Christian persecution is unlikely to be curbed in North Korea following the death of Kim Jong-il, according to several advocacy organizations close to the situation. Yet there remains hope that the period of transition could help prepare the communist country for a revival, both politically and spiritually.
As the late dictator’s son, Kim Jong-un, takes control of the isolated country, groups serving persecuted Christians, such as Open Doors USA and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, are at the same time preparing for the dire situation to continue in the communist country and hoping that the anti-Christian climate will change.
Paul Estabrooks, Open Doors' senior communications specialist, told The Christian Post that sources both inside and outside of the country are waiting for the regime’s next move.
"They [North Koreans] are not optimistic that the dynasty is going to change much as long as the family is in power," Estabrooks said.
The pessimism is born from the uncertainty surrounding Kim Jong-un. Sources have not been able to pin down many details about his life, including his real age, guessing that he is in his late 20s.
Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-un will assume control of the country with almost no training and no international support. Communist governments had supported his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his father at least had several decades before taking control.
It is possible Kim Jong-un may not have any control at all.
"Whether this young man is really going to be given power, whether he'll be able to implement changes is yet to be seen. There's always hope that change will improve things and that they'll be for the better," Estabrooks said.
Estabrooks added that much like his persona, Jong-un's religious and political beliefs remain a blur.
"We don't know much about him at all really," Estabrooks said. "There has been no indication directly yet as to what his attitude is towards religious freedom. He's still an enigma, much like his parents were in many ways, but I'm sure in time we'll get some indication of his position and we can only be hopeful that it'll be a positive [one]."
Open Doors has listed North Korea at the top of its list of countries in which Christians have been persecuted the most for the last nine years. The organization claims 50,000-70,000 Christians in the country are currently detained in labor camps where food is sparse and many prisoners face starvation.
Up to three generations of Christians may be persecuted in North Korea because of their faith. Estabrooks called the persecution a "witch hunt," adding that Christians face a "government-driven persecution [that is] led by the authorities."
Rights groups cite a resilient generation of people as the source of hope for an end to the persecution.
"There are still people becoming Christians today in North Korea, believe it or not, despite of all the tremendous challenge from the authority. I would say it's definitely coming from the top," Estabrooks said.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said the transitory state in which North Korea finds itself is the ideal foundation from which change can emanate.
"There is now a real opportunity for North Korea to change direction, end its isolation, stop the brutal oppression of its own people and open up to the world," Thomas wrote in a statement obtained by The Christian Post.
Thomas added that the abuse perpetrated in North Korea is not just a Christian problem, but a human rights problem.
Indeed, North Korea has faced unique struggles that are only exacerbated by the state's policy of total isolation from foreign interests. Famine and poverty ravage large areas of the countryside and the government is quick to ignore humanitarian pleas from those struggling.
At the source of the persecution is North Korea’s view of the United States as an aggressor still trying to infiltrate the country in the name of imperialism. Students are taught from a very young age to reject U.S. ideals.
North Korea views Christianity as an American religion, advocacy groups say, and as long as diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea remains tenuous, the quality of life in North Korea will remain poor. In addition, North Koreans are only allowed to worship the country's leaders, Kim il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
Estabrooks agreed there is hope in the potentially malleable state of North Korea’s government, adding that there are high-ranking officials who are above the state’s brainwashing techniques and isolation and who can see the humanitarian offenses within the country.
"I think there are pockets [of people becoming informed in North Korea]. The problem for them of course is very little access to the outside world," Estabrooks said. "But a few of them, who work for the government, do have that kind of access and I'm convinced there are pockets of people who are slowly becoming truly informed about the rest of the world."
"But overall, I'd say about 98 percent of the people are totally controlled in terms of information and therefore don't know any better," he added.
A North Korean refugee told Open Doors that many citizens were forced to honor Kim Jong-il, despite grasping the breadth of the dictator's tyranny. State media also released video footage of North Koreans mourning en masse the late dictator, with observers questioning whether their grief was genuine.
"I remember standing in front of his statue and feeling nothing," said one refugee to Open Doors. "But we had to cry or we would be punished. I brought a needle and punched it in my skin real hard, just so I would cry. I think that most of the people who weep for Kim Jong-il in public are acting."
Franklin Graham, president and CEO of Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, also expressed hope that Kim Jong-il's death will pave the way for the U.S. to "build stronger bridges of relationship and understanding with his son."
Graham added in a statement shared Monday with CP, "My prayer is that President Obama will reach out to the DPRK's new leader and extend a helping hand to the people who are suffering through an early cold winter and serious food shortages. This could go a long way in easing tensions between the two nations and promote harmony and goodwill."
International Christian Concern's Regional Manager for South Asia, Jonathan Racho, said in a statement on the group's website: "North Korea is at a critical juncture. It is imperative that Christians around the world pray for the Lord to open doors for the gospel to spread in the country. Please pray for revival to break out in North Korea and for the Lord to restore His glory to cities like Pyongyang, which was once known as the Jerusalem of the East."
According to Human Rights Watch, there are just over 400,000 Christians in North Korea, making up less than two percent of country's population.