You’ve probably heard that North Korea regards Christians and Christianity with significant suspicion. This has been the case for generations, as Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and, now, Kim Jong Un have all sought to consolidate power and a cult of personality around them and their family. The Kim dynasty works hard at displaying orchestrated appearances both to the North Korean people and the outside world. A facade that tends to keep natives and foreigners guessing about the country with one of the world’s worst human rights record.
Case in point–earlier this month Kim Jong Un sent an invitation to Pope Francis through South Korean President Moon Jae-in, saying the Pope would be “enthusiastically welcomed.” Pope Francis is now considering the invitation with reports indicating a “strong intention” to visit the officially atheist country.
So, what’s going on? Why is the regime—which rules over a country that has ranked No. 1 on the World Watch List for almost two decades—extending an invitation to a Catholic Christian leader?
Is this a change of heart for Kim Jung Un? An indication of something shifting in the closed country know for its isolation and fear tactics, especially toward Christians? Or is this a part of a North Korean culture known for its penchant to create facades in an attempt to tell a different story? A story radically different from the truth that has been credibly reported for decades?
To answer these questions, it’s important to look at the country’s historical context and the various ways the Kim regime works to create a fake image far different from reality.
North Korea’s Show Churches
One of the most blatant examples of North Korea manipulating appearances is what observers have called the country’s “show” churches, meaning they are places where the North Korean government makes a “show” to outsiders of allowing worship.
In total, North Korea has four churches—two Protestant, one Roman Catholic and one Russian Orthodox–inside the capital city of Pyongyang. Most of those church buildings were constructed in the 1980s, with the Russian Orthodox church most recently opening in 2006.
Most people who have gone to church there have found them to be more exercises in political propaganda than any true worship of God. Some of the photos taken inside these churches show large monitors projecting the sermons, similar to U.S. megachurches with multiple sites. Other photos show worshippers sparsely spread out in small groups among mostly empty pews.
In reality, congregants don’t know songs, sermons are more like political speeches, and there may not even be any actual ordained ministers or clergy to lead the congregations.
In an August 2017 interview, Chad O’Carroll, managing director of the Seoul-based news and analysis firm Korea Risk Group, told Fox News that these congregants and pastors are generally just hand-picked state workers whose vocation is to feign religion. The collection plates are passed through congregations and locals appear to donate as foreigners look on, but the plate ends up empty at the end.
“Guides often complain about having to go to church and put on the show because some diplomatic figure is in town,” he explained.
North Korean defector Joo-Eun echoes O’Carroll, telling Open Doors, “Yes, there are church services in North Korea but only when foreigners are present. The state calls up some locals to be present. There is no religious freedom in North Korea. People are simply killed if they believe in Jesus. Kim Jong Un is god, and there cannot be any god besides him.”
In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, no priest has been present in the country since the late 1940s. And the newest religious building, the Russian Orthodox church, is led by two men who were plucked from the North Korean intelligence service. They aren’t able to offer communion and seem to have very little idea of what they are supposed to believe.
The reasoning behind the building of the church is unclear. Reportedly Kim Jong II came up with the idea on a trip to Russia in 2002. There, he visited a Russian Orthodox church. The next year, he sent four young men to Moscow for spiritual training.
In 2006, Fyodor Kim, one of the church’s new Orthodox deacons at the time, admitted that it had been “very difficult” to adopt the Orthodox religion–but that he didn’t have much choice.
There is also a theological seminary in North Korea—Pyonyang Theological Seminary, which is run by the Korean Christian Federation (KCF). It trains church leaders for the KCF. Both are controlled by the government—the Kim regime dictates who will attend the seminary and what will be taught.
A Village With No People
Also widely reported is the existence of a full-scale fake civilian village along the DMZ border between North Korea and South Korea. Named Kijong-dong, it’s also called Peace Village–and Propaganda Village. The lights go on an off, and the roads are periodically swept. But the windows have no glass, and there are no people living in this phony display built in the 1950s to lure potential defectors to North Korea.
Kijong-dong was built to impress. The costly blue-tiled roofs, and the electric power supply are meant to show luxury and success, especially at the time it was built.
Images from Google Earth show a town with three main centers, interspersed with farmland. Each center has rows of what appear to be very large houses or public buildings, many with large gardens.
The official North Korean position is that Kijong-dong is a thriving community, which contains a large collective farm (run by 200 families) and many social services, such as schools and a hospital. Yet reportedly, anyone on the border with a pair of binoculars can see that Kijong-dong is empty.
It’s another example of the great lengths North Korea goes to hide the truth.
Numerous reports from outside journalists and tourists indicate the country’s attempt to paint a pristine picture of peacefulness and freedom for those visiting the country. Reports offer descriptions of well-dressed government officials called “minders” who restrict reporters and visitors to meticulously staged presentations that inevitably center on praise for the Kim dynasty. Police will even detain and potentially expel any foreigner who tries to explore farther than the designated routes and the few hotels they are permitted to stay in.
A 2012 CBS News story describes what visiting reporters saw when their press bus took a wrong turn:
“A cloud of brown dust swirled down deeply potholed streets, past concrete apartment buildings crumbling at the edges. Old people trudged along the sidewalk, some with handmade backpacks crafted from canvas bags. Two men in wheelchairs waited at a bus stop. There were stores with no lights, and side roads so battered they were more dirt than pavement.”
“They’ve left very few stones unturned in North Korea,” Anthony Brunello, a professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, told CBS News. He has studied totalitarian propaganda methods and said North Korean officials will go to nearly any extreme to create a system that will keep the Kim family in power.
“They’ve managed to create a process of control that works,” he said.
Most foreign visitors to Pyongyang never encounter a pothole, a traffic jam or a piece of litter. They see no people with physical disabilities and no graffiti.
Further, a Russian documentary film called Under the Sun revealed the inner workings of how a propaganda film is made in North Korea. Initially intended as a portrayal of a happy family in North Korea, producers released a film that instead became a behind-the-scenes look at how North Korean authorities wield power to manipulate appearances.
And now, current ruler Kim Jong Un has initiated a visit from the Pope himself.
This actually isn’t the first time a pope has been invited to North Korea. Pope John Paul II was invited in 1991 and again in 2000. However, both times the Catholic leadership rejected the invitations, citing the fact that North Korea had expelled all priests—and likely because of North Korea’s notorious treatment of all Christians, including Roman Catholics.
Additionally, other Christian leaders have been invited to—and have gone—to North Korea. Billy Graham visited North Korea in 1992; his son, Franklin, most recently visited in 2009. The elder Graham even delivered a copy of his book, Peace With God, to Kim Il Sung, the ruling Kim at the time.
So what does all this mean?
A Massive Asterisk
The link that connects all the examples of North Korea’s seeming openness to religion can be summed up in one word: control. North Korea has no problem with religion or belief systems as long as those beliefs don’t mean the leadership isn’t challenged; the State is trusted above and beyond any other system; and worship is directed at the ruling Kim. Those things, of course, are contradictory to any religion, including Christianity.
Christians assert that believers live under the Kingship of Jesus Christ, that He is the only one worthy of worship and that our citizenship and membership in the Body of Christ is more important than any pledge to a government or system of power. That doesn’t play well in a regime dedicated to upholding the power of a single family and belief system above all else.
In reality, what seems to be freedom at first glance is actually anything but. The North Korean constitution might guarantee freedom of religion … but it goes on to say that religion must not challenge the State or bring in influence from any “foreign” powers. Which, of course, means that any religion challenging the full control of Kim Jong Un isn’t actually allowed.
While the North Korean constitution guarantees “freedom of religious beliefs,” that “freedom” exists only on paper.
North Korea knows what it’s supposed to say and do on the world stage to appear to be a place with human rights. And Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather, knows how to appear benevolent and gracious in the eyes of his people. But so far, North Korea’s efforts to offer freedom to worship Jesus are just empty showcases of how much control the government truly desires.
And the invitations to the Pope and to Billy Graham are likely part of this agenda—the ruler of North Korea is trying to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the world and to show his people how powerful he is, that even the leaders of other religions would meet with him. That’s likely why, in a retrospective about one of Billy Graham’s visits to North Korea, the official North Korea newspaper wrote that Graham called Kim Il Sung “the God who rules today’s human world.”
This is, of course, nonsense, but gives you an idea of what the regime finds useful in these visits.
A Critical Small Step
At Open Doors, we remain hopeful and encouraged that God can use anything—even invitations made in bad faith! Regardless of why Kim Jong Un is inviting Pope Francis to North Korea, it still offers a possibility for someone to speak God’s truth to a ruler who has brutally oppressed God’s people. It is a chance to raise the human rights atrocities of the Kim regimes to the very person responsible—and to ask for a change. It may be a meeting that God has orchestrated for such a time as this.
“Would a meeting between Pope Francis and Kim pave the way for desperately needed religious freedom in North Korea?” asks David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA. “No one can say for sure. But in challenging times, people of faith must act in faith. This meeting could be the small step the world has been waiting for that will lead to bigger steps toward improved human rights under the Kim regime.
“Respectfully, I say to Pope Francis, ‘go. Go and go boldly.’
“Have an open discussion with Kim, who has offered to warmly welcome you. Ask him to loosen the regulations that have suppressed the free expression of Christian faith and other religions. Ask him to allow you and other humanitarian partners to visit and assess the condition of religious prisoners in labor camps. Offer to connect Kim with advisors who can help North Korea shift its policies toward religious tolerance and create open distribution channels to make Bibles and other religious materials accessible. I implore you. Do not allow this rare opportunity to pass!”
In the meantime, pray with the Open Doors community for North Korea, asking God to soften Kim Jong Un’s heart. And pray for your brothers and sisters in North Korea, who risk everything to follow Jesus.