Unification Media Group (UMG): Christians are the target of strict surveillance and suppression in North Korea. Those who are exposed as Christians are sent to political prison camps or publicly executed. Today we speak with Kim Chung Seong, who worked as a missionary in North Korea despite these odds.
Please introduce yourself.
Kim Chung Seong (Kim): I defected from North Korea in July 2001 from Hyesan City in Ryanggang Province. I was in the metal trade at the time, selling pieces of copper wire to merchants. Kim Jong Il issued an order to eliminate all such metal traders. I was apprehended by the police (Ministry of People’s Security forces) and they were going to make an example of me. I knew something awful was going to happen, so I climbed over the bars and escaped on the very night that I was detained. I crossed the Yalu River and traveled aimlessly into China.
I never intended to defect to China from the start. I climbed out from the fenced area and came stomping down towards the Yalu. An older man was passing by and asked why I looked so out of place. I told him my whole story and the man gestured towards China with his chin. “That way,” he said. Then I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it first. Most North Koreans are probably just like me. Even if we come right to the border, escaping to the outside world is simply unthinkable.
UMG: When you were living in North Korea, did you practice Christianity?
Kim: No. When I was in North Korea, I was a singer. But I heard about something called “religion” from TV, movies, and art. All of that content was anti-Christian. One movie I saw directly before escaping North Korea was an anti-Christian film called Seungnyangi. As soon as I entered China, I came across some people who were attending a church. They helped me, and I naturally started to pursue a Christian lifestyle. We had something similar to the Ten Commandments in North Korean law. So I asked the missionary who was helping us what explained that similarity, why North Korea seemed to copy things from the Bible even as it insulted it. The missionary told me that the Bible is over 2,000 years old.
So I started learning about Christianity and the truth about the North Korean regime. I also learned that Kim Il Sung’s parents only met and married thanks to an American Christian matchmaker. I naturally became curious after learning why the North Korean authorities suppressed religion so harshly.
UMG: What was your motivation to begin living as a Christian?
Kim: Experiencing betrayal is a huge shock in a person’s life. I believed in the Kim family leaders as if they were gods. But then I learned that they were frauds. That was a painful realization. In North Korea, the hereditary monarchy is elevated to the level of a deity, while the people are thrown in a pit. I was furious. I wanted to tell people the truth, so I started doing missionary work.
UMG: So you went back into North Korea?
Kim: Yes. I met some South Korean, American, and Canadian missionaries who set up a network in China to establish underground missions and churches in North Korea. I had no idea that they even existed until then. I became determined to see them for myself and headed back into North Korea. The first place I tried to go was Pochonbo near the Yalu River. I didn’t plan at all. The border guards chased after me as I came over. It was almost a disaster. I went back to China and prayed for a way to open for me. I went back to North Korea that night and stayed for some time.
UMG: What kind of activities did you do while you were in North Korea?
Kim: I was in the North for about 20 days. I was able to see an underground church with my own eyes. I attended service with the people I met there. I was surprised to learn that there were high level government officials among the worshippers.
UMG: Surveillance and punishment of Christians is extremely severe in the North. Did you know anyone who got caught?
Kim: I didn’t get caught when I was in North Korea, but I was apprehended by public safety officers when I returned to China. They asked me why I went back into North Korea and why I was spending time with missionaries from South Korea. They even suspected that I was a spy sent in from South Korea.
What I endured was nothing compared to what North Korean worshippers undergo when they get caught. Some people were involved in a program that taught defectors about Jesus and sent them back into North Korea. Then something terrible happened in 2014. An ethnic Korean deacon living in China named Jang Moon Seok was kidnapped by North Korea’s State Security Department for evangelizing in China. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and sent to North Hwanghae Province’s Sariwon Political Prison Camp, where he remains today. All of the people connected to the program were also caught. Three of the individuals who were caught were publicly executed in Paegam County in 2015. The State Security Department began to harshly crackdown after that point, so many worshippers decided to try and defect. Some made it to South Korea, where they reside today.
UMG: What kind of punishment does the family receive when a Christian gets sent to a political prison camp?
Kim: Thankfully, they weren’t hurt. But they were relocated. People living in Hyesan were banished to places like Gapsan Mountain, an isolated place where there is barely any electricity.
UMG: Are the Christian prisoners tortured?
Kim: Yes. First of all, the State Security Department doesn’t let them sleep. They keep them awake for five days. In that delirious state, they are beaten. This is how they get them to admit to things that they never even did. They are beaten with a wooden stick. They use torture techniques that are hard to even imagine. There is even something called freezing torture. That’s when they force people to disrobe and spend time in a freezer. Most die of hypothermia. A cage is suspended 5-10 cm from the ground and the victims are hung by their wrists. No food is given to them and they are beaten regularly. Most people die after a few days of this.
UMG: Why do you think the regime goes to such extremes to suppress religion?
The authorities are trying to brainwash the people into believing the state’s ideological system which upholds Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un as the supreme leaders. There is a concept referred to as “truth” in the bible. The meaning of this concept is similar to “receiving the light.” If this light and truth is spread into North Korea, everyone will realize the truth about the Kim regime. The residents will come to understand that they have been deceived. There are a few things that have the power to crush the North Korean authorities, and religion should be counted among them. If Christianity seeps into North Korea, the Kim regime could collapse.
UMG: Do you have any messages that you’d like to relay to the North Korean authorities or Christians in North Korea?
Kim: They say that you can’t stick your head in the sand. There are various forms of human rights atrocities occurring in North Korea right now, including those perpetrated by the State Security Department and the People’s Safety Agency, and in political prison camps and reeducation camps. I want all the Christians in North Korea who are listening to this broadcast to know that I am praying for a miracle in North Korea. If there are any members of the authorities listening to this, please think very carefully about whether you want to oppress the people or set them free.
According to Article 68 of North Korea’s constitution, citizens of the country are guaranteed religious freedom. But this right is not protected in practice. In no other country are people treated so brutally for their religious convictions. The international community calls upon the North Korean authorities to guarantee religious freedom within the country.