The world knows North Korea is the most closed country in the world. The news is filled with headlines about the so-called “hermit kingdom”—a land ruled by a series of brutal dictators, a country that threatens the entire world with their nuclear arsenal, an unpredictable world actor that has stymied multiple U.S. administrations. Currently ruled by Kim Jong Un, North Korea also has one of the darkest human rights records in the modern era; it easily sits with Stalin’s USSR, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in terms of human suffering and loss of life.

For religious people, including Christians, daily life is a struggle—the only official belief system is state worship of the Kim dynasty. Within the Kim regime, religious intolerance runs rampant. For example, Christians are forced to worship underground, with only several state churches (which according to most reports are little more than seldom-used props) available for public worship. If caught, Christians can be arrested and imprisoned.

The same treatment awaits anyone who runs afoul of the North Korean state.

Leadership and philosophy

Like his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un has continued a pattern of dictatorial paranoia. From birth until death, North Korean citizens are taught state propaganda. This means learning about the leaders of North Korea in elementary school, hearing propaganda on loudspeakers in homes and businesses and living under constant threat of being shipped to camps for a variety of crimes, both real and invented.

While technically resting on traditional Marxist/communist thought, North Korea’s real political philosophy rests in Juche. Essentially, Juche describes an effort of self-reliance that stands on communist ideology. Juche was an attempt to break North Korea free of its dependence on the USSR and China—and to make it clear that the North Korean expression of Marxist thinking would be something different.

The official website of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea defines Juche as “in a nutshell, that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction.” In practice, this has translated to a totalitarian and brutal dictatorship that has stretched back decades, totally dependent on a single political/familial dynasty for every aspect of culture and politics.

Human rights abuses

A 2014 report from the United Nations found wide-ranging and large-scale human rights abuses and atrocities stemming from policies at the “highest levels of the state.” Amnesty International’s chronicle of North Korean human rights violations is extensive and includes severe restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom of movement. And Human Rights Watch’s 2018 World Report notes, “the North Korean government restricts all basic civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, religion and conscience, assembly and association.”

Additionally, Amnesty International found that the North Korean government often sends citizens to other countries to serve as migrant workers; any money earned by the workers, who often live in dangerous conditions and work extremely long hours, is taken by the North Korean state that pays the workers a heavily reduced rate.

A brand new, internal survey from North Korea, with backing from UNICEF (detailed findings can be found here), found that only 1.4 percent of the North Korean population has access to the country’s own intranet; access to a free Internet is forbidden. All media is also state-controlled and functions as little more than propaganda, propping up the Kim government with constant praise and deification.

The individual stories from North Korea are too numerous—and horrifying—to record all of them. Among the stories we can report: [Please note, the following stories are disturbing and may be disturbing to many readers.]

  • An NBC news article covered the International Bar Association report on North Korea, quoting North Korean defectors who had been in prison camps. Their experiences included seeing “a prisoner’s newborn baby being fed to guard dogs; the execution of starving prisoners caught digging for edible plants on the mountainside; and a variety of violent measures designed to induce abortions, including injecting motor oil into women’s wombs.”
  • One woman, (we will call her “Hannah,” even though it is not her real name) was captured and put into a prison camp with her family. While there, she witnessed one woman who gave birth to a baby of mixed Chinese and Korean parentage. Hannah watched as a guard commanded another woman to strangle the baby, or face death. The woman killed the baby as the mother looked on in agony.
  • Hannah, her husband and their children were beaten repeatedly and forced to kneel for seven hours each morning.
  • Some prison guards discovered Hannah’s husband was a Christian—and forced him to admit the rest of his family was as well. They were beaten, placed in solitary confinement and forced to live in a cage. Eventually, after they were released, Hannah’s husband died from the experience.

A difficult daily reality

According to a recent report from NPR, most of the North Korean population lives in poverty—the per capita GDP is less than $1,800 per person. Every message the population receives is tightly controlled. Because freedom of speech and a free press are both absent, the people of North Korea are only told what the government wants them to hear. From the day they are born, children are indoctrinated, experiencing propaganda and state teaching.

Deification of the Kim dynasty is at the heart of much of North Korean daily life. It’s not a stretch to say the state religion is the cult of personality around the Kim dynasty, of which Kim Jong Un is the third generation. In every home, office and school, there are portraits of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-Sung; these photos are required to be kept clean. There are thousands of statues of country founder Kim Il-Sung throughout North Korea, and it is illegal to fold a newspaper showing the face of former leader Kim Jong Il—Kim Jong Un’s father. The entire nation and its laws are centered around the elevation of the leadership of the country to godhood.

Additional background reading: