(Photo: AP Photo / Vincent Yu)
With North Korea paving the way for its next leader, Christian persecution watchdogs are hoping that the change of leadership will mark a turning point for the country’s Christian population, which is forced to hide their faith or face arrest, imprisonment, torture and even death.
On Sunday, during what is said to be the largest military parade staged by North Korea, the isolated nation – and the rest of the world – was officially introduced to Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of current North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
The parade, one of several events surrounding the 65th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Worker's Party, was held two weeks after the younger Kim was made a four-star general.
Though little is known about Kim Jong-un, including even his age (estimated to be around 26), his appearance and demeanor Sunday revealed him to be a splitting image of his father. Still, Christian groups are holding out to the hope that the all-but-certain next leader will somehow improve the situation of believers in the communist nation.
"The nation is now grooming its next leader. But the question is: ‘Will Kim Jong-un finally put an end to his country's policy of ruthless persecution?’" noted Andy Dipper, CEO of U.K.-based Release International.
Presently, the North Korean government severely restricts religious activity in the country and, as the U.S. State Department noted in its most recent International Religious Freedom report, “[g]enuine religious freedom does not exist” in the country.
The only accepted ideology is “Juche,” often translated as extreme self-reliance, which teaches that "man is the master of everything and decides everything." And the only worship permitted is that of the cult of personality of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il and his late father, “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung.
Though little information comes out from the reclusive hermit country, its government is known to deal harshly with all opponents, including those who engage in religious practices deemed unacceptable by the regime.
"Christians are treated without mercy," noted Dipper.
“Up to three generations of Christian families are rounded up and thrown in prison camps to try to eliminate the faith,” he added, according to London-based Christian Today.
While there is yet any indication that Kim Jong-un will rule differently from his 68-year-old father, whose health status has been questionable since he reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008, persecution watchdog group Open Doors says there are already changes taking place.
“Fifteen years ago Kim Jong-Il was still considered a god, but all these years of hunger have left the people disillusioned,” Open Doors was told by “brother Simon,” its main contact for North Korea. “They have stopped believing the lie. Each time they put their trust in their leader, he has let them down.”
Aside being arguably the worst persecutor of Christians in the world, the North Korean government has also been criticized for the treatment of its other lower-class citizens, large numbers of which are starving and even dying of hunger.
According to the World Food Programme, millions of North Koreans experience chronic food shortages, which have had a dramatic impact on their health and wellbeing. In 2009, WFP reported that a third of women and children were malnourished.
“The North Korean society is falling apart,” reported Open Doors earlier this year. “The economy has come to a complete standstill, people in at least three provinces are dying of hunger and civilians openly protest decisions made by the government.”
The present generation of Christians, meanwhile, know nothing other than persecution, the organization added, though the faith once boomed in the country.
Despite the hardships, Open Doors is confident that the Christian community in North Korea will continue to survive as it has done over the years.
“Since Kim Il Sung was appointed as the country’s leader in the forties, the Kims have tried to eradicate God and His Church from this country. They have failed,” Open Doors noted.
Still, persecution watchdog groups are urging for Christians around the world to pray for believers in North Korea, which has eight years in a row topped Open Door’s annual “World Watch List” of countries with the most severe persecution of Christians.
"The eyes of the world are currently on North Korea – one of the world's worst abusers of religious freedom," said Release International’s Dipper.