What it’s like to follow Jesus in North Korea

July 11, 2019

North Korea is the most dangerous place on earth to be a Christian. Open Doors, which studies and reports on Christian persecution worldwide, has listed North Korea at the top of its World Watch List—an index of persecution against Christians—for 18 years in a row.

But despite this, the church in North Korea is not small. Experts estimate that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians in North Korea. While a relatively small minority of the overall population of 25 million, 300,000 believers represents a significant movement of God and strong remnant in North Korea. Before the Kim regime began in 1948, Christianity flourished all over the Korean Peninsula.[1] Decades of missionary work starting in the 1880s preceded the Great Pyongyang Revival of 1907, which led to mass conversions and church planting work, centered in what is now North Korea.

Even a regime as brutal and autocratic as the Kim Dynasty cannot stop the work of God. As believers, we know that God is at work on every single square inch of our planet and that God is drawing to himself a people—a family—made up of every tribe, tongue, and nation on earth. Right now, we have brothers and sisters in Christ striving to worship and honor God with their lives, and they face persecution, martyrdom, and struggles that are difficult for us in the comfort and freedom of the West to even imagine.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul used the metaphor of a body made up of many members—every follower of Christ is an integral part, joined up together as one. And as Paul told us, “if one member suffers, all suffer together.”[2]

In order for us to pray for and take action to support our brothers and sisters in North Korea, we need to understand what their lives are like as they seek to follow Jesus in a hostile place. Here are three things you need to know about life as a follower of Jesus in North Korea.

North Korean believers crave the Scriptures

Believers in the United States have access to the Scriptures that would be unimaginable to a North Korean—or to believers in previous eras. The Scriptures are always at our fingertips, in any language, in multiple translations. We can listen to sermons on any passage or topic, buy books to encourage us and help us to grow spiritually.

In North Korea, possession of a Bible is a sufficient reason to be sent to a prison camp for the rest of your life. According to Open Doors, it is dangerous to possess or read the Bible either publicly or privately. Believers in North Korea carefully hide their copies of the Scriptures and divide them and keep them in multiple locations. In some cases, believers will memorize a book and then destroy the copy to minimize the risk of being found with illegal materials.[3]

It’s difficult to imagine risking so much to worship God, especially when even the Bible itself is in short supply, let alone Bible studies, commentaries, and sermons. As a result, the North Korean church treasures the Scriptures the way we ought to and recognizes the Scriptures as the essential Word of life. But we should pray for a day when Bibles and other religious materials can be freely shared throughout North Korea.

North Korean believers live in constant fear in all areas of their lives

North Koreans face persecution in both the public and private sphere of their lives. This intrusion into their private lives includes electronic surveillance of messages and emails but does not stop there. North Korea has a comprehensive regime for monitoring and reporting on its subjects, called inminban.

Beginning in the colonial era, aegukbans, or “patriotic groups,” began to form in neighborhoods throughout unified Korea. These groups were designed as mandatory “neighborhood watch” programs that aim at providing safety, food, labor, and order. After the Korean Civil War, North Korea renamed their watch program as inminban meaning “people’s groups.” The duty of the groups went from promoting peace to a threefold program supporting surveillance, a normal function of life, and labor mobilization. Each group was appointed a leader, typically an older woman, who was forced to monitor her inhabitants closely. Her duties consisted of a weekly unannounced inspection of each home to be conducted in the middle of the night, close monitoring of the income and spending of each household, and reporting any suspicious activities to the local authorities immediately. 

Throughout the late 20th century, successive Kim regimes began ramping down the broader inminban project. Inminban leaders became less willing to report discrepancies and focused mainly on securing food and labor. But when Kim Jong-un rose to power in 2011, a significant shift occurred. Religious material has been banned in the country for decades, but the Kim Jong-un regime has reinstated the roles of inminban and has cracked down on religious adherence. The inminban now has the duties of searching homes and punishing any violators found with religious materials, conducting religious practices, or even simply saying a prayer over their food. Violators are tortured in imprisonment camps and some face execution if they refuse to give up their beliefs.

Believers in North Korea face a pervasive, constant fear that friends, acquaintances, and even family members will report their religious activities to the inminban. There are stories of families who defected together, only to discover that both husband and wife were following Jesus in secret even from each other. The state’s surveillance power comes into the home and separates even husband and wife.

Many North Korean believers face arbitrary detention, sometimes for life

Of the 300,000 believers in North Korea, nearly one-quarter are in prison for their faith.

When the North Korean authorities find prohibited religious materials or suspect a person of being a practicing Christian, that person is sent immediately to prison. This prison will include interrogations under torture and solitary confinement. Secret believers will be asked repeatedly about any suspected religious activity and religious material found. Many hide their faith; those who confess to be followers of Jesus will be sent to the kwanliso, the notorious North Korean political prison camps.[4]

Even those who manage to hide their faith from the authorities are not immediately freed. Those found by a judge to be “not guilty” of being a Christian will be sent to a re-education camp for a period of years. These camps “re-educate” their residents through hard labor of 12 hours per day, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and dehumanizing living conditions. On the way to the re-education camp, the government will require the prisoner to be divorced by his or her spouse, leaving the prisoner alone and totally isolated. After a number of years, these prisoners have the opportunity to be released.

Secret churches exist even in these re-education camps, as prisoners struggle to follow Jesus even in these horrible conditions. Even there, God is at work.

Most of those found “guilty” of being practicing Christians will never be seen again. They are sent to one of North Korea’s kwanliso, maximum security political prison camps where imprisonment is for life under horrific and brutal conditions. Physical abuse and sexual assault by prison guards are routine, a result of the unchecked power held by prison guards. Death from summary executions and torture are everyday occurrences, as are death from starvation, disease from poor sanitation, and forced labor.[5]

Even in the kwanliso, believers gather in secret churches, holding on to their faith even as many know they will never be released. God strengthens and upholds these believers as they seek to live faithfully for God.

Prayer and advocacy

Living in the comfort and freedom of the West, these stories are almost impossible to imagine. It’s difficult to believe it is possible there is a place on earth like this. But these stories are true.

What are we to do with this information?

  1. We should pray fervently and specifically for the North Korean church—for protection of believers, and for comfort and courage for those imprisoned. But we should also pray for the closure of these camps and for the end of the Kim regime as we know it, which has perpetrated unimaginable crimes against humanity. Let us never forget our brothers and sisters in North Korea. When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. 
  2. We should insist that our elected officials prioritize human rights and religious freedom among the other security considerations of our foreign policy. For those of us who are citizens of the United States, we have the gift of a voice and access to elected officials who can in turn influence the foreign policy of the world’s lone superpower. Let us use our voices to advocate for those whose voices have been silenced by the brutal North Korean regime.

We know that a day is coming when Jesus will wipe every tear from every eye. Until then, let us work toward a vision where justice and righteousness are found on earth, as they are in heaven.

Policy intern Josie Peery contributed to this article.

This article originally appeared in Light Magazine


  1. ^ “Korea: Still divided 70 years on,” World Watch Monitor, https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2015/08/korea-still-divided-70-years-on/.
  2. ^ 1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV
  3. ^ Open Doors, Final World Watch List 2019 North Korea Country Dossier, December 2018, available at https://www.opendoorsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/North-Korea-FINAL-WWL-2019-DOSSIER-December-2018.pdf.
  4. ^ Lindy Lowry, “Naked, Shaved and Stripped of Her Name—Life in a North Korean Prison,” Open Doors USA, Feb. 7, 2019, https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/naked-shaved-and-stripped-of-her-name-life-in-a-north-korean-prison/.
  5. ^ U.S. Department of State, “People’s Republic of Korea,” Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017, 6, available at https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/277333.pdf.

Travis Wussow

Travis Wussow serves as the Vice President for Public Policy and General Counsel. Travis led the ERLC’s first international office located in the Middle East prior to joining the Washington DC office. He received a B.B.A. in Finance from The University of Texas at Austin and a J.D. from The … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24