waits for a taxi when someone suddenly walks up behind him. The South Korean doesn’t notice the man, that is, until he feels a sharp pin-prick in his neck. The lethal injection of a poisoned needle.
Though the autopsy doesn’t determine cause of death, witness accounts tell enough. This South Korean Christian, heavily involved in an underground railway to help North Korean refugees escape, has been assassinated.
Less than three weeks later, another South Korean Christian receives a phone call from the South Korean intelligence service telling him not to meet up with a North Korean acquaintance. This man will attempt to murder him, they say. Not much later at a train platform, South Korean police arrest the North Korean agent carrying needles and poison.
North Korea doesn’t only murder its own citizens for being Christians, but now foreigners too? The country’s six decades-war on Christianity is lethal and unscrupulous. As a result, Christians in North Korea have been forced underground.
“I never noticed religious activities when I lived in North Korea,” says one refugee. “All we learned was that Christians were spies collaborating with the American enemy and that they would not hesitate to catch us and kill us. When I fled to China and was completely destitute, I had nowhere else to go than to a church. I knocked on the door. My whole body trembled. The pastor gave me some money, and I ran away—happy I had survived.”
The Big Why: A Brief History
It’s difficult to understand why North Korea’s brutal regime is so determined to wipe out Christianity. The following historical summary provides some insight:
1866: The “General Sherman incident”: According to official North Korean history, the first clash between Korea and Christianity took place when the U.S. ship General Sherman entered Korean waters to open up negotiations for trading. The Korean rulers attack, and after several days all crew members are killed. Among them is an American missionary who offers a Bible to one of the Korean soldiers—just seconds before the soldier chopped off his head.
1903 and 1907, revival breaks out: Not mentioned in the official history is that soon after the “General Sherman incident,” more foreign Christians came and Christianity began to put down deeper roots (before 1866, there were already around 23,000 Roman Catholics in the country). In 1903, a spiritual revival takes place in Wonsan and in 1907 in Pyongyang. The revival rapidly spreads throughout the country, and many Koreans turn to Christ.
1910: Japan invades, and persecution begins: Slowly, Japan tries to assimilate the Korean nation, forcing them to worship their emperor. In the 1930s, Japan legally requires everyone to worship Emperor Hirohito. Many Korean Christians refuse and are harshly punished for their “treason.” Christians became very popular among their fellow countrymen for their resistance against the occupier.
1945, North Korea is liberated: For centuries, the Korean people had waited for a strong leader to take on their enemies. Enter, Kim Il-Sung, who from 1925 to 1945 leads the struggle against Japan, eventually liberating North Korea. For North Koreans, world history is divided into two eras: before and after Kim II-Sung’s birth in 1902. Similar to how the Western world speaks of the periods before and after Christ.