North Korea’s third nuclear test, announced early last week, has produced an explosion of international concern. The United Nations Security Council strongly condemned the test, calling the latest nuclear test “a clear threat to international peace and security.” More sanctions are expected against Pyongyang. Even China, North Korea’s closest ally, is running out of patience, according to a report by Jerry Dykstra of Open Doors USA.
North Korea’s paranoid, dictatorial rulers remain defiant in the face of international opinion. After the nuclear test, which produced an earthquake measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale, a North Korean propagandist urged the communist Korean People’s Army to prepare to “blow up the stronghold of aggression at a strike” and “wipe out the brigandish U.S. imperialists and South Korea puppet army to the last man and thus accomplish the historic cause of national reunification.” Earlier this week, North Korea threatened South Korea with “final destruction.”
Beneath all of Pyongyang’s buster, and the geopolitical fears of the rest of the world, hides a brutal reality that has received too little attention from the international community. The fanatical regime, which rules the destitute country of 24 million people with a proverbial iron fist, maintains a special hatred for Christians.
North Korea is in a league of its own when it comes to persecution of Christians. Researchers estimate there are as many as 70,000 Christians in the country’s gulags out of an estimated 200,000 prisoners.
For the eleventh consecutive year, North Korea tops the World Watch List ranking of Open Doors, which tracks the persecution of Christians around the globe. Pitted against consistent human rights offenders such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it’s hard to gain the top spot on the WWL even once – much less for 11 years in a row.
But North Korea has an advantage that even its unsavory “competition” does not. Whether headed by “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il, or “Great Successor” Kim Jong-Un, the country is run like a giant religious cult. The dynastic regime propagates two ideologies-Juche, which asserts that man is self-reliant, and “Kimilsungism,” the worship of the leaders. This aggressive agenda mandates that citizens attend at least weekly meetings and memorize more than 100 pages of propaganda. Around 100,000 Juche “research centers” are reportedly scattered across the country. In this environment, Christianity is seen as a Western-instigated threat to the regime.
Defectors, circumstantial evidence and international observers’ reports show that the situation for North Korean Christians is deteriorating rather than improving. The new leader, Kim Jong-Un, may have a different leadership style than his father, but persecution of Christians will likely continue or even worsen.
Many North Koreans attempt to escape to neighboring China, where an informal network of Christians seeks to provide practical assistance to those crossing the border. However, the reach of Pyongyang extends even into China. Police officials follow the refugees into China, hunt them down and vigorously prosecute those who convert to Christianity while in China, as well as those who attempt to bring Christian literature back to North Korea.
Every defector caught and repatriated must answer questions such as “Did you meet any Christians in China?” and “Have you visited a church in China?”
Open Doors has confirmed the recent deaths of two Christians in North Korea. One was shot while returning to China for Bible training. “He was very excited about his new faith and wanted to share the gospel with his family,” says an Open Doors worker. “He wanted to come back to China to study the Bible more so he could explain the Christian faith better to his family. It is heartbreaking that he was killed.”
Another Christian man, who had also studied the Bible in China, recently died in a labor camp.
However, some arrested Christians are brutally tortured and then released. The regime hopes that they will serve as bait to betray their families and other Christians.
“This is extremely tragic,” says one ministry worker. “It’s so dangerous to help Christians who have been released by the government. Some have been tortured so severely they cannot walk anymore. Often we cannot help them, because that would bring too much risk to us. All we can do is pray for them. We know that Jesus will not leave them, nor forsake them.”
The number of trained North Korean spies inside China is growing. They are attempting to track down human rights activists and Christians helping North Korean refugees. Border patrols have been taken over by the North Korean National Security Agency which pressures smugglers to turn in Chinese Christians who are helping defectors.
In September 2011, a South Korean missionary was assassinated by North Korean agents. Another narrowly escaped. A South Korean pastor who was aiding North Koreans in China, meanwhile, was killed in an unexplained car accident.
So while nuclear fears pulls the headlines and attention of the global community away from the plight of North Korean Christians, these stalwart, beleaguered believers, unwavering in their faith, are grateful for the help and prayers of other believers around the world.
In a letter smuggled out of North Korea, an underground church leader wrote, “No matter what circumstances we face, we stand firm in the mighty hands of God, and we will continue to march strongly towards the eternal kingdom.”
Father, we pray today for Your beloved people in North Korea-isolated, vulnerable, oppressed, hunted down-yet loved by the King of heaven and earth; loved by You. Comfort and protect them with your strong right arm. Strengthen their faith and grant them endurance to not only withstand their plight but to stand gloriously as Your beacons of light. We ask boldly for You to break the bonds of oppression in North Korea that Your name might be lifted high. In the name of Jesus in whose righteousness we stand before You, Amen.