What happens to North Korea’s Christians if Kim Jong Un dies?

April 23, 2020 by Ryan Hamm in Persecution updates

“Is Kim Jong Un dying?”


That was the surprising question on the minds of many North Korea observers this week, thanks to a report from CNN alleging that the United States was monitoring intelligence that the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, was in grave danger.


Soon more news came out of South Korea, disputing the reports that Kim was in danger. But he had missed a significant event for North Korea, a rarity during his regime.

Kim Jong Un has presided over a country that has been ranked No. 1 on the World Watch List for almost 20 years. There is no more dangerous place to be a Christian—if believers are discovered, they risk imprisonment in one of North Korea’s notorious prison camps, or even execution.

So: What would it mean for North Korean Christians if Kim Jong Un is sick or dying? What would it mean for the North Korean government? And how can we pray for North Korea and for its secret, 300,000 believers?

First: What do we actually know?

Because Kim Jong Un—like his deceased father and grandfather—is treated as a deity, all information about him is tightly controlled. The North Korean government will only announce bad news if it’s obvious something bad has happened, and so far they have remained quiet about Kim Jong Un’s health.

That is surprising, because in the past, whenever the international media has speculated about his health, the North Korean government has countered this with propaganda messages. The fact that this hasn’t happened indicates that something is going on.

Though he is only 30, Kim is noticeably unhealthy, as he is a chain-smoker and heavily obese, and diabetes runs in the Kim family. A source told Daily NK—a news website run by North Korean defectors—that Kim Jong Un underwent heart surgery, and is recovering from the surgery in a villa outside of Pyongyang. Both the hospital and the villa are for the exclusive use of the Kim family.

Open Doors wants to emphasize that this news cannot be confirmed. It seems clear, however, that his health condition is not good—though we do not think he has died. On April 22, North Korea released a statement from Kim Jong Un—releasing a public statement would be a huge risk if Kim was dead.

What will happen in the North Korean government if Kim dies?

A child stands in front of a North Korean propaganda monument. The text reads: “Following the Great Leader, to the end of heaven and earth.”

A child stands in front of a North Korean propaganda monument. The text reads: “Following the Great Leader, to the end of heaven and earth.”

The current leaders in North Korea are very dependent on the Kim family for their survival. Kim Jong Un has at least one child, but possibly two or three. All of them are below the age of 10, and are not ready to succeed their father.

Despite North Korea being patriarchal society, it is very likely that Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, would be appointed as the new formal leader of the country. However, the most probable scenario is that current important political and military officials would form a collective leadership, with Kim Yo-jong as the figurehead leader.

These leaders are an integral part of the current regime and we shouldn’t expect too much change from them. The reason they are at the top is because they are loyal and want to preserve the current dynasty.

In 2011, when Kim Jong Il died, there was a struggle to find a new balance. On a grassroots level, little changed for ordinary citizens. At the political top, however, there were many purges, resulting in the execution of Kim Jong Un’s mentor and uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

A sudden loss of Kim Jong Un now would likely lead to upheaval and chaos, at least in the upper levels of the country’s political leadership.

Is there a chance the North Korean regime will implode?

The above scenario where Kim Yo-jong takes over with the help of a collective leadership is more probable, but there is a chance that something unexpected will happen. Kim Jong Un has few friends and many enemies. It is possible that these enemies will turn against him, a power battle will emerge and something unexpected will happen. We can’t be sure though.

How would his death effect the situation for Christians?

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After the previous leadership transitions in 1994 and 2011, there was an increase in social control. The weaker the leader, the more he or she needs to exercise an iron fist policy to make sure people stay in line.

Kim Jong Un was not even 30 when he “inherited” a country. Most generals and politicians thought he couldn’t do the job because of his young age. He worked on his public image and tried to resemble his grandfather more, but in the meantime, he increased his restrictive grip on the population.

A new leader will have to do the same—especially if the new leader is Kim’s sister, a young woman. We expect that the situation for Christians and others who are considered to be enemies of the state will continue to be fragile.

If the regime doesn’t fall, is there a chance North Korea at least will change its policies? Would they persecute Christians less?

With the absolute power in North Korea held by Kim Jong Un and his family, the country will always persecute Christians, at least at the current level and possibly at a higher level. This is because the Kim’s regime believes that Christianity has the potential to threaten their absolute power.

A recent release of a propaganda film titled “The Trait of Anti-Revolution of Shamanistic Religion and Religious Superstition” was used to indoctrinate North Korean people throughout the country against shamans and Christians. The goal of the movie is to warn citizens about secret believers.

The Kim dynasty has always viewed Christianity as a threat. If the regime doesn’t fall, there’s little reason to think that approach will change.

How do North Korean Christians feel about the situation?

North Korean propaganda poster showing children in front of the flag and Juche Tower.

North Korean propaganda poster showing children in front of the flag and Juche Tower.

They are earnestly praying. Most refugees outside North Korea are very concerned. At the moment, because of the COVID-19 restrictions, they are unable to contact their families.

We can’t speak for all refugees, but many feel a lot of resentment towards the current leadership. It’s difficult for them to forgive Kim Jong Un and all that he represents.

What are North Korean Christians praying for?

The believers pray for the safety of the underground churches, for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, for the country’s stability, and for alleviation of the persecution of Christians. Above all, they pray for the gospel to shine through in North Korea.

Refugees also pray for the safety of their families inside North Korea, for a regime change and the collapse of the current system, and for a government that’s more open and less controlling. They pray for a reunification that leads to a democratic system—and a reunification led by the gospel.

How can I pray for North Korea and the secret believers there?

You can:

  • Pray for the secret believers who are likely dealing with coronavirus on top of the normal pain of living in a country where they are constantly in danger.
  • Pray for the Christians in North Korea who have to worship in secret. Pray they will be safe and they will know the comfort of Jesus.
  • Pray that, no matter what happens with Kim Jong Un, the government will open up and allow freedom for believers to publicly live out their faith.
  • Pray for the health and salvation of Kim Jong Un. Pray God will touch his heart and he will repent and seek salvation.

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