What it’s like to follow Jesus in North Korea

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 kwansilo, 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 kwansilo, 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 kwansilo, 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