On my desk I keep a jar filled with dirt. It comes from an Orwellian land where information has long been fanatically controlled. Since 1948, its cruel dictators have been venerated as gods, first the father and then his son. Meanwhile, most of its 24 million people subsist on tree bark, grass and whatever they can scavenge from this dirt. Though the elite are well cared for, the harvests are always poor. It is illegal to leave this nightmarish country, even to feed one’s family. Some 3 million have died.
The dirt, of course, comes from North Korea, which has topped the Open Doors World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians nine consecutive times. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) says the nation has established “a quasi-religious cult of personality centered on the late Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il.”
On Sunday, North Korea announced the death of Kim Jong-il. His son Kim Jong-un is now the "Great Successor."
Kim Jong-il decreed that parents must first teach their children the phrase, “Thank you, Father Kim Il-sung.” And for what do they thank him? During one of my humanitarian visits, we foreigners were being well fed by government handlers. After finishing our meal, we began to move to the next stage-managed event. I glanced back and saw workers devouring leftovers on our plates. In a cruel irony for a country that cannot feed itself, the guiding ideology is Juche, which means “self-reliance.”
In North Korea, worship of anyone other than the “Great Leader” (Kim Il-sung) and the “Supreme Leader” (Kim Jong-il) is treason. North Korean Christians are often arrested, tortured, detained in labor camps or killed for their faith.
Christian defectors have shared with Open Doors their reactions to the death of Kim Jong[il. Many believe North Korea will now be unified, but one tells us she doubts the elites will embrace a free regime. "Those who have already tasted the power will not easily give up what they have. They will fight," she said.
The refugee recalled the public show of grief when Kim Il-sung died in 1994. “We had to cry or we would be punished," she said. "I brought a needle and punched it in my skin real hard, just so I would cry.”
But she remains hopeful: "God has not forgotten the prayers of devoted Christians in and outside North Korea."
Another refugee fears war. The world remains alert for this possibility.
A third refugee responded in disbelief: "How can I be sad for the things he has done to me and my family? We were separated, and I had to live on the streets as a child.
"I am worried about the future," he said. "There may be a power struggle. Anything can happen.”
Simon, Open Doors’ main contact with Christians inside North Korea, notes that since Kim Jong- un's father chose him as successor, North Korea has stepped up house raids to root out religious activity and assigned more spies to infiltrate religious and human rights networks. A South Korean Christian was murdered in China because he helped refugees. “It is very unlikely that there will be any policy changes,” Simon said. "Christians fear what Kim Jong-un is capable of doing. He will do anything to keep hold of power.”
North Korea was not always the world's worst place for Christians. Before the Korean War, the capital city of Pyongyang was known as “the Jerusalem of the East.” Greater Pyongyang was about 13 percent Christian. Then the Kims came and, seeking to consolidate power, launched persecution against religious believers generally and Christians specifically.
Those who try to escape and fail are shot or sent to one of six prison camps holding at least 200,000 people, including 50,000 to 70,000 Christians. Open Doors International, which assists North Korean refugees, estimates that as many as 400,000 North Koreans still follow Christ, though secretly.
Christians cling to the outer fringes of North Korea’s highly dysfunctional society. They remain extremely vulnerable. According to a U.S. State Department report on religious freedom, “Religious and human rights groups outside the country continued to provide numerous unconfirmed reports that members of underground churches were beaten, arrested, detained in prison camps, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs.” The stream of refugees from North Korea confirms these reports.
And yet Christians likely represent North Korea’s best hope. The example of China may prove instructive. During China’s brutal Cultural Revolution, Christians were also targeted as disloyal stooges of foreigners. Today, Chinese Christians have emerged from persecution stronger than ever, some are seen as loyal citizens of good character who are integral to China’s new economy. One official told me openly that China needs Christians in government and in education. However, persecution still occurs.
When freedom finally comes, North Korea's Christians will be similarly vital in rebuilding the dilapidated economy. While any transition to a free society will likely be painful and uncertain, if the North has retained even a fraction of the creativity and dynamism so evident in the South, the economic payoffs could be surprising.
Christians in North Korea may well prove to be stabilizing influences amid any regime change. Tested by severe trial, Christians may rescue the country from utter chaos. All of us in the free world must support our isolated and suffering brothers and sisters in Christ today if we want it to be open to the Gospel tomorrow.
However dismal the outlook for North Korea’s people may seem, God will never forget His people who cry out to Him. The global body of believers in Christ must ramp up our prayers during this crucial transition. By speaking with one voice now, we may well help plant the seeds of justice in North Korea’s arid soil.