Death of Kim Jong-Il may not change much for North Korean Christians
North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il has died after suffering a heart attack. According to North Korean state media, he passed away in the early hours of Saturday 17 December.
The world will remember Kim Jong-Il for developing nuclear weapons, constructing vast labour camps and presiding over an economic policy that left his country facing chronic famine. He should also be remembered as a dictator who did not tolerate any religion other than his own idolisation.
But according to Open Doors sources, Christians and adherents of other underground religions should not expect a major policy change from Kim Jong-Il's successor, his son Kim Jong-Un.
Ruler of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea since 1994, Kim Jong-Il had been the right hand of his father, Kim Il-Sung, since the 1970s. Like the Japanese occupier and his Communist friends, Kim Il-Sung established many labour camps for 'unfaithful' citizens and political enemies. But it was Kim Jong-Il who made the camps grow. Not only are there several 'mega camps', like Yodok and Hoeryong which hold more than 50,000 prisoners, but there are also dozens of smaller camps. More than 1 per cent of the population of North Korea wakes up in these hellish places every day. Among them are between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians, who are considered 'enemies of the state'.
Another estimated 300,000 Christians have to hide their faith. Even possessing a Bible is enough to get you executed or imprisoned for life with your entire family. According to Open Doors contacts, Kim Jong-Un will not change that policy. "Since he came closer to the helm, North Korea has stepped up its attempts to uncover any religious activities," says Brother Simon, Open Doors' main contact for North Korea. "There have been more house raids, more spies trained to infiltrate religious and human rights networks, and one South Korean Christian was murdered in China because he helped refugees. People in North Korea, Christians too, fear what he is capable of. He will do anything to keep hold of power."
A Communist dynasty
Kim Jong-Il spent most of the last 18 months of his life ensuring that Kim Jong-Un, his third son, would survive as the ruler, travelling to China and Russia for their support. The dictator also allowed Kim Jong-Un to install loyal followers in important positions. Many elite cadres were purged from the ranks of the regime, some even killed or imprisoned. North Korea also sunk a South Korean navy ship and attacked one of its islands with artillery, apparently to show how strong the leadership still is and to blackmail the international community into giving more aid.
Brother Simon says: "North Korea is the first communist country that has established a real dynasty. The rule has been transferred to the third generation, but there is a big difference from the previous succession. Kim Il-Sung had the support of the entire Communist bloc. Kim Jong-Il had been preparing for his role for over 20 years before he had to assume power. Kim Jong-Un was only designated as the next leader in October 2010 during a rare Worker's Party Congress. He is young and inexperienced. There may be a power struggle, which he may not win. On the other hand, the clique around the Kims has been able to hold the ropes for over six decades. They have made it very difficult for opponents to get organised. Something special is needed to topple the regime."
A closed state
A Christian North Korean refugee in Seoul told Open Doors she had mixed feelings when she heard the news. "I always thought I'd be happy when he was dead. I hated him, while God taught me to love my enemies. My North Korean friends react in different ways. One is angry and says: 'He should have died like Gadaffi.' Another is relieved: 'Congratulations! Now the Koreas will become one nation soon.' To be honest, I don't see that happening very quickly. Even now the absolute power has died, the generals and other rulers will do their very best to keep control."
According to sources in North Korea the state has closed itself completely. The borders are sealed off and even the tolerated black markets are closed. Security agents and police officers are seen in every street and alley. It appears that the sound of wailing is heard everywhere.
Open Doors calls on Christians to pray fervently for North Korea and its citizens. "We hope 2012 will see real change politically and economically," says Brother Simon. "We pray for freedom for all citizens, so that they are free to live how they want and allowed to believe what they want. We want those prison camps to open up so we can embrace our brothers and sisters who have suffered there in terrible circumstances."
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