Editor’s comment: In the past, Pyongyang was a city with a significant Christian population, and was even referred to as the “Jerusalem of the East”. It is also known that Kim Il Sung was born into a devout Christian family, attended church with his parents, and was baptized as a child. However, since the division of the peninsula in 1945, North Korea has classified religion as “the opium of the people’ and pursued anti-religious policies. Since the Kim Jong Il regime, anti-religious policies have led to human rights abuses, with Christians being sent to political prison camps and publicly executed. As Kim Jong Un’s eighth year in power comes to a head, we will be investigating the current extent of religious oppression in North Korea.
The United States government has designated North Korea a violator of religious freedom for eighteen years straight. It has recently been reported that the North Korean government is quietly strengthening its crackdown on religious practices as well as those who illegally cross the Sino-DPRK border and make contact with the outside world.
Mr Lee, defector who engages in missionary work aimed at North Koreans, told Daily NK that “a North Korean resident and his entire family was arrested after receiving the gospel in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province. The son, daughter and granddaughter were released after paying $5000 in fines but nobody knows what happened to the mother.”
“This year in particular, I’m hearing more often about Christians being arrested and detained. It seems that they’re conducting a massive search to track down Christians. The recent arrests show that the North Korean authorities are conducting surprise raids and appear to have detailed information on religious activities,” added Mr Lee.
Peter Chung, head of Justice for North Korea, an organization working to improve human rights in North Korea, said that “recently in the Sino-DPRK border region, due to an increase in arrests and monitoring by the Chinese public security bureau and North Korean police officers, there has been a surge in deportation of those who have participated in religious activities back to be imprisoned in labor camps.”
“Three months ago, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security raided a church service in Jilin Province and seven North Koreans were forcefully repatriated back to North Korea. The South Korean missionary who was with them was expelled from the country. Although the North Koreans held valid North Korean identification and were staying in China legally, they were repatriated for participating in a religious activity,” said Mr. Chung.
In North Korea, practicing religion is considered to be conspiring to overthrow the state. Those who practice religion are often found guilty of a serious crime and sent to political prison camps.
According to Mr Lee, possession of the Bible itself is a political crime and he notes that there are countless people who have been sent to political prison camps for practicing religion.
Indeed, the majority of Christians detained in prison camps in North Korea were found to have been in possession of a Bible during North Korean Ministry of State Security (MSS) crackdowns. “It is very difficult to find evidence that proves someone is practicing religion but possessing a Bible is seen as a smoking gun,” said Mr Lee.
Even foreign tourists visiting North Korea have been detained for possessing a Bible. In 2014, John Short, an Australian missionary, was arrested for possessing printed materials related to Christianity. In 2012, the American missionary Kenneth Bae was arrested for anti-state activity and released after two years. In addition, South Korean missionaries Kim Jung Wook, Kim Kook Ki, and Choi Chun Gil, who were active in the Sino-DPRK border, were also arrested and are still detained in North Korea.
According to an investigation by the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Commission, the North Korean authorities are holding between 50-70,000 Christians in its labor campus for merely following Christianity. “Religious persecution under Kim Jong Un has become even more severe, given the increase in arrests and detainment of Christians,” said Mr Lee.
A North Korean defector who experienced forceful repatriation told Daily NK, “There was a person who was trying to bring in seven Bibles but was arrested by the MSS as soon as he crossed the Tumen River, which suggests that the authorities are carefully monitoring missionary work and religious practices.”
However, due to the increasing number of Christians being detained in labor camps, there are more and more Christian services and missionary activities quietly occurring within these camps.
“After the repatriation, while I was in the correctional labor camp, I was surprised to discover that there were so many people who accepted Jesus. I was deeply moved when we prayed with tears during silent worship in the camp,” said the defector.
She added that “at 5:00 am in the labor camp, there are long line-ups to the washroom. People go to the washroom and quietly pray in the early mornings.” In the camp, between midnight and 5:00 am were considered prayer times for the Christian prisoners.
“As the religious persecutions become more severe, more and more people will secretly continue with their faith. The miracle of sharing and preaching the gospel is taking place even now in hellish places like these correctional labor camps,” she said.
*Translated by Yongmin Lee