If you are discovered to be a Christian in North Korea you will be arrested, interrogated and imprisoned. And you are unlikely to ever be released. Open Doors estimates that tens of thousands of North Korean Christians are in prison and labour camps for their faith.
There are an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians imprisoned in North Korea for their faith
It emerged last year that, since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011, the number of prisoners in political prison camps run by the Ministry of State Security in North Korea has increased substantially. In 2012, around 130,000 people were detained. As of March 2020, this is reported to have been around 160,000. The largest, Yodok – described by one Christian as ‘a living mass grave’ – has around 55,000 detainees.
Prisoners include officials deemed to have performed poorly in their job, people who’ve criticised the regime, and those suspected of engaging in anti-government activities. The North Korean authorities believe following Jesus is an anti-government activity.
Most Christians are sent to political prison camps. These camps tend to be a Kwan-li-so – a ‘total control zone’ – from which inmates will never be released. Prisoners are considered ‘enemies of the state’ and beyond the protection of the law. If not secretly executed, they endure lives of unending physical and psychological torture, hunger and labour. They may even be used for chemical tests.
These camps differ from other detention facilities in North Korea, such as the Kwo-hwa-so (or ‘revolutionary zone’) which are for ‘less serious’ crimes, where detainees receive an ‘ideological education’ whilst doing forced labour.
Wherever they are detained, Christian women are also at grave risk of sexual abuse. In a report released last year, the UN revealed that rape and other sexual violence and torture against women in detention facilities is endemic. It added that guards are known to sexually abuse or exploit female prisoners.
“I saw moving, shapeless forms,” recalls one Christian of her time in a Kwo-hwa-so. “It took me a moment to realise these were people. Some were bent over, others missed an arm or a leg. I looked at my own arms and legs, thin like matches. In the camp, I worked 12 hours a day, sometimes more. Every day is just one long nightmare.”
"Every day is just one long nightmare" Prisoner 42
The believer, who was released after two years, discovered another Christian in the camp. “She was much braver than I was – she spoke to others about Christ.” But it came at an awful cost. “One day a car came to pick her up. When I saw her leave, I knew they were taking her to a maximum-security prison, a Kwan-li-so. Nobody survives the Kwan-li-so.”
The above quotes come from Prisoner 42, whose story is based on a real-life account of a North Korean Christian sent to prison and then to a re-education camp. You can read the full harrowing account here.
Heavenly Father, strengthen my brothers and sisters imprisoned in these camps. Nourish them physically, mentally and spiritually, and reveal Yourself to them in amazing ways. Use Your children in these camps to share the hope of Jesus with others. Further expose the brutality of these camps to the international world, leading to their abolishment. Bring about the release of believers and protect further Christians from arrest. Amen.
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