Many people do not learn of the Kim regime’s Christian heritage until reaching South Korea. North Korean defectors say that they understand why Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have been afraid of religion’s spread even though their ancestors were faithful adherents to Christianity.
Kim Hyun Sik, a visiting professor at Yale University who defected in 1992 after serving as a Pyongyang College Professor of Education for 38 years, said that Kim Hyong Jik and Kang Ban Sok—Kim Jong Il’s grandparents—were devout Christians. But given that North Koreans live in a society that requires constant idolization of the Supreme Leader, and since outside communications and information are completely shut off, they are unaware of the Kim family’s history.
In North Korea, citizens are organized into three different classes based on their loyalty, or disloyalty to the regime and family background. Unsurprisingly, most religious North Koreans are classified as “hostile class,” placing them in the same group as political prisoners, anti-revolutionary factions, and their families. As a result, these people are routinely discriminated against in almost every aspect of life: entering university, finding employment, and becoming married.
Hyun Mi Kyung, a North Korean defector, states, “When I lived in North Korea I was not aware of that fact, but when I came to South Korea, I learned for the first time that Kim Il Sung’s family was devoutly Christian.”
Regarding the identification of Kang Ban Sok (1892-1932), Kim Il Sung’s mother and allegedly an elder of a church, Hyun commented that, “North Korean authorities educate and propagandize her as the mother of Chosun who gave birth to and raised the Great Leader of revolution, indomitable Champion of Communism Revolution, and even the champion who conducted the Chosun women’s movement by establishing the anti-Japanese women’s society organization, which was an independence movement group.”
Likewise, many North Korean defectors regard Kim Hyong Jik (1894-1926), Kim Il Sung’s father, as a patriot who spent his whole life fighting for revolution, and also a great pioneer who shifted the direction of the nationalism movement to communism, purportedly saving the country and its people.
In Kim Il Sung’s memoirs, “With the Century,” he references his parents’ church attendance by commenting, “They went to take a rest (at a church).” Citizens of North Korea are largely unaware of the fact that “Ban Sok”—the name of Kim Il Sung’s mother—comes from the name Peter, who was one of Twelve Apostles of Jesus. Furthermore, Kim Il Sung’s uncle served as a minister, and his father, Kim Hyong Jik, was a devout Christian who attended Soongsil School, an undeniably Christian school.
Lee Hyung Sook, a 48-year-old North Korean defector who had settled in China but was repatriated to North Korea in 2007, said, “When I was repatriated to North Korea and received interrogation under the National Security Agency, their first question was ‘did you attend a Christian church?’ I could not understand why North Korea stifled religion in such a strong way, but when I came to South Korea, I pitied Kim Il Sung, who had to lie about the past affairs of his parents to uphold his cult of personality.”
However, there is evidence suggesting that Kim Il Sung, who harshly suppressed religion, prayed with a doctor before receiving the surgery. Prior to the Korean War, Dr. Jang Ki Ryu, who served as Dean of Medical School at Kim Il Sung University, performed surgery to examine a lump on the back of Kim Il Sung’s neck. When the doctor offered to pray before the surgery, Kim Il Sung responded, “Pray for me.” They then prayed together.
Lee Jong Hyuk, a North Korean defector who previously served in the National Security Agency, commented, “If religion had spread to North Korea, there would have been changes in ideological consciousness and spirit among North Korea citizens, who worshipped Kim Il Sung as a god. Perhaps Kim Jong Il [presently] attempts to control citizens’ lives and religion activity based on this fear.”
Fears of religious persecution are often assuaged upon a visit to Pyongyang, where there exists a ‘Christian’ church built solely to convince outsiders of North Korea’s ‘religious freedom.’ This, however, is more of a government establishment than a place of worship. Only when North Korea’s underground church network is public and legal will true liberation of religion be accomplished.