It’s hard to know exactly how many Christians there are in North Korea, because they must keep their faith so well hidden, but Open Doors estimates it is 400,000 – some 1.5 per cent of the population. About 50-70,000 of these Christians are in horrendous prisons and labour camps.
Being discovered as a Christian is a death sentence in North Korea. You will be taken to a labour camp as a political criminal, if you aren’t killed instantly. These inhumane prisons have horrific conditions, and few believers make it out alive. And everyone in your family will share the same punishment. Kim Jong-un is reported to have expanded the system of prison camps, in which an estimated 50-70,000 Christians are currently imprisoned.
Many Christians are unable to meet with other believers, and have to keep their faith entirely hidden. There are even stories of husbands and wives not knowing, for many years, that their spouse was also a Christian.
Secret police carry out raids to identify Christians, and children are encouraged to tell their teachers about any sign of faith in their parents’ home. A Christian is never safe.
“The North Korean citizens are like slaves. With the light of the Lord, they would be freed.”Hee-Yol
North Korean authorities don’t just control every aspect of life of everyone living in North Korea – their reach goes even beyond the borders. Hee-Yol (name changed) escaped North Korea during the Great Famine of the 1990s. While in China, she heard about Jesus and became a Christian – but one day she was forced back to North Korea.
“One day, the Chinese police broke into my workplace. They demanded to see my ID card, and when I couldn’t show them one, I was sent to North Korea,” says Hee-Yol.
Back in North Korea, she was kept in a horrendous prison, with conditions that are almost too unbearable to imagine: “The small prison cell had nine prisoners. We could not lie comfortably. We had to lay down on our side. If the cameras caught us talking to prisoners next to us, the punishment was called pompu, where we put our hands behind us and had to crouch and then stand up a thousand times.
“It was so hard to endure. One whole winter, I had to spend at the detention centre. The room was underground without any sunlight. It was a harsh winter. I needed to endure the temperature well below minus 20 to 30 degrees Celsius, the hunger, and the cold.”
Thankfully, she was released. Most Christians are not.
It couldn’t really get any harder. 2021 is the 20th year in a row that North Korea has been the country where Christians face the most extreme persecution. And yet Covid-19 has made it even worse. Though the North Korean authorities claim that the pandemic has had little impact in the country, North Koreans call it the ‘ghost disease’ – because people are so malnourished already that they die very quickly from Covid-19. Kim Jong-un has even made the very unusual step of acknowledging a severe food shortage in the country.
The pandemic has led to tighter security at the Chinese border, and a stranglehold on the black market, which many used to survive. It has also become much harder to flee the country, with almost no North Koreans escaping to South Korea.
Please keep praying for your brothers and sisters in North Korea. Your prayers make an enormous difference to those following Jesus no matter the cost.
Open Doors secret workers are keeping 90,000 North Korean believers alive with vital food and aid through networks in China, as well as providing shelter and training for North Korean refugees in China.
Lord God, it is hard for us to imagine life in North Korea for Christians. But thank You that You will never abandon Your children, and that You are with them whatever they suffer. Please help North Korean believers not just to survive but to be joyful, despite everything – prepare a banquet for them in the presence of their enemies. Tear down the strongholds of the Kim family and replace them with prayer and praise. Amen.
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