Life is perilous for North Korea’s underground Christian community, especially since their children have been taught that Christianity is an evil subversive force that threatens the noble and pure Communist state, and Christian parents have every reason to fear their kids will expose them.
In a March article for Open Doors, an activist group that helps persecuted Christians around the world, a North Korean Christian using the pseudonym “John Choi” explained that children as young as nursery school are taught to revere the ruling Kim family as gods with mystical powers, venerating them with rituals that resemble prayer as much as the professions of loyalty demanded by authoritarian states.
Choi says some of the weird mandatory religion built around the Kims is stolen from religious traditions in other countries, such as giving thanks to the dictators for one’s “daily bread” in the manner of the Lord’s Prayer, and a myth that depicts the late Kim Il-sung as a Santa Claus figure who brings presents to faithful children.
North Korea’s dictators are very jealous gods who will tolerate no other gods before them.
“The North Korean state wants their people to love only the Kim family and hate the ‘American imperialists’ and ‘South Korean puppets,’” Choi explains. “To increase the hate for North Korea’s enemies – which are the Americans (and in their view, all Americans are Christians) – the government of North Korea has produced negative propaganda. Films, musicals, paintings and cartoons portray Americans and Christians in a bad light. They ‘show’ how the enemy has exploited and killed North Koreans.”
To that end, North Korean propaganda depicts Christian missionaries as fairy-tale monsters. Choi recounts a story taught to children in school textbooks about a missionary who mutilated a little boy with acid and killed him for the crime of stealing an apple from his orchard. Adults get propaganda films depicting Christian pastors as rapists.
In a January interview, a man named Lee Joo-chan who escaped from North Korea and became a pastor in China told Open Doors that Christian parents must keep their faith secret from their own children because the brainwashed children might expose them to the authorities. Parents are also terrified that their children could accidentally sing a Christian song or repeat a Bible verse in public, or be tricked by their teachers into revealing that their parents have Christian literature in their homes.
Lee’s mother did not tell him she was a Christian until he was in his 30s and living in China. On her way back to North Korea after that meeting, she was murdered by North Korean soldiers along with Lee’s brother, while he watched in horror from the far side of a river. The rest of his family in North Korea was rounded up and killed afterward.
Based on the testimony of Lee Joo-chan and other North Korean Christians, Open Doors charges that children are taught “Christians are evil spies who kidnap, torture, and kill innocent North Korean children and then sell their blood and organs.”
Open Doors relates the moving account of a woman named Kim Sang-hwa, who found her parents’ hidden Bible and became almost physically ill after reading a few passages, because it contradicted the North Korean state religion and was clearly the illegal subversive book children are taught to report to the authorities. After agonizing over whether to do as she had been instructed, she decided to talk to her father instead, and he took the incredible risk of admitting his beliefs and teaching her about Christianity.
“To me, all those stories and ideas were so interesting,” Kim recalled. “I also read the Bible for myself. But I realized it was dangerous. My father always emphasized not sharing anything with anyone else. Then he would start to pray in whispers, almost inaudibly: ‘Father, help the North Korean people to seek Your Kingdom first.’”
North Korean defector Joseph Kim told a similar story to the UK Guardian in 2015. Like other escapees from North Korea, he said he was taught as a child that North Korea’s ruling family had superhuman abilities, such as being able to fly around the countryside like Superman to keep watch over children. Joseph Kim was given good reason to doubt the divine powers of the dictatorship when his father was among the million people who died in a famine when he was five years old, his mother was thrown into a prison camp, and his sister disappeared forever, possibly having been purchased by Chinese as a child bride.
Kim discovered Christianity because he went looking for it. He was told that contrary to state propaganda, Christians were generous people who would feed the hungry and give money to the poor, so he crossed into China in search of a church (“Look for a cross,” one Chinese woman helpfully advised). He found one and soon discovered Chinese and South Korean Christians were running a sophisticated underground railroad to help North Koreans escape from their monstrous dictatorship.
Kim found himself in the care of an elderly Korean-Chinese Christian woman he came to know as “Grandma,” who risked her livelihood and probably her life to shelter North Korean defectors. He knew he faced either a prison camp or firing squad if he ever fell back into North Korea’s clutches. It says a lot about the state of North Korea, in the past and today, that China is a flowering garden of religious freedom by comparison.
“Grandma made a huge sacrifice and took great risks to help me. And that matched the story of Jesus I read in the Bible and I started to understand,” he said.
On the other hand, Kim concluded his account by discussing some internal conflict over whether he became Christian willingly, or was subtly pressured into it through exposure to the religion and gratitude to the people who helped him; he wondered if a starving youth fleeing from inhuman tyranny could truly make a free choice on matters as momentous as religious faith. He advised Christians to make it more clear to the North Koreans they seek to help that accepting their religion is optional and they are prepared to help regardless of that decision.
Defector Choi Kwanghyuk told Fox News in October that “life is hell” for Christians in North Korea. They worship in secret, keeping their voices down to a whisper, knowing that death or a life of slave labor await if they are captured. Choi himself was arrested in 2008, tortured, and sentenced to a brutal labor camp, but was able to escape and obtain asylum in the United States.
“There is no freedom in North Korea. By law, they have the freedom of religion and the freedom of the press, but the reality is very different,” he said. “The life in North Korea is hell … life in America is heaven.”
One of the more curious aspects of Christianity in North Korea is the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the only private university in the country. The school was founded by American evangelical Christians in 2010, after they reached an understanding with the North Korean regime that Christianity would not be taught or even discussed. It exists in a strange and sometimes dangerous state of detente with the totalitarian government, with each side well aware it is being used by the other.
“PUST offers a mutually beneficial arrangement for both North Korea and the evangelicals. The regime gets free education for its youth and a modern facility, which can be used for propaganda, while the evangelicals get a footing in the remote nation,” a veteran of the university explained.
Unsurprisingly, the North Korean regime occasionally feels the need to demonstrate it has the whip hand in this relationship, so it arrests PUST professors from time to time, with little in the way of warning or formal charges. Two of the three Americans still held prisoner by Pyongyang are PUST professors.
As Choi Kwanghyuk alluded, the North Korean constitution technically offers protection for religious freedom and forbids discrimination, and there are five churches openly operating in Pyongyang, one of them a Russian Orthodox church constructed to placate Russian visitors. The churches are widely seen as a sham, and not a very enthusiastic one at that; the people herded into them to put on worship shows for tourists are visibly annoyed with the procedure and uncertain of how to act like Christians at a church service.
Despite all of these hardships, and consistent rankings by both non-governmental organizations and the State Department as one of the most repressive places on Earth, an estimated 36 percent of North Korea’s population practices Christianity, according to studies by both the State Department and NGOs. Activists frequently express hope that smuggled literature, including electronic material on USB drives, and radio broadcasts can spread faith through the oppressed populace.
“Despite efforts to eradicate Christians, we have found the church is North Korea is actually growing. They know only God is powerful enough to break through the darkness of the most oppressive regime on earth,” Vernon Brewer of the humanitarian organization World Help assured Fox News last summer.
On the other hand, Brewer related a story that tracks with what North Korean defectors and underground Christians say about the dangers of sharing religious faith with children: the story of a little girl named Eun who was given a school assignment to go home and search for forbidden books. She found a Bible, brought it to school, and received a prize for her faithful service to the state, only to discover her parents were gone forever when she returned home after school.