[imText1]In North Korea, the most closed country in the world, the state is the source and purpose of life. It decides where you live, where you work, what sports you practice, what musical instrument you play, what you eat and if you eat. The deceased leader, Kim Il Sung, and the current leader, Kim Jong Il, are honored as gods. Under these “morning stars,” a Christian risks his life every day. At least 200,000 people suffer in harsh concentration camps. Between 50,000 and 70,000 are Christians, said Brother Peter, who has many contacts with the North Korean underground church.
Korea used to have a large Christian population. The capital, Pyongyang, was even called the “Jerusalem of the East.” But since the end of the Korean War in 1953, things have changed. Of the 20 million people in North Korea, only between 200,000 and 400,000 people are Christians.
Sculptures and portraits of Kim Il Sung are everywhere. North Koreans and even tourists are expected to bow to these idols. Kim Il Sung, the so called savior and morning star, promised to make his country an example for the world and turn it into the first paradise on earth. But in 1995, one year after his death, starvation hit North Korea. At least 2 million people have died from hunger in the last 10 years.
“The famine had a significant impact on North Korean society,” said Brother Peter. “The state couldn’t take care of its people anymore. The food distribution was dismantled. An underground market arose and the government didn’t take action against it. A lot of people started to cross the Tumen, the border river with China. The surplus food they were able to carry back to North Korea was sold on the black market. This sign of weakness damaged the glory of Kim Jung Il. Not all people believe in him anymore. They saw him building monumental buildings while people didn’t have food.”
Smugglers and defectors who are caught are often tortured to death, according to Peter. “Their last days or weeks are terrible. The North Korean authorities submit them to days of interrogation and severe beatings without giving them food and water. Eventually they die. Survivors are sent to the worst political camps.”
When refugees succeed in crossing the border, they are mostly helped by Christians. Peter reported, “There was a time when they knew they had to look for buildings with a cross sign. They heard from other people who managed to go to China that these people were willing to help them. But the Chinese government found this out and is very upset. In the border area, they are really hunting for North Korean refugees. The police put pressure on the churches. [Churches] will lose their registration if they are not willing to turn in illegal North Koreans, and churchgoers face imprisonment up to five years. Many Chinese and Korean-Chinese congregations choose to cooperate with the authorities. I can’t tell anymore which churches we can still trust.
“Another difficult factor is the number of North Korean secret agents who are trained to disguise themselves as Christian refugees. Only by God’s grace are we able to tell the difference between a real and a fake refugee.”
People who are able to travel between China and North Korea manage to spread contact addresses among North Koreans who want to flee. If their escape succeeds, they arrive in a whole different world.
“North Koreans are indoctrinated beyond imagination. Their perception of Christians and Christianity is completely distorted. At primary and secondary school, even at college, the teachers tell made up stories about evil Christians. One story that is frequently told is about a Christian mission that worked during the ’30s in North Korea. They had a vineyard with much fruit. One day some children went to vineyard and ate some of the fruit. The missionaries found out and caught the children. They took a toxic substance and wrote on their forehead the word ‘thief,’” said Peter.
But after arrival in China, the refugees find that they have almost nowhere to go other than to a Christian’s house. “They are grateful for the Christians who give them shelter, but also full of criticism. Christians who work with North Koreans have to accept that they are indoctrinated. It takes a long time before they see into which web of lies they were born. At first they don’t want to hear much about the gospel. Living the life of beasts, their hearts have turned to stone. But when we embrace them, cry with them, and they participate in services and Bible study, something slowly changes. Their hearts are slowly heated and defrosted. They become more human again.”
It takes about six to 12 months before the North Korean refugee reaches a breaking point. This breaking point can be a violent experience, said Peter. “Sometimes it looks like exorcism. During a Bible study, service or even a normal conversation, suddenly the evil force within this human being is pushed out. The North Korean starts to weep uncontrollably and accepts Christ.”
Some find so much strength in their new faith that they want to go back and evangelize, which is a risky business in North Korea. When a Christian is caught, he and his family are sent to the worst “labor camps” (“concentration camps” describe them more accurately). “They just have to be trained in the gospel,” said Peter. “In North Korea, Christians can only rely on our Lord; their only weapon is the power of prayer. Because it’s so dangerous to possess a Bible and so difficult to get one, they learn large parts of God’s Word by heart.”
After their secret return to North Korean society, the new believer starts evangelizing in their inner circle. “Because of the famine, people had to start trusting and helping each other in getting and distributing food. They know better which friends, neighbors and family members can be trusted and explain the gospel to them. Sometimes they form small house churches. With five or six people they meet in secret, in houses, in the field, in the woods, in the mountains.”
But never are these brave Christians safe. Especially for younger Christians, the chances of staying unnoticed are not very high due to their inexperience. “It’s true that sometimes house churches are betrayed. When the police arrest them, there is not much that we can do. We can only pray. We don’t know anything about their faith after they are sent to a camp, but I do know we shouldn’t underestimate the power of God. Look at some Chinese Christians who spent 20 or 30 years in labor camps and survived. This is also possible in North Korea,” said Peter.
According to Peter, praying is also one of the ways to evangelize. “Quite a few North Koreans were given the gift of healing. They make good use of it. I know about high officials who were sent home to die, but were healed after prayer by local believers. Now these officials are secret Christians.”
Many people in the underground church in North Korea are aware of the international Open Doors prayer campaign. “The fact that other Christians know about them and pray for them gives them so much strength and hope. On behalf of the suffering Christians, I ask you to continue to pray, because without prayer support they can’t spread the gospel, don’t find the strength to remain faithful and can’t spread Bibles. Without prayer the North Korean church can’t survive.” (Open Doors news release)