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Secrets, spies and standing firm: Five things to know about life in North Korea

17 July 2018

North Korea is a secretive nation, ruled by a dictator from a family of dictators, where every aspect of life is controlled by the state. It sounds like a made-up place – somewhere from a fantasy film, or a nightmare. But this is just daily life for the people of North Korea.

1) The people of North Korea are forced to worship the nation's leader, Kim Jong-un, as god.

North Korea has been ruled by the same family for three generations. Their portraits are hung in all homes and schools, and people bow in reverence to statues and images of them. They are believed to be all-powerful entities guiding North Korea.

John Choi*, a North Korean Christian who now lives in the UK, says, “There are between 30,000 and 50,000 monuments in North Korea to honour the Kim family. Some big, some small, but all are important.

“Children are taught that Kim Il-sung (the grandfather of Kim Jong-un and founder of modern day North Korea) was able to catch a double rainbow with one hand because of his ‘majestic powers’.  

“According to North Korean legend, his son Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s father) was born on the mythical mountain and ‘birth place of Korea’, mount Paekdu. Actually, his birthplace was in Vyatskoye, in Russia. 

“Everything in North Korea revolves around the Kim family. At nursery, the teachers prayed to the leaders at lunch time. We had to give thanks to them for our ‘daily bread’. Now I realise that they stole this prayer from the ‘Lord’s Prayer’.”

Christians are considered to be enemies of the state, because they believe in a higher power than the Kim family – Jesus. They must keep their faith completely secret. If they are discovered, they face imprisonment, torture, and even death.

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2) Ordinary people in North Korea are starving.

Every year there are natural disasters, with droughts in the dry seasons and flooding and mud slides in the rainy seasons. Harvests are poor. North Korea operates a ‘military first’ policy for distributing food and resources, meaning that ordinary people are often left to go hungry.

Boy sitting in a field

North Korean Christians choose to share the little resources that they have with those who have even less. One Chinese worker who has been involved in missions among North Koreans says, “At the height of the famine a leader felt called to reintroduce the concept of ‘holy rice’, a practice whereby rice is set apart for use in God’s kingdom. Ever since, these Christians don’t consume all the food they receive from us. They save some to give to people who are even worse off than them.”

There are 60,000 secret believers in North Korea who depend on Open Doors to smuggle in food, medicines and clothes to help them survive. Every £58 can provide this vital support for a North Korean family for a month.

3) Every aspect of life in North Korea is controlled by the state.

This includes where you live, where you can go, your profession, whether you will eat, and even what you think. The people of North Korea are under constant surveillance, and the authorities are always looking for signs of anything that might pose a threat to the ruling regime.

There is a neighbourhood watch system called inminban, and every North Korean citizen is part of a local unit. The unit leader will write reports on each of the members, asking questions about who has been visiting their homes, any absences, whether they have participated in volunteer work, and even whether they clean the portraits of the country’s leaders on their walls.

Despite the huge risks and close surveillance they face, Open Doors estimates that there are 300,000 courageous Christians in North Korea. They follow Jesus in complete secret, not even telling their own children about their faith for fear of discovery. If they are discovered, they will be imprisoned, and possibly killed.

  Mother walking with her 2 daughters

One of the ways that Open Doors is able to support North Korea’s secret believers is through broadcasting Christian radio programmes into the country at night. These programmes help them to learn more about their faith, and bring the encouragement that they are not alone or forgotten. Every £35 could go towards broadcasting Christian radio programmes into North Korea, with the potential to reach tens of thousands with the hope of the gospel.

4) North Korea imprisons thousands in labour camps comparable to the concentration camps of World War Two.

Open Doors estimates that there are between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians being held in these camps, simply for daring to believe in a higher authority than the Kim family – Jesus.

Hea Woo is a Christian who was imprisoned in North Korea. When she arrived at the prison camp where she was held, there was a sign saying ‘Do not try to escape, you shall be killed’. She says, “The guards were merciless. They kicked me and beat me with sticks. Christians are sometimes killed or locked up for the rest of their lives in concentration camps.

“Constantly there were people dying. Death was a part of our daily life. The bodies were usually burned and the guards scattered the ashes on the path. Every day, we walked down that path and I always thought, one day the other prisoners will be walking over me.”

And yet, even in these labour camps that are like hell on earth, God is at work. Hea Woo says, “God helped me to survive. Even more: He gave me a desire to evangelise among the other prisoners! He showed me whom I should approach. God used me to lead five people to faith. We met together out of the view of the guards. Often that was in the toilet. There we held a short service. I taught them Bible verses and some songs, which we sang almost inaudibly.”

Thankfully, Hea Woo was eventually released and managed to escape from North Korea. She now lives in South Korea.

Read Hannah's* amazing story of surviving a North Korean labour camp.

5) You can make a difference to the lives of persecuted Christians in North Korea.

Perhaps that sounds impossible. They are thousands of miles away, trapped in a country that sounds like a nightmare, facing challenges we can only begin to imagine. But you really can make a difference in the lives of our brothers and sisters in North Korea today.

You can stand with them in prayer, knowing that there is nowhere too dark or too dangerous for the hand of God to reach. You can make sure others know what is happening in North Korea - bring your friends to Standing Strong, where they can hear Hannah* share her amazing testimony of surviving a North Korean labour camp.

Incredibly, you can put food, medicines and Bibles into the hands of a North Korean believer, through Open Doors secret networks. It should be impossible, but the support of people like you is keeping 60,000 secret believers in North Korea alive.

And you can even travel to South Korea and meet with North Korean believers by taking part in the South Korea Muskthalon in 2019, and running, trekking or cycling to raise vital support for Christians in North Korea.

As North Korea continues to hit the headlines in the coming days and months, please stand with the people of North Korea in prayer and action, and know that our brothers and sisters there pray for you. We recently received a message from a secret believer in North Korea, saying, “We send the special thanks to the fellow workers and believers in foreign churches who supported us with their loving hands. Our North Korean underground church leaders pray for you that God may pour out His blessings and grace upon you.”

*names changed for security reasons

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