Arielle Del Turco is FRC's Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty. This article appeared in Real Clear Religion on April 27, 2020.
When mysterious reports surfaced last week that the health of North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong Un was in question following cardiovascular surgery, media outlets were quick to speculate about the future of the regime. If Kim were to die—particularly without a successor—the implications would be significant. In such a scenario, what would become of North Korea’s Christians?
Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather before him, rules his country with ruthless brutality. He is responsible for all manner of human rights abuses occurring on his watch, including torture, enslavement, starvation, and murder. The North Korean system of governance is designed to instill fear in its people, ensuring they never step out of line. No one is more familiar with the abysmal consequences of this strategy than North Korea’s Christians.
Religious freedom does not exist in North Korea and anyone who holds a faith does so at great risk. The paranoid dictatorial regime considers any religion to be a threat. But because Christianity is associated with the United States (considered by North Korea to be the vilest of their enemies), that makes Christians a primary target of the regime.
Any outward expression of faith—including being found in possession of a Bible—is enough to land someone in a labor camp for the rest of his life. It is believed that 50,000 Christians are held in these camps, where detainees endure starvation, torture, and execution, all while forced to perform hard labor, which is rumored to contribute to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program. Within the camps, it is reported that Christians—or those suspected of coming into contact with them—are singled out for harsher treatment by authorities.
For Christians who manage to evade the authorities, practicing their faith is a very isolating experience. They don’t gather in large groups with fellow believers, as it is often said that when three or more are gathered, at least one is a spy.
Religion is not spoken of out loud in the hermit kingdom. After decades of propaganda and state-controlled education, many North Koreans lack basic knowledge about world religions. In his book “Under the Same Sky”, North Korean defector Joseph Kim recounts that when he fled to China, a woman instructed him to seek help at churches and to locate them by looking for crosses on buildings. To her surprise, she had to show him what the famous Christian symbol looked like.
The regime has proven that it is obsessed with preventing North Koreans from seeing any religious imagery. When a large Christmas tree structure was lit in December 2014 in a South Korean town two miles from the border with the North, the regime threatened to shoot it down and accused South Korea of “psychological warfare.”
Yet faith was once influential in the land now controlled by North Korea. In the early 1900s, Pyongyang was a center for Christianity, even called the “Jerusalem of the East.” Many of today’s North Korean Christians learned of the faith because it was passed down by their families. Others encountered Christianity during the famine of the mid-1990s when many crossed the border into China in search of food and found Chinese pastors and South Korean missionaries who helped them and shared the Gospel.
The only “gods” allowed in North Korea today are the Kim family dictators. Kim Jong Un, like dictators before him, is the center of a cult of personality and demands public adoration from his people. Yet this empty substitute for religion centered on the Kim family will not satisfy the human soul. Today, an estimated 300,000 Christians remain in North Korea despite the dangers.
Unfortunately, the religious freedom situation in the world’s most closed-off country shows no signs of improvement. Open Doors’ annual World Watch List consistently ranks North Korea as the worst violator of religious freedom globally. Yet the organization found reasons to believe that persecution there may still be on the rise, as authorities tighten border control, hand out harsher punishments for repatriated defectors, and attempt to eliminate all channels for spreading the Christian faith. Those who care about eliminating injustice around the world must take note of the virtually unparalleled persecution of the faithful in North Korea.
Whatever the fate of Kim Jong Un, the horrific human rights situation in North Korea deserves renewed international attention. When U.S. leaders and regional allies strategize what to do in the event that Kim Jong Un is no longer Supreme Leader, protecting human rights must be high on the list of priorities. Discussions about what comes next for North Korea should involve careful thought about the future of religious freedom and safety for believers. This tyrannical government has effectively silenced North Korea’s Christians; the rest of the world must raise our voices on their behalf.