In North Korea: When a Christian is discovered, the process begins. Police will take them away, as well as their spouse and children. Sometimes even their parents are taken, 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 know you. After arrest, a Christian will be locked up in a small, overcrowded cell in a detention center. Ex-prisoners have shared with Open Doors about hours of abusive interrogations. Prisoners receive little 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 is sent to court, they will be sent to a re-education labor camp with their family members. Labor camp prisoners must work 10 to 12 hours a day, surviving on only 500 calories of food or less. Refugees have told stories of working 10 days straight, with only one day of rest. At night, lengthy ideological training sessions test the mental and emotional fortitude of exhausted prisoners.
If someone is not sent to court, they will be transferred to a political labor camp called a kwan-li-so. There, circumstances are even more gruesome than in a re-education camp. Prisoners have no hope of escape or release; they don’t receive ideological training. Survivors of Auschwitz have compared the conditions in these camps to 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. Today, political enemies, such as Christians, are killed in prison or labor camp basements by North Korean soldiers.
In Afghanistan, the process is much simpler. The state is hostile towards Christians. 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 do not show mercy, either.
How can North Korea and Afghanistan score maximum points in 5 categories of the list but be so different?
Our World Watch List methodology measures persecution in five spheres of life: private (your personal space), family, community, national and church. The reasons 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, they 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 South Asian 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 their faith, they are signing their death warrant.
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 and 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 violent incidents against Christians for security reasons—even to disclose attacks or deaths would reveal too much information about believers there. But we need little imagination to know that Afghanistan is a severely violent country for Christians.
Why is North Korea No. 1 and Afghanistan No. 2?
Because the church in North Korea is much larger (an estimated 200,000 to 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 outsiders will receive reports. Second, Afghan Christians are able to leave the country more easily 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’s 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.