Spare a thought on Christmas Eve for Christians who live in countries where practicing their faith is an act of courage. Nowhere is that more true than in North Korea, where religion is banned. The only permissible worship is that of the trinity of Kim family dictatorsthe late Eternal President Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il (who died last year), and current leader Kim Jong Eun.
How dangerous is it for Christians in North Korea? In a report this year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom describes “the arrest, torture and possible execution” of Christians, Buddhists and others conducting clandestine religious activity in the North. It cites several widely reported cases of persecution of Christians, including the public execution in 2009 of Ri Hyon Ok for the crime of distributing Bibles. In keeping with the regime’s policy of punishing wrongdoers’ families, Ri’s husband and three children reportedly were dispatched to a political prison.
The commission report also describes how 23 Christians were arrested in 2010 for belonging to an underground Protestant church. Three were executed and the rest were jailed. The commission estimates there are thousands of Christians among the 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans incarcerated in the regime’s infamous political prison camps.
Yet despite this repression, something is happening that many characterize as nothing short of a miracle: Christianity appears to be growing in North Korea. Open Doors International, which tracks the persecution of Christians world-wide, puts the number of Christians in North Korea at between 200,000 and 400,000.
North Korean Christians necessarily worship in secret. Many of the congregations are small family units consisting of just a husband and wife and, when they are old enough to keep a secret, their children. Other times a handful of Christians form a kind of congregation in motion. A worker for Open Doors explains how it works: “A Christian goes and sits on a bench in the park. Another Christian comes and sits next to him. Sometimes it is dangerous even to speak to one another, but they know they are both Christians, and at such a time, this is enough.”
Pyongyang is home to four show churchestwo Protestant, one Catholic, one Russian Orthodox. These churches are run by the state and the Sunday worshipers, who arrive together in tour buses, are presumed to be agents of the state. There are no children in the pews.
Some of the secret Christians in North Korea belong to the “catacomb” church. They are remnants of the community that flourished there before the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic in 1948. At that time, Pyongyang was home to so many Christians that it earned the nickname Jerusalem of the East.
Catacomb Christians “are like the Jews in Spain” after 1492, says Carl Moeller, who heads Open Doors USA, referring to Jews who pretended to practice Christianity after the Catholic monarch ordered them to convert or face expulsion. North Korean Christians who were forced underground six decades ago “became good Communists on the outside but remained believers on the inside.”
It is new believers, however, who are responsible for the recent spread of Christianity in North Korea. Most have been introduced to Christianity by fellow North Koreans who are recent converts. The proselytizers usually escaped across the border to China, became Christians, and then returned home to seek converts. The proselytizers and the churches they establish in North Korea often are supported by South Korean or American missionaries in China.
An American lay worker, who asked that his name not be used, explains how his ministry works. His organization operates safe houses in China for North Koreans who cross the border looking for food, work or introductions to people who can help them reach South Korea. While at the safe houses, the North Koreans learn about Christianity and some become Christians. A few decide to return to North Korea, where they continue to practice their new faith and, in some cases, introduce it to family and friends. “There are now 176 people in North Korea who went through our ministry,” the lay worker says. “We know where they are. When I mark those places on a map of North Korea, I find a long Gospel highway.”
The practice of sending North Koreans back into North Korea to win converts is controversial among South Korean and American missionaries. The North Koreans are literally risking their lives. The Bible “doesn’t say put a little baby Christian on the tracks where an oncoming locomotive is going to run over him,” warns Tim Peters, an American who has been helping North Korean refugees in China since 1996.
While the Kim family regime has long punished every North Korean whom China repatriates, it reserves the harshest penalties for those believed to have had contact with Christians in China. It also has sent agents into China to kidnap South Korean pastors working with North Korean refugees including, in 2000, a pastor from Chicago who was a permanent resident of the U.S. Kim Dong-shik is believed to have died in prison in North Korea. It is unclear whether North Korea’s recent arrest of American Kenneth Jung Ho Pae for unspecified crimes against the state, confirmed Friday by the official press, is related to Mr. Pae’s reported association with a Christian organization.
The regime has stepped up the campaign against Christians in recent years. It trains police and soldiers about the dangers of religion and sends agents posing as refugees into China to infiltrate churches. Sometimes the agents even set up fake prayer meetings to catch worshipers, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Kim Jong Eun’s announcement last month of a nationwide effort to crack down on “rebellious elements” undoubtedly targets Christians, among others.
Why does the regime fear Christianity? Eom Myong-hui, who escaped from North Korea a few years ago, became a pastor in South Korea and is now living in the U.S., says that it is because Christianity points the way to freedom: “In my view, Christianity is about the individual, about accepting responsibility.” That is anathema to Pyongyang, which wants to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
Persecution of Christians seems to be on the rise world-wide, from Pakistan to Egypt, Nigeria and beyond. Yet North Korea remains the world’s worst persecutor of Christians, according to Open Doors’ annual survey of religious liberty world-wide.
Being a Christian in North Korea isn’t just dangerous. It is also lonely. An American who has made frequent visits to North Korea recalls a secret prayer meeting with a local Christian. Tell the world “that we are part of the body of believers,” the North Korean pleaded. “Don’t forget us.”