No. 1 for 20 years on WWL—Inside North Korea’s war on Christians

January 18, 2021 by Lindy Lowry in Asia

For 20 years, North Korea has remained No. 1 on Open Doors’ World Watch List—the most in-depth investigative research and report on Christian persecution available. For the last six decades, North Korea has waged war on Christianity.

The Kim dynasty (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and now Kim Jong Un) has deported and even killed entire families who follow Jesus. Under current ruler Kim Jong Un, life has not gotten any better (some say it is worse) for Christians.

Below, we draw from interviews with North Korean refugees, secrets letters from North Korean church leaders, research and accounts from the book Escaping from North Korea to bring us this informative and insightful look at the realities facing North Korea’s 300,000 believers–and anyone who attempts to help them.

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.

One of the hundreds of monuments to Kim II-Sung throughout North Korea.

One of the hundreds of monuments to Kim II-Sung throughout North Korea.

1945, Kim Il-Sung’s rise to power changes everything. Like Communist Party leaders Stalin (Russia) and Mao Zedong (China), he needs an ideology to bundle the people under his rule. Most of his citizens were born during the Japanese occupation and had never experienced freedom. They wouldn’t have it under Kim’s rule either. He borrowed many concepts from the Japanese for his ideology of race-based nationalism. To the outside world, Kim looked like a common, Communist dictator; in fact, he was more of a fascist.

In Kim Il-Sung’s mind, a true North Korean did not believe in God. (The North Korean language doesn’t even have a good word for God.) Any form of Christianity in his country needed to be eradicated to cleanse the race of this foreign religion. Then, of course, there is also the personality cult. North Korean refugees describe it as, “Kim Il-Sungism: the worship of the leaders.” The idolization has gone so far that all citizens are required to bow before images of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. In every home hang portraits of father and son, and people are required to take good care of the photographs–even if it costs them their lives. When there is a fire and people die while trying to rescue the pictures, they are commemorated with great honor. When they don’t go back in to save the framed images, they face torture and possible death.

1950s, North Korean Christians flee to South Korea: Not surprisingly, many Christians flee to South Korea during the Korean War to escape and worship freely. Their leaving births Kim’s idea that Christians are collaborators. He orders his government machine to investigate and identify which families were known to follow Christ. Tens of thousands of Christians are either killed or sent to remote regions and concentration camps. Before 1945, there was approximately 500,000 Christians in North Korea. Ten years later, there was no visible evidence of their existence. Today, Open Doors estimates that there are some 300,000 Christians professing their faith in secret.

Four teams of surveillance watching for any signs of faith

The state’s attitude remains extremely hostile toward the underground church. One of the main tasks of North Korea’s suppressive system is to expose Christians. A former employee of North Korea’s Public Safety Agency (basically the national police) shares about his training:

“There are always four groups of surveillance teams [in North Korea]: the National Security Agency (NSA), the PSA, the neighborhood unit, and the Primary Party Committee. We gave instructions to the neighborhood unit and the Party Committee to watch certain [Christian] people. We told them to watch them closely and report the people who visit them. We were to be informed every 15 days. If an informant did a good job, we made sure he received a better job. That’s how we made people watch one another.”

The NSA coordinates efforts to uncover “reactionary elements” and “anti-government” forces within North Korea. The agency considers spies, political dissidents, and Christians to be the same threat. The PSA is also involved in the process of religious oppression, mostly because of its extensive network of informants. Arrested Christians are often transferred to the NSA for further investigation.

An important weapon of both the NSA and PSA is the “resident registration dossier,” which includes information on family backgrounds, past religious activities, and political propensities. The PSA’s Department of Resident Registration compiles the dossiers through secret investigations. For their research, they rely heavily on the informant network.

One former NSA agent was in charge of tracking down a group of “religious” people. “[These people] were called the Northwest Youth Association,” he says. “They were all executed. Things like possessing religious books, sharing one’s faith with others, or preaching cannot exist because [those things] undermine the Kim Jong-Il regime. All we need [to arrest someone] is one bit of evidence such as the Bible with someone’s name on it. If only a Bible is found, the NSA leaves it until the real owner shows up.”

In North Korea, agents receive considerable rewards (medals, pay, promotion) for identifying and arresting political offenders, including religious adherents. Informants may earn better jobs; or have unfavorable parts of their own dossiers changed or deleted.

The hands and Bible of North Korean Christian and prison camp survivor Hea Woo.

The hands and Bible of North Korean Christian and prison camp survivor Hea Woo.

Christian training for spies

North Korean Christians are aware that the government tries to infiltrate their networks. One refugee, who was originally sent undercover to China as a false escapee, once spoke to an NSA informant: “There are courses for religion in Kim Il-Sung University,” he said. “Most graduates are recruited by the NSA.” The informant said he was trained to, “uncover religious people, according to special directions from the NSA. He was supposed to look for things such as a person who remains silent with closed eyes and meditates, or when habitual smokers or drinkers suddenly quit smoking or drinking. These people should be targets to be watched closely.”

In both North Korea and China, spies are commissioned to set up fake “secret” prayer meetings to attract Christians. Chinese pastors are recruited and paid to turn in North Korean believers as well. Some North Korean security officials are trained to understand religions, identify religious literature, and interrogate anyone suspected of illegal religious activities. They’re trained to ask questions to determine if a repatriated Christian refugee intends to practice Christianity in North Korea. Questions about practicing Buddhism are not asked.

North Korean refugee Han-me fled to China, where she was arrested and sent back to North Korea by train. Her journey is telling:

“Some other defectors [on the train] had been arrested before. They told me: ‘When you’re interrogated, there are two questions you should never answer ‘yes’ to. The first one is: Have you been in touch with Christians? The second one is: Have you read in the Bible?’

“It turned out to be true. In prison, the interrogators tied me to a chair and beat me with chains and a wooden stick wrapped up in a newspaper. They pressed me to confess I had been in contact with Christians. I told them I hadn’t met any Christians while in China. It was a lie, but I wanted to survive. It was all I could think of. Even though I didn’t believe in God yet, I prayed to be rescued. My prayer was heard.”

With the October 2010 official appointment of Kim Jong Un as the heir of his father Kim Jong-Il, North Korea has stepped up its attempts to uncover any religious activities. Since he took office December 2011, there have been more house raids, more spies trained and dispatched and even a murder attempt and one successful assassination of foreign Christians. Although the ruling Kim continues to initiate conversations with world leaders, local Christians aren’t optimistic about any change for the better. In fact, the situation may get worse.

The Church is alive

Over the years in North Korea, many Christians have died terrible deaths and have suffered tremendous agony in prison camps and dungeons. But the Church in this dark country is more alive than ever. One secret Christian leader tells Open Doors: “Whenever I visit our suffering believers’ houses, I see if they have any problems and try to prepare any countermeasures for them. Even though they are suffering from many things in life, I encourage them to find hope and happiness through their hardships and live with hope for the eternal Kingdom of God. Of course, there are dangers also. Our biggest fear is that there may be a Judas within the church organization.”

The North Korean Christians assure us there is victory, even when they’re tortured and killed.

“I’ve known this man for a long time,” says a Christian friend of a prisoner. “When he came to faith, he made the decision that one day he would die for Christ. Every Christian in North Korea has made that choice. Every Christian in my country has the spirit of martyrdom in him. If you lose that spirit for one second, you cannot carry the burden of being a follower of Jesus. My friend knew that one day he could get caught and on that day he had to be steadfast in the faith and loyal to Jesus. I am convinced he can take the suffering because he constantly reminds himself of the joy that is set before him.”

North Korean Christians are living evidence that God’s Word, and especially His promises, bring strength. The North Korean church realizes that there has never been a spiritual breakthrough in a hard place without suffering. Many North Koreans discover that Jesus Christ is God—not the Kims. They commit their lives to Him despite the fact that it will cost them a great deal of pain. Jesus is their only hope for this life and the next.

Open Doors comes alongside our persecuted family from North Korea, working through our network in China to help strengthen the church. Each year, thousands of tons of food, medicine, clothes, books, Bibles and other materials are distributed to Christians who are able to make it out of North Korea.

“Your help is proof that God has not forgotten us,” says one Christian who was helped in China.

Believers in North Korea don’t fight their battle alone. As the church, we’re called to support them, so that God’s Kingdom continues to grow and advance. And it could be that the North Korean church suddenly appears at the doorstep in nearby countries.

When two Chinese church deacons heard a polite knock on their door, they were amazed to see an 11-year old North Korean girl. She had been hiking for hours through water and mountains and asked them for support.

“Little girl, how did you know to come here for help?” the deacons asked her. She replied confidently: “My grandfather once told me: ‘If you ever need help, look for the cross and go there. People at the cross will help you.’”

Pray for North Korean Believers

  • Pray with believers against the darkness of their regime that oppresses its people and rules by fear and control. Pray that God would miracles in the hearts of persecutors (like He did with Saul, the chief persecutor of Christians).
  • Pray with Christians in North Korea that they would sense beyond doubt God drawing them close, giving them a peace that passes all understanding.
  • Pray with North Korean believers who are suffering in prison camps. Pray that God would strengthen them spiritually, mentally and physically. We pray, God, that Your gospel would flourish in these jails and prisons, and we pray that You would raise up leaders in these prisons to share their story of faith.
  • Pray with families that each time they open the Bible, their faith would be emboldened and that God would give them a spirit of power and love, not timidity or fear.

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