President Donald Trump is now meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Will the human rights of North Koreans, including hundreds of thousands of Christians, be on the agenda?
Many lose sleep over the looming threat posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s “Dear Leader” and over the approaching summit. So far, it’s been mostly rhetoric and not action escalated by the DPRK. Last summer, the regime declared that it would launch “an unimaginable strike at an unimaginable time” upon the United States. It threatened to America into a “pile of ash.”
But few American Christians lose sleep over their fellow Christians in North Korea – if they even know they exist. Calls for prayer for North Korea, including the most recent, led by the National Council of Churches and the Friends Committee on National Legislation, ignore North Korea’s Christians and castigate United States “militarism” and urge reunification of the Korean peninsula. Even the National Association of Evangelicals, in a March 27 call to “pray for peace” ignored the brutal persecution and eradication of Christians by the Kims. (An admirable exception is the Christian human rights group, Open Doors, which is holding a prayer summit online tonight.)
Perhaps American Christians don’t know that the same regime that threatened to turn the United States into a pile of ash turns its own wretched citizens who die in political prison camps into piles of ash? It then uses them as fertilizer. In that appalling action, North Korea demonstrates one way in which it wipes out the very existence of Christians, as well as other political prisoners.
The United States Government is aware of the condition of Christians in the DPRK. On December 22, 2017, the Secretary of State once again designated North Korea as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. The CPC designation since 2001 says that North Korea engages in or tolerates “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
Likewise, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2018 report ranks North Korea as a “Tier One” country. USCIRF, an independent government agency also created under the International Religious Freedom Act, says of the regime:
The North Korean government’s approach toward religion
and belief is among the most hostile and repressive in the
world. Freedom of religion or belief does not exist in North
Korea. The regime exerts absolute influence over the handful
of state-controlled houses of worship permitted to exist,
creating a facade of religious life in North Korea. In practice,
the North Korean regime treats religion as a threat, particularly
faiths associated with the West, such as Christianity,
and is known to arrest, torture, imprison, and even execute
Before the Communist takeover, North Korea was known as “the Jerusalem of the East.” A spiritual revival took place in January 1907 and continued for three years. According to Mathew Backholer in Revival Fire, 50,000 people came to Christ in the first year of the revival.
Then, writes Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK):
In 1946, the North Korean People’s Committee forced the closure of churches with congregations that did not meet a certain predetermined number of attendees. The Committee began to forbid Protestant and Catholic in-house assemblies, and made Sunday a workday and Monday a rest day. Under the pretext that the sound of religious songs disturbed public life, the same Committee asked churches to relocate. Communist party agitators were inserted into Christian communities and church assemblies. They began criticizing the sermons as being “unprogressive.”
Scarlatoiu says that “religious freedom went from restriction to suppression to violent obliteration,” with “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung telling his secret police that they could not “move towards a communist society with religious people.”
Between 1945-1950, the DPRK government executed or arrested all known religious leaders and created a class system seongbun, which placed all known surviving Christians in the lowest “hostile” category. They were either relocated or sent to forced labor camps.
The government replaced Christianity and other faiths with a religious, political, social/economic ideology called Juche, also known as “Kimilsungism.” As it sounds, Juche is a bizarre cultish worship of the late “Great Leader” as god and attributes divine powers to Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un as well. In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick says that in North Korea children celebrate the birthdays of the Kims but not their own birthdays.
Try as it might, though, the DPRK has never wiped out Christianity. Some experts say that there are as many as 400,000 secret believers, most of whom became Christians in China or through contact with Chinese or South Korean Christians. They live in constant threat of imprisonment or execution. The State Department 2017 International Religious Freedom report indicates that in 2012 Cornerstone Ministries International estimated that 10-45 percent of those imprisoned in detention camps were Christians.
The USCIRF report Thank You, Father Kim Il-sung interviewed two former North Korean political police who defected. They stated that their work included “hunting down such Christians” and that the purpose of the “brutally coercive interrogations” of North Koreans who have been forcibly repatriated from China is to identify North Koreans involved with foreign Christians and missions.”
The horrors perpetrated against Christians in North Korea are both endless and unimaginable, but here are a few examples:
- A former DPRK prison guard testifying before Congress confirmed the regime’s intense hatred for Christians. In one incident he recounted a woman, in prison because she was a Christian, was kicked repeatedly and left for days because a prison guard overheard her praying for a child (Yes, children are in prison camps because the regime imprisons three generations of a family for the transgression of one member.)
- In prison factories, guards poured molten steel on Christians to kill them because believing in God instead of Kim Il-sung was the biggest crime in the eyes of the officials.
- 2004 BBC documentary Access to Evil interviewed several defectors, former prison officials, who revealed that North Korea conducts deadly experiments on prisoners with gas chambers and chemicals. They indicated that those prisoners the regime considered “enemies of the state,” particularly Christians, were selected for the experiments. The former prison camp official watched a Christian family die in the gas chamber, with parents trying to shield their children from the fumes to the very end.
While U.S. Christian organizations like the NCC and the NAE have ignored the plight of Christians in North Korea and focused on a pacifistic approach to the summit, those who track North Korea’s human rights abuses approach the summit as an opportunity to help the country’s Christians, and indeed, all of the beleaguered citizens of the DPRK.
In a June 11 article, “Never Give Up on the Human Rights of North Koreans,” Scarlatoiu and fellow human rights activist Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean and Director, Global Social Action Agenda, Simon Wiesenthal Center, urge President Trump “to put the release of Japanese, other foreign and South Korean abductees, the reunion of separated Korean families, and the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean political prison camps, as the bill the DPRK must foot to become a normal and responsible member of the international community.”
Encouraged by the fact that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already “changed the equation by succeeding in securing the release” of three Korean American Christians, Scarlatoiu and Cooper still warn:
Under any conceivable outcome, in order to achieve ultimate peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia–a fundamental U.S. security interest—the nature of the Kim regime and its horrific human rights abuses must remain in focus.
Human rights cannot be treated as a sidebar issue, possibly sacrificed for a wink and a nod and photo-op with Kim. Human rights must not be abandoned to appease the Kim regime. Human rights cannot be postponed until an ever-elusive future scenario where the Kim regime miraculously agrees to protect the rights of its citizens. Despots do not give away human rights out of the goodness of their hearts. Human rights are always achieved and protected through struggle.
That struggle was successful during the Cold War when the United States linked nuclear disarmament and human rights, including religious freedom. Like today, there were Christian organizations and churches then that frowned upon too close a scrutiny of the persecution practices of the Soviet system. They wanted to appease the Soviets and have a “world without war,” even at the expense of thousands and thousands of their fellow believers in gulag and mental hospital.
There are deep concerns, and reports, that the summit between the presidents of the United States and North Korea will not touch on North Korea’s egregious human rights. This would be not only an incredible moral failure, but a bad mistake strategically. Barring divine intervention, only a drastic, verifiable change in the way that Kim Jong-un treats his own people, including the so-called “hostiles,” the Christians, may indicate the possibility of North Korea ending its own hostility towards the free world.