*The arrest of Kim Jong-Un’s uncle Jang Sung Taek as shown on North Korean television (Central Korea Television)
The North Korean regime announced that Kim Jong-Un’s uncle, Jang Sung Taek, had been removed from all his positions and was executed by a firing squad. According to North Korea’s press agency KNCA, “Jang pretended to uphold the party and leader, but was engrossed in factional acts and dreaming different dreams… That was why the party eliminated Jang, and purged his group.” This latest development, troubling news for all North Koreans citizens, is especially ominous for Christians, who are viewed as enemies of the state.
According to North Korea’s press agency KNCA, “Jang pretended to uphold the party and leader, but was engrossed in factional acts and dreaming different dreams… That was why the party eliminated Jang, and purged his group, unable to look on any longer.” The news was also broadcast through the state’s official media channels, and the population was officially cautioned that, “People can instantly become traitors, no matter how long they have served the party.” Jang was accused of crimes including faction-building and “dissolute and depraved” behavior involving drug use, womanizing and gambling.
The previous leader, Kim Jong-il, died of a heart attack in December 2011. In his final years as a leader, he invested much time in preparing his son Kim Jong-Un to take power. He appointed his sister’s husband (Jang) and military chief Ri Yong Ho as guardians. Ri was removed from his position due to “bad health” last year. On Monday, December 9th, Jang was officially relieved from his posts, and his arrest was broadcasted on the state television station. His wife was separated from him. No one is sure who will be next, but Kim Jong-Un is clearly carrying out a very public round of purges.
Jang’s advocacy of slight, “Chinese-style” economic reforms had gained him opposition from hardliners in the regime. The current status quo is what keeps the regime in power. They know that even a small economic reform that moves a step closer to a freer market economy will create more freedom for citizens to make decisions and choices for themselves. Such economic reforms would also be a big blow to the 60-year-old rhetoric that North Korea is the world’s purest communist country, completely clear of any “detestable” capitalistic influences.
Kim Jong-Un’s recent persecution of Jang and his associates is disheartening news for all citizens who long for more freedom. Any lingering hope that the young Kim is different than his father has vanished. Instead, they realize the need for extreme caution has never been greater. Any action that can be interpreted as disloyalty towards the leader can have grave consequences. North Korea regularly arrests entire families for the alleged offense of just one individual. They are imprisoned, tortured and then ‘sent to the mountains,’ as North Koreans describe the fate of the unfortunates who disappear into one of the country’s many notorious concentration camps.
Christians belong to the so-called hostile class, just as did their counterparts in China, who were considered illegal until the late 70s. The introduction of gradual reforms would signal that, while they would still need to hide their faith for a number of years, at least there would be some light at the end of the tunnel. Jang’s ousting has sent the clear message that no fundamental changes are to be expected. Christians have told Open Doors they do not agree with the actions of their government. “They do too little for the people. But we still pray for our leaders, and we hope that God will reveal Himself to them.”
Open Doors estimates that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 secret Christians in North Korea. Meeting together for worship carries an incredibly high risk for believers. Between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians are incarcerated in prisons, labor camps and isolated villages. Few who go in are ever released. Only those who can convince the secret agents they were not at all, or extremely minimally involved in Christian activities, may escape a long sentence. These few survivors return as different people. “My father was arrested and gone for six months,” says Christian refugee Yong Sook, who now lives in South Korea. “He never spoke about his time in prison, but he wasn’t the same anymore. He was skin over bone, depressed and silent.”
Meanwhile, Christians try to avoid looking at their earthly circumstances by focusing on heaven instead. That is often difficult in the face of the desperate economic and political circumstances. “We can stand the cold in the winter,” says one anonymous church leader. “But being cold and hungry is like living in hell. We thank our brothers and sisters from around the world for their prayers and support. We march forward to the future. We firmly believe that one day God will bring about change in our country.”
Father, as we hear about fellow Christians in North Korea, our hearts yearn for there to be heaven on earth, with no sorrow, and every tear wiped away. But You are building Your kingdom here on earth, and You use us, Your humble servants, to be witnesses to Your presence and power within us. We pray for our fellow believers in North Korea, that You will strengthen them to face each day, that You will comfort them in their hunger and in the harsh cold. We pray that You will encourage them in their faith. And we pray that as they face hardship, imprisonment, and even death with courage and faithful witness to Christ, many will see Christ in them and cold, empty, lost hearts will be softened to turn to Christ. We pray for the day when a mighty host will freely sing Your praises in North Korea. In the name of Jesus, their comfort and strength. Amen.