Persecution of Christians in North Korea: A Perspective
I saw the land of nothingness across the Yalu River. It was the week of Christmas. The land looked frozen in time, locked within a regressive history since 1950, when Kim Il-Sung founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Devoid of vegetation, the view was barren, as if it were a frameless black-and-white photograph. I had paid little attention to the world’s most closed nation neighboring my home country. Unlike my grandparents’ time when the Korean peninsula was an undivided whole, I was born into the generation of two Koreas, already separated, already othered. The maps defined for me this geographical dichotomy. I grew up with a kind of normalized indifference to the other side of the Demilitarized Zone. My education in the States eventually distanced me physically away from it all. And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with not having to care about two dozen million people, not one of whom I had met before nor will ever meet?
This question was left unvisited until the summer after my sophomore year, when some things my mother told me distressed me deeply. She had returned from a trip to the border region of China and North Korea, and what I heard from her half a world away would shake my own. I was on campus at the time but the distance within, which held an ocean between us, strangely shrunk to a phone line as I listened to her speak of the people in the northern land. I would not believe what I heard. I did not want to—what did she mean that people are starving to death in the twenty-first century? But as I researched what is really going on—what has been going on—in North Korea, I could no longer deny but learn of the violations of human rights that amount to crimes against humanity.
That summer, upon reading Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, North Korean human rights became my newfound passion. An American journalist’s compilation of interviews with North Korean defectors living in South Korea, the nonfiction work of oral history showed me a world to which I had blinded myself. I was at once drawn to the defectors’ stories and repelled by the government that allowed them to happen.
The common thread that holds these defectors’ stories together is the famine in the mid-1990s, which drove so many hungry North Koreans out of their homes into China. The violation of the right to food has been well noted by the United Nations World Food Programme. Special Rapporteur to the DPRK Marzuki Darusman writes on the prolonged food crisis following the famine that “the root causes are man- made.”[i] The government has been withholding from its citizens the right to food, by denying economic and physical access to food. The class system called songbun continues to prevent the majority of people from feeding themselves, and the state ideology of self-reliance, that is, undivided reliance on the People’s Party, necessitates dependence on government rations, whose distribution began to stop as early as the late 80s. North Korea still struggles to recover from the aftermath of this euphemized ‘Arduous March,’ which starved to death a government estimate of at least a million and up to a more accurate estimate of three million North Koreans.[ii] This ongoing phenomenon of persistent hunger and chronic malnutrition is a painful contrast when juxtaposed with the immense prosperity we encounter everyday in grocery stores.
In presenting ‘ordinary lives,’ Demick also discusses the inordinate ones. Satellite images taken by Amnesty International show the expansion of political prison camps, none of whose existence the North Korean government acknowledges. There are as many as 200,000 prisoners held captive for committing ‘political crimes’ in these facilities.[iii] Even those who are themselves innocent but have close relatives who committed crimes are sent to the camps according to the principle of guilt by association. Practicing a religion is the most atrocious political crime that a North Korean dare commit against its fatherland; to believe in something other than the self-deified Kim Il-Sung and his successors is to threaten the regime’s power.
It is not difficult to perceive that North Korea is a fear-gripped country. To understand how North Korea operates on fear is to try and comprehend how the regime indoctrinates its people to worship Kim Il- Sung and Kim Jong-Il. It is a kind of sanctified fear. The ideology that Kim Il-Sung founded his country upon is called Juche, translated as ‘self-sufficiency.’ Kim Il-Sung made himself a god and, naturally, his son Kim Jong-Il became the son of god; this Juche ideology, or more appropriately, theology, then, is the spirit which helps and comforts the people. This trinity is not unfamiliar. It is analogous to the Trinity in Christianity—of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is not surprising that Kim Il-Sung grew up in a Christian household; his power, based in Juche, is the resulting application of Christianity, distorted for his purpose of self-fashioned divinity.
Juche borrows the concept of fear as in Christianity to create deep loyalty to the regime. For example, North Korea’s legal system is based on ten principles, whose original model is the Ten Commandments. The only major difference is that Kim Il-Sung appears instead at every mention of God. Evidence of idolatry is everywhere, as the North Korean people must bow before statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. No other decoration is allowed in civilian homes— which are state property—except the framed pictures of the Kims. Images of the Kims, along with other representational forms such as newspaper articles and their statues, are deemed holy and must not be dirtied. What began as self-worship built up to the national scale such that Juche can be called a state religion. This ‘self-sufficiency’ is symptomatic of the greater disease of self-worship. While some may argue that North Korea has a political problem, it is in fact interlocked with the spiritual.
From the perspective of an outsider, the North Koreans’ gullibility may be outrageously laughable. But of course, anything could happen in a world where, as observed by an educated elite defector, its totalitarianism is akin to George Orwell’s 1984 dystopia. Instead of Big Brother, here is father Kim Il-Sung who watches over his people. Considering that North Koreans have been brainwashed from birth, that the indoctrination of Juche is drilled into them repeatedly so as to be cemented as an unobjectionable given, no longer funny is their susceptibility to their social norms. North Koreans are embedded in a self- contained society where propaganda is found in the songs they sing from childhood (“We have nothing to envy in the world”), in the math problems they solve at school (how many enemy [American, Japanese, and South Korean] soldiers were killed by the North Korean army?), and in every article, TV news report, and radio broadcast. Given that the fundamental cornerstones were borrowed directly from Christianity so as to institutionalize religious loyalty to the regime, it is not difficult to see that among numerous human rights violations in North Korea the biggest is that of the freedom of religion.[iv] Belief in Christianity especially endangers maintaining the divine power of the Kim regime as incontrovertible.
David Hawk, a world-renown human rights activist and scholar, published in 2005 a report specifically on North Korea’s violation of the freedom of religion. Titled “Thank You Father Kim Il-Sung,” the report is an account of interviews with forty defectors, and, as the title suggests, the defector testimonies demonstrate just how closely Christianity relates to North Korea’s control of its followers. Because North Korean authorities fear that the introduction of Christianity will enlighten the people to the truth, the religion that must be eradicated is Christianity. In other words, if North Korea opens its doors to the outside world, Christianity will inevitably enter and the people will discern the truth from its verisimilitude. Accordingly, its believers must be eliminated because they have betrayed their fatherland by accepting the existence of a god other than Kim Il-Sung.
In North Korea, possession of a Bible is illegal, and those who know of its owner must report such cases to the police. (When I asked the founding director—and North Korean defector—of the human rights NGO I was working for at the time, what is the good that comes out of reporting, he replied that if one does not report, the consequences are too crushing.) The Bible is regarded as “a tool of cultural and ideological intrusion” to North Korea.[v] Because there is no freedom of assembly, it is customary to keep an eye on each other in a meeting as small as of two; to gather as a church is out of the question.
In his study Hawk shows a case in which an interviewee recounts an unusual form of public execution of five North Korean Christians. Interviewee 17 at the time was working for the People’s Army; his unit was assigned a project to widen the highway between Pyongyang and a nearby city called Nampo. When they were demolishing a vacated house, they found in the basement a Bible and a notebook in which the names of five church leaders and those of twenty church members were written. Below illustrates the persecution:
In November 1996, the 25 were brought to the road construction site. Four concentric rectangular rows of spectators were assembled to watch the execution. Interviewee 17 was in the first row. The five leaders to be executed— the pastor, two assistant pastors, and two elders—were bound hand and foot and made to lie down in front of a steam roller. This steam roller was a large construction vehicle imported from Japan with a heavy, huge, and wide steel roller mounted on the front to crush and level the roadway prior to pouring concrete. The other twenty persons were held just to the side. The condemned were accused of being Kiddokyo (Protestant Christian) spies and conspiring to engage in subversive activities. Nevertheless, they were told “If you abandon religion and serve only Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, you will not be killed.” None of the five said a word. Some of the fellow parishioners assembled to watch the execution cried, screamed out, or fainted when the skulls made a popping sound as they were crushed beneath the steam roller.[vi]
When I first encountered this testimony, I was already crying. I could not read further, as though the knowledge paralyzed my capacity to receive or process. I was struck by the steadfast faith until death. I know that I have taken so many things for granted, but this right to religious freedom I began to appreciate at a different depth. Though before I had largely considered visible freedoms such as those pertaining to food, education, and health, I had overlooked the fact that I can sing in church, pray with friends, read the Bible without breaking the law—that I can live out my faith. Though this freedom regards faith that is “invisible,” it is constantly reified in my life. I contemplate the brutality against Christians in Paul’s time of the first century, of the early churches. Paul writes: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”[vii] As outdated such forms of persecution may appear, this past is repeating itself today in North Korea, and other parts of the world, where believers are physically oppressed. While I have lived with and on my religious freedom, there are Christians elsewhere who live—and die—for it.
i “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Marzuki Darusman,” United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Twenty- second session (February 2013), A/HRC/22/57.
ii Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, “Hunger and Human Rights: the Politics of Famine in North Korea,” U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (2005).
iii “World Report 2013: North Korea,” Human Rights Watch, 15 September 2014, <www.hrw.org/ world-report/2013/country-chapters/north-korea>.
iv Other violations of human rights include that of right to life, restrictions on freedom of movement, arbitrary detention, and inhumane treatment. v Thomas J. Belke, Juche: A Christian Study of North Korea’s State Religion (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Book, 1999).
vi David Hawk, “Thank You Father Kim Il Sung: Eyewitness Accounts of Severe Violations of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion in North Korea,” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (2005). vii Hebrews 11:36-38 (NIV).
Hannah Jung ’15 is from South Korea. She is a Creative Writing major with a minor in Sociology.Tags: Barbara Demick, David Hawk, politics, theology