Christianity has a long history in North Korea. Before the end of World War II, there were more Christians in what is now North Korea than there were in modern-day South Korea. Before World War II, Pyongyang had many churches–even known to some observers as the “Jerusalem of the East.”
Estimates vary about how many Christians are currently in North Korea, but Open Doors places the number around 300,000, most of whom operate in secret networks of house churches.
A 2014 UN report found that “The state considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the state.”
Christians continue to be seen as dangerous and are also part of the hostile class, according to the country’s social stratification system called songbun. One 2014 U.S. State Department report found that “ownership of Bibles or other religious materials is reportedly illegal and punishable by imprisonment and severe punishment, including, in some cases, execution.” And in a summary of a United Nations’ report, the International Bar Association’s 2017 study wrote that “Christians are heavily persecuted and receive especially harsh treatment in prison camps, with one former prison guard testifying that ‘Christians were reactionaries and there were lots of instructions . . . to wipe out the seed of reactionaries’” [emphasis added].
Open Doors estimates there are tens of thousands of Christians in camps, restricted villages, or otherwise imprisoned, many of whom are suffering under unthinkable conditions. Christians are treated with the same hostility that the Kim regime wields against those it deems as political, revolutionary or cultural threats.
One woman, Hannah (not her real name), describes what it was like to be a Christian in one of North Korea’s labor camps:
“We were separated by gender. My daughter and I were put in the female wing and my husband and son—who was just a teenager—in a cell with males. Shortly after we entered the camp, we saw guards force a prisoner to murder a baby. Almost every day, we were all called for interrogation and questions. They’d beat us so harshly. When there was no interrogation, we had to kneel in our cells from 5 a.m. to 12 p.m. and not speak.
“My husband was treated badly. He told the guards that he had become a [Christian]. Later, he said he had no other choice. After he saw what they did with the baby and the guards threatened to kill his family, he had to tell them the truth.[He knew it would be worse for all of his family if they found out about his faith later.] After his confession, all four of us were locked up in solitary confinement—a small cage. We didn’t receive any food or water and were not able to sleep.
“Prisoners in solitary confinement were badly beaten up. Nobody dared to resist because you’d only make the torture worse. But my husband was different. The more they tortured him, the harder he defended his faith. He yelled at them: ‘If believing in God is a sin, I’d rather die! Just kill me! It’s my mission to live according to God’s will!’
“But each time he spoke out against them, they stripped him of his clothes and beat him as if he was an animal. His flesh was torn and ripped. When he lost consciousness, they woke him up and started again.
“When we got to the office [before our eventual release], there were two male prisoners. One I recognized as my son, but the other was in such a bad shape. I didn’t recognize my husband and he didn’t recognize me. That’s how horrendous we looked from all the torture. His ribs and collarbone were broken, so that he could not even stand up straight. But I realized it was him.
“[After our release], my husband suggested that I take my daughter first and go back to China. I did what he said and reached China with our daughter. One month went by. No word from my husband. Then, a second month, a third, a fourth … I waited three years. Then I found out that he had died shortly after we left. He was never able to overcome the pain and illnesses from prison. My son was too young to help him. So he died slowly, in pain.”
- An interesting Q&A about religion in North Korea: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/02/north-korea-is-religion-allowed
- More information on the prison system in North Korea: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/12/11/north-koreas-brutality-laid-bare
- An interesting look at the history of Christianity on the Korean peninsula: https://thediplomat.com/2016/04/christianity-and-korea/
- The latest U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report on North Korea: http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRFannual2018tagged508.pdf