As the summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un approaches on June 12 in Singapore, news headlines speculating on what the two world leaders will discuss run rampant. To date, the White House has itemized denuclearization and improving relations between the two countries as front-burner topics. But the historic meeting also gives President Trump an unprecedented opportunity on another front.
For the first time in history, the President of the United States has the chance to sit face-to-face with Kim Jong Un, look him in the eyes, and confront the dictator about his country’s decades-long severe human rights violations, specifically those in North Korea’s infamous prison camp system—prisons that have been compared to World War II Nazi concentration camps.
The opportunity will come just days after the recent prison reform summit in Washington, D.C., where the President met with leaders to discuss needed reforms for the U.S. prison system. A month ago, he met with Nigeria President Buhari and, at the urging of Open Doors supporters, addressed widespread violence against Christians in the country’s unstable Middle Belt.
Now, it’s President Trump’s time to challenge and talk straight with the ruler of the country that for the last 17 years has ranked at No. 1 on Open Doors’ annual World Watch List, which documents the top countries where it’s most difficult to be a Christian.
As Bad—or Even Worse—Than Auschwitz
A 2017 report by the International Bar Association War Committee offers gut-wrenching details from personal testimonies, video, transcripts and scholarly works about the state of North Korea’s prison camps. One of the judges, a former child survivor of the notorious concentration camp in Auschwitz, said the conditions in North Korea were as bad—or even worse—than what he experienced in the Nazi concentration camp.
The abusive camps are used as a Christian torture tool by the Kim regime to keep North Koreans in line. They are a constant threat designed to punish and reform citizens through interrogation-based detention centers, ritual torture and finally, labor camps where they serve their sentence. The Kim regime ensures that North Koreans hear the stories of the shocking reality of the inhumane conditions and abusive treatment inside the camps—an effective deterrent.
Accounts and stories of ex-prisoners in North Korea are sobering reminders of the darkness and brutality. The recent War Committee report shares stories of routine public executions carried out in front of both children and adults designed to “subdue the prison population.” In another account, the prison guards executed starving prisoners “found digging for edible plants on a mountainside.”
Kenneth Bae, a missionary imprisoned in a camp and later released, described working long hours manually tilling rocky soil in a field. Bae would routinely lose dozens of pounds, be sent to hospitals to recover, and then be sent back to the camps.
And for Americans, one of the most notable examples of North Korea’s inhumane treatment of prisoners is Otto Warmbier, an American student from Cincinnati unjustly imprisoned for 18 months on trumped-up charges—a pattern under Kim Jong-un’s rule. Warmbier died last year—only days after being medically evacuated from a North Korean prison. His father, Fred Warmbier, has said that essentially, North Korea sent his son home in a body bag. Otto’s death serves as a disturbing reflection of Kim’s disregard for human life and human rights that continues to characterize and define the communist country.
A Daily Reality for 250,000 North Koreans
The abuses, injustices and severe mistreatment endured in the North Korean prison system are difficult to wrap our heads around. But they are a daily reality for an estimated 250,000 North Koreans held in prison camps—a reality that’s happening right now, at this very moment.
While I am thankful for President Trump’s recent efforts to free American citizens Kim Hak-song, Kim Sang-duk and Kim Dong Chul from imprisonment in North Korea (two were Christian professors from North Korea’s only private university) and American Josh Holt held in Venezuela, as well as his and U.S. government leaders’ engagement in the efforts to free U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson from prison in Turkey, we can’t stop here.
The lives of thousands of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children depend on President Trump’s decision to not look away and instead initiate the conversation to confront these daily atrocities.
Open Doors CEO David Curry reminds us that President Trump has a unique opportunity to advocate for far more than a handful of hostages. “We must push forward to negotiate with North Korea to release all political dissidents being held across their prison system,” he says.
We can pray and urge President Trump to be intentional about and committed to challenging Kim who in late April 2018 condemned U.S. criticism of its human rights record as “ridiculous.” Curry advocates for transparency within the country’s prisons and calls for Kim to open his labor camps to the Red Cross and the United Nations Council of Inquiry.
“We must gain transparency into how these people are being treated,” Curry said. “And then President Trump must make it clear that Kim Jong Un can only be invited back into the world’s good graces, and be lauded for political gestures if he commits to resolving decades of human rights violations at the hands of his regime.”
50,000 Christians in Prison for Their Faith in Christ
Since the 1950s and ‘60s, the number of Christians in North Korea has diminished when—under the leadership of Kim II-Sung–70,000 Christians were killed, sent to labor camps or banished to remote areas.
Open Doors’ partners in North Korea estimate that a small number of these banished Christians are still alive, along with about 50,000 of their descendants, and that another 50,000 believers are held in prison and hard labor camps, re-education camps and detention centers.
In the communist country, Christians are seen as the enemy. “Christianity is regarded as a political crime and it is punished like one,” says John Choi, a North Korean refugee and survivor of a prison camp, arrested and jailed when he was 15.
According to the recent War Committee report, inside the camps, prisoners are often “tortured and killed on account of their religious affiliation, with officials instructed ‘to wipe out the seed of [Christian] reactionaries.’”
In one especially heinous account, guards killed a prisoner’s newborn baby by feeding it to the guard dogs.
“Many Christians do not survive,” Choi told Open Doors’ Sarah Cunningham. “They are tortured and used to test biological and chemical weapons—a VX gas like the kind used to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half-brother.
“Christian women who become pregnant are especially targeted for this type of torture. It’s because they possess or read the Bible that they perish in this severe way,” he said. Under Kim’s rule, “Christians literally have to choose between life and death.”
Describing her detention, a North Korean believer/prison camp survivor echoes Choi’s observations and experience. She was forced to strip down for a cavity search, then placed in solitary confinement, a room just large enough for a single person to lie down, because of her faith. Pregnant prisoners were taken away for abortions, she said. After violent interrogations, prisoners in labor camps continue to face physical and emotional torment. They work 12-hour shifts, receive a few hundred grams of food a day, and are not permitted to bathe themselves.
Another former prisoner shares her experience: “My parents were secret Christians,” she said, “and when we were discovered, we were forcibly moved to a camp and accused of being a rebellious Christian family.
“The fact that our family did not deny our faith was the only reason that we were not allowed to see, speak, or go anywhere. We had to live long years and suffer from the hardest labors.”
Praying and Fasting for God’s Unseen Hand to Move
Open Doors Founder Brother Andrew has seen a lifetime of answered prayers, both in small and large, eternity-altering ways. He reminds us that, “our prayers can go where we cannot … there are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray.”
The thought of 50,000 North Korean believers imprisoned for their faith being freed from the gates of these camps and their inhumane living conditions should drive the world’s 2.2 billion Christians to their knees. We have a biblical responsibility to intercede for these believers and ask God to make it clear to President Trump that the time is now—for such a time as this—to start this unprecedented freedom work for His suffering people.
The picture of an underground church of 300,000 Christians worshiping Christ together and openly reading the Bible should compel us to do all we can—what we are called to do—to pray for President Trump, asking God to remove the scales from the eyes of Kim and his regime like He did 2,000 years ago days after a Kingdom-advancing encounter on a dirt road toward Damascus. We can pray for God’s Kingdom to expand on the northern part of the Korean peninsula like never before in history.
I can’t help but think that this landmark meeting gives not only President Trump the historic opportunity to address these decades of abuse and set a course in motion for a new North Korea—and a better tomorrow for God’s people. It also affords us the chance to join God in what He is doing through prayer and fasting. Please join Open Doors on June 11 for 24 hours of prayer and fasting for the Summit. We also invite you to participate in an online Prayer Summit the night of June 11 when Christians around the globe will gather to pray together.
As the Body of Christ that both suffers and rejoices with our persecuted family (1 Cor. 12:26), our support for Christians in North Korea is critical to the life and growth of the underground church. We can’t afford to neglect this moment.
Open Doors has over 60 years experience to meet the rising tide of Christian persecution. Join us and stand with your suffering brothers and sisters!