Jesus Continues to Build His Church—Even in Oppressive North Korea
A significant Christian population exists in North Korea despite the ever-present fear of reprisals believers face under the dictatorial regime of the DPRK, according to both the U.S. State Department and a recent defector. The State Department gives the following statistics on the practice of religion in North Korea in its recently released International Religious Freedom Report for 2016:
The UN estimates there are between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians in the country. According to a September Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) report, Cornerstone Ministries International (CMI) stated in 2012 that it was in contact with 37,000 churchgoers in the country. CMI said it presumed based on its research that 10-45 percent of those imprisoned in detention camps are Christians.
Open Doors USA ranks North Korea number one on its World Watch List “as the most oppressive place in the world for Christians.” Open Doors describes the consequences of not complying: “Worship of the ruling Kim family is mandated for all citizens, and those who don’t comply (including Christians) are arrested, imprisoned, tortured or killed.”
In an anonymous interview for the British news organization, The Telegraph, a recent defector gave a gloomy update on the current state of religious freedom in North Korea: “Officially sanctioned persecution of people for religious reasons is still there and, I would say, even stronger than before.” On an encouraging note, however, the defector reported to The Telegraph that “many North Koreans no longer respect Kim Jong-un,” or the dictate to “worship his family as their god,” and they are looking for new ways to exercise their faith—including Christianity.
Yet, the North Korean totalitarian communist state has absolutely no intention of allowing people who want to become Christians to worship freely. In its religious freedom report, the U.S. State Department lists the following atrocities committed by the DPRK toward people of faith:
The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions. CSW said a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning that the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs.
The U.S. State Department report goes into more detail about outside corroboration regarding the fate of North Koreans who try to worship while under detention by the DPRK:
Religious and human rights groups outside the country provided numerous reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs. According to the NKDB [Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a non-profit organization in Seoul, Korea], there was a report during the year of disappearances of people who were found to be practicing religion within detention facilities. International NGOs reported any religious activities conducted outside of those that are state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment including imprisonment in political prison camps.
From a survey of 10,000 defectors from North Korea, the NKDB also reported that only 4.2 percent of them had ever seen a Bible while living there, and “99.6 percent said there was no religious freedom in the country.”
Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim was recently released from a North Korean prison camp after two and a half years of hard labor, including being forced to dig holes in both oppressive heat and the freezing cold. Pastor Lim, who was arrested while on a humanitarian mission for the Light Korean Presbyterian Church, ate all 2,757 meals during his imprisonment in isolation. Pastor Lim told his congregation upon his return that “it was difficult to see when and how the entire ordeal would end.”
Here are two steps Christians can take to help their brothers and sisters in North Korea:
- Pray: We must do everything we can to keep persecuted Christians in our prayers. The apostle Paul exhorts believers to be “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” and to “keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18).
- Connect: Reach out to organizations with a long-term commitment to helping persecuted believers in hostile countries such as Open Doors USA, Cornerstone Ministries International, and The Voice of the Martyrs, and learn how you can support their efforts to come to the aid of Christians in the DPRK.
You can learn more about the state of religious freedom in countries around the world by visiting the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Division at this link.