Living under one of the most repressive, authoritarian regimes in the world, Christians in North Korea know what it is to suffer for their beliefs. Among a population of 25 million North Koreans, there are reportedly 300,000 Christians who have clung to their faith in the communist stronghold, one fifth of whom are estimated to be in prison and labour camps as a result.
Christians are often reported to government surveillance groups called “inminban”, literally meaning “people’s groups”, who conduct regular house inspections, arresting suspected Christians, or anyone found worshiping or in possession of the Scriptures.
Such Christians are interrogated and often tortured in the hope they will renounce their faith, and hand over information on other believers. Many are sent to prison for life, whilst others do hard labour in camps until they die of exhaustion, illness or starvation. Some will even be executed before they get there. A lucky few may survive, escape or be released.
It wasn’t always this way in North Korea. Arriving in 1880, Christianity grew rapidly until 1910 when the Japanese annexed the Korean peninsula.
Pyongyang had been considered the “Jerusalem of Asia”, with flourishing churches and soaring numbers of converts, but that all changed when the Japanese mandated worship of the emperor and crushed the burgeoning faith of the Korean people.
Those who worshiped the image of the emperor would be spared, but those who refused were tortured and executed.
Thus began a persecution that hasn’t ceased, despite the departure of the Japanese at the end of World War II. The influx of communists after the war, led by Kim Il Sung, meant North Korea was again under tyrannical rule, with Christians among the first victims of communist dominance.
The Korean war, ending in stalemate, meant Kim in the North would go on to consolidate his power, introducing the “Juche” ideology that all citizens were to adopt as the economic, political and quasi-religious belief system of the people.
As an atheistic state, this all but deified Kim Il Sung and his successors, declaring him the “eternal head of state” whilst also insisting the country should remain independent of China and the USSR.
Those who refused to swear their allegiance to Kim’s new ideology were executed or sent to remote concentration camps until they died.
Christians were nowhere to be seen in the new North Korea, at least not in public. Ever since, believers have practiced their faith alone or in secret churches, hiding copies of the Bible where they can, hoping their songs of praise are not heard by the many informers that roam North Korean streets.
Five government-controlled churches do exist in the capital, but these are thought to be Kim Jong Un’s attempt to appear tolerant of Christianity and win foreign-aid.
Many Christians attempt to flee the oppression by making it to China where, if they’re lucky, they can travel to Thailand and then be deported as illegals to South Korea. If they are caught in China however, they are automatically handed back to North Korean authorities.
The torturous experience of Eun Hye and her family is illustrative of the lengths the Kim dynasty will go to in order to stamp out Christianity from their state.
Forced into a squalid children’s camp at the age of 16, Eun Hye used a dirty bathroom to offer up her prayers for deliverance, hoping to be reunited with her mother and sister who had already fled to China.
She and another girl then made a daring escape from camp guards, swimming across a reservoir and eventually finding her father and brother in a remote village after much hardship and hunger.
Again swimming to freedom, they then crossed the river into China to reunite with Eun’s mother and sister, finally being able to worship in peace that Sunday. For the first time, Eun Hye saw a cross on a wall at the church they attended in China, with more of the Gospel being explained to her by a translator.
Her family however were quickly reported to Chinese officials as North Koreans and driven to a bridge on the border. At the detention centre, in the freezing cold, they were interrogated and beaten mercilessly, Eun hearing the screams of her mother and father as the guards tortured them for more information and a renunciation of their faith.
“Why is it a crime to believe in God?” her father asked the guards, whilst Eun’s mother was dragged before her, unconscious and unrecognizable, such was the cruelty of their torturers.
All of them were miraculously released without explanation several weeks later, with the women returning to China despite the gunfire of guards as they swam across the river. Eun’s father however later died in North Korea from the injuries he had suffered in prison.
After marrying in China, Eun was then arrested and told she would be sent back again to North Korea, but, claiming she was pregnant, she was the only one of thirty women who were permitted to stay.
When Eun did have a baby girl later, her husband agreed they should all to flee to South Korea, where she has resided since.
US charity Open Doors has ranked North Korea as the worst perpetrator of Christian persecution for the last eighteen years, with the group, who have secret missionaries and safe-houses there, saying things are only getting worse.
The fate of the 60,000 imprisoned Christians remains particularly bleak because of the west’s seeming indifference to their plight, whilst the current South Korean leader appears to have taken a worryingly benign approach to Kim Jong Un.
Even under torture in prison however, many persevere to the end, offering prayers and tears of hurt to God, but the silence of fellow Christians around the world, including political leaders, means that there is no end in sight to this cruelty.