By / Jan 24

Every year for the last three decades, Open Doors has released the annual World Watch List, a report ranking the top “50 countries where Christians suffer very high or extreme levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith.” In a country like the United States where the free exercise of religion is enshrined in its Constitution, the World Watch List (WWL) is a sobering reminder that our brothers and sisters around the world face real and present danger for their faith in Christ

What does the 2023 World Watch List reveal?

During its 30 year history, the WWL has revealed an alarming and consistent trend: the persecution of Christians across the globe has grown exponentially, which proved true again this year. Today, more than 360 million Christians suffer at least ‘high’ levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith. Here are some of this year’s takeaways:

  1. North Korea tops the list: With 2022 as the lone exception, North Korea has topped the World Watch List every year since 2002. And this year, with the introduction of a new “anti-reactionary thought law,” there was an increase in the number of Christians arrested and the number of house churches discovered and closed, earning North Korea its highest-ever persecution score. Tragically, those who are discovered and arrested “are either sent to labour camps as political prisoners where the conditions are atrocious“—they face starvation, torture, and sexual violence, for instance—”or killed on the spot.” Often, their families will share their fate.
  1. Sub-Saharan Africa in catastrophe: Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa face the threat of violence every day. The epicenter of the violence is Nigeria, where militants from the Fulani, Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and others “inflict murder, physical injury, abduction and sexual violence on their victims,” scores of whom are Christians. In the last year, there have been more than five thousand religiously motivated killings in Nigeria, which accounts for 89% of the international total. Conditions in the region have also led to a refugee crisis, as many Christians have been displaced while fleeing persecution.
  1. China’s campaign to redefine human rights: Another development has been the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) campaign to redefine international human rights away from universal standards, leading countries like Russia, India, and others to follow suit. Christians in these countries who are seen to oppose these new rights “by refusing to support the ruling part[ies]” are often labeled “disturbers of the peace” and even “terrorists,” and face arrest and the demolition of church buildings.
  1. Afghanistan’s descent: Afghanistan, who topped the 2022 WWL, fell eight spots to land at number nine this year. While that’s a significant drop, the situation for Christians there remains dire. After the Taliban assumed power in 2021, they went door-to-door rooting out and executing many Christians. Of those who survived, many went deep into hiding or fled the country. The Taliban remains committed to eliminating not only Christians but those with ties to the old regime. 
  1. Top 10 (last year’s rankings in parenthesis): North Korea (2), Somalia (3), Yemen (5), Eritrea (6), Libya (4), Nigeria (7), Pakistan (8), Iran (9), Afghanistan (1), Sudan (13).

While there have been some positive developments, like a decrease in the total number of Christians killed for their faith (from 5,898 to 5,621) and a growing tolerance in several Middle Eastern countries such as Bahrain and the UAE, discrimination and persecution against Christians on the basis of their faith continues to grow around the world. 

What can we do?

As Christians, no matter how many miles separate us from the people represented in the World Watch List, they are our brothers and sisters. While we may feel helpless, we do have the opportunity to “stand with them in solidarity, and remind them they are not alone.” 

Here are several ways we can support and stand with our brothers and sisters who face these significant threats everyday:

  • Pray for persecuted Christians around the world. Use the World Watch List tool as a prayer prompt that both alerts you to the need for prayer and informs you of specific ways that you can pray. 
  • Partner financially with organizations like Open Doors who serve the persecuted church in difficult regions around the world.
  • Sign up to receive email alerts from Open Doors and keep abreast of how you can pray and partner with them in their work. 

Because Christians believe that God works providentially through our prayers, we can all commit to using the World Watch List to remind and motivate us to pray for believers around the world who endure such unimaginable terror. By doing so, we can be certain that God will use our prayers to encourage and minister to Christians in these countries.

What is Open Doors?

Open Doors began in the mid-1950’s when a man known as Brother Andrew “started smuggling Bibles to the persecuted Christians in Communist Europe.” After a visit to Warsaw, Poland, Brother Andrew’s encounter with an “oppressed, isolated, and apparently forgotten church” compelled him to travel throughout Eastern Europe for the next twelve years, “delivering Bibles, encouraging those he met, and recruiting others to help him.” After the publication of God’s Smuggler in 1967 — an account of Brother Andrew’s work in Eastern Europe — his ministry became known worldwide, and “an entire generation caught the vision of supporting Christians who faced persecution and discrimination for their faith.”

Nearly 70 years later, Open Doors has steadily expanded its reach, “serving persecuted Christians in more than 70 countries, working with churches and local partners to provide Bibles, Christian materials, training, livelihood skills and advocacy.” The aim of Open Doors “is to encourage and raise up people in every nation to pray, support and speak up for Christians around the world who suffer for their faith.”

What is the World Watch List?

Beyond its ranking system, the World Watch List is an interactive tool that enables users to “explore the country profiles to find information, stories and prayers for each of the countries, along with ways that [Christians] can stand with [their] persecuted church family in prayer and action.” The list apprises readers of information such as the percentage of Christians persecuted worldwide (along with each specific region), the number of churches attacked and Christians detained or murdered annually, and country-specific information like its dominant religion and system of government. 

Truly, the World Watch List is a tool of immense value, informing Christians like us of how we can pray for and serve those who find themselves in locations hostile to Christianity. For information on the WWL methodology, visit this site.

By / Apr 30

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un missed the April 15 commemoration of the birthday of his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. The silence from him since then has led to speculation that he is either seriously ill or has already died.

Kim’s death would likely not lead to an improvement in the lives of North Korea’s citizens. The authoritarian Kim family has ruled the country since its founding, and Jong Un’s successor is expected to be similarly repressive.

Here are five facts you should know about North Korea’s human and religious rights violations.

1. The United Nations issued a report in 2002 estimating that somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 of North Korea’s inhabitants identify as Christian. But freedom of religion or belief does not exist in North Korea and is, in fact, profoundly suppressed, says the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The North Korean government relentlessly persecutes and punishes religious believers through arrest, torture, imprisonment, and sometimes execution, USIRF adds. Once imprisoned, religious believers typically are sent to political prison camps, where they are treated with extraordinary cruelty

2. Although Christians comprise less than 2% of the population (25 million), the North Korean regime reviles the Christianity above all other religious. The Kim regime considers Christianity the biggest threat, the USCIRF says, because it associates that faith with the West, particularly the United States. The USCIRF notes that the regime actively tries to identify and search out Christians practicing their faith in secret and imprisons those it apprehends, often along with their family members, even if they are not similarly religious. According to the U.S. State Department, as many as 50,000 Christians are estimated to be in political prison camps and facing hard labor or execution because of their faith.

3. The government operates at least four political prison camps, known as kwanliso, where religious and political dissenters are interred. Between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans citizens are estimated be held in such camps, says Human Rights Watch. The kwanliso are characterized by systemic abuse and deadly conditions, including torture and sexual abuse by guards, near-starvation rations, back-breaking forced labor in dangerous conditions, and executions. Most everyone held in the prison camps have never been convicted of any internationally recognizable criminal offense. They are frequently detained without fair trial or access to legal representation and are unable to see or communicate with their families.

4. The Kim regime also imposes severe restrictions on freedom of movement and access to information. All communications are under the total control of the Publicity and Information Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Only a select few in the ruling elite have access to the internet or international mobile phone services. For the rest of the citizenry, possession and distribution of foreign publications, videos and other media materials are serious crimes publishable by forced labor. As Amnesty International says, it is also illegal to leave the country without prior approval, and even when moving to another province citizens are required to pay bribes to police and other government officials. A prime example of the restrictions is the new identification card issued by the government to closely monitor people’s movements. Individuals who were not at their registered address and failed to obtain the new identification cards are treated as having left the country illegally. People living near borders, the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and major military facilities also remain under constant, close surveillance. The Chinese government also views all North Korean refugees as illegal economic migrants and deports them back when they are discovered. Because of this policy, women and girls who manage to cross the North Korea-Chinese border are at risk of trafficking for forced labor and sexual exploitation, including forced marriage with Chinese men.

 5. The government uses forced labor from ordinary citizens, including children, to control its people and sustain its economy, notes Human Rights Watch. A majority of North Koreans are required to perform unpaid labor at some point in their lives. Workers in North Korea are also not free to choose their own job but are assigned roles by the government. Because the government labor is often unpaid, many workers are forced to find other jobs to pay for their basic needs, such as food and shelter. Failing to show up for work without permission is a crime punishable by three to six months in forced labor training camps, so some workers have to pay bribes to be absent at their assigned workplace while they are working to survive.

By / Sep 18

My brother was always the jokester when we were growing up in our suburban hometown in upstate New York. One day at school a classmate asked my brother where our family was from; he jokingly replied, “West Korea,” to which his classmate responded, “Oh that’s cool, what’s it like there?” Granted, this was in the late 2000s and conversations my siblings and I have fielded since then show that people know a lot more about Korea than they used to. Still, I occasionally find myself explaining that there are many separated Korean families, you cannot go in and out of North Korea as you please, or not every North Korean fully believes in the Kim regime.

Just as I am God’s child before I am a Korean-American, the people languishing under the Kim regime are human beings made in God’s image before they are North Koreans. In this article, I hope to speak to some of the recent developments in Korea and my concerns as a Christian who happens to be Korean-American.

Historic first steps

This summer, President Trump became the first sitting president of the United States to cross the demilitarized zone from the U.S. allied South Korea into North Korea. On June 30, 2019, the American president was en route home from the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan; during a scheduled visit to South Korea, President Trump added an unscheduled, tweet-prompted visit to North Korea’s leader, Chairman Kim Jong-un.

Lacking from the fanfare of this albeit historic event was substantive discussion on denuclearization negotiations and the manifold human rights violations occurring in North Korea under the Kim regime. 

North Korea is often referred to as the “hermit kingdom” because it is isolated from the world as the Kim-led government enforces totalitarian rule over every area of life for its citizens, and sits in striking darkness next to the illuminated night sky of South Korea. Although it is difficult to enter North Korea and observe beyond what is presented by the state, decades of stories from defectors and investigators make it undeniable that the Kim Dynasty and its government systematically commit egregious human rights violations.

What’s not being talked about?

The persecution of Christians and religious individuals in North Korea

While there is virtually no right to freedom of thought, expression, and religion in the northern Korean country, there are Christians in North Korea. North Korea’s constitution only grants freedom of religion such that it does not “attract foreign intervention or disrupt the state’s social order.” The state interprets this article as reason to suppress any religious belief that threatens the state “juche” religion or worship of the Kim family, particularly Christianity.

The people languishing under the Kim regime are human beings made in God’s image before they are North Koreans.

The religious persecution of North Korean Christians is connected to and perpetuates many other human rights violations common in North Korea. The state designates its citizens a class under its “songbun” system based on loyalty to the regime. Christians and their families are designated in the lowly “hostile” class, and face greater restrictions to food, healthcare, and other living necessities. 

Repatriation and the plight of North Korean refugees

Refugees who try to escape, are caught in China, and found to have come into contact with a Christian organization are sent back to North Korea to political prison camps where conditions are even worse than those of labor camps. China forcibly repatriates around 15,000 North Korean refugees every year. This is in direct violation of China’s obligation to the United Nations 1951 Convention & 1967 Protocol, the international asylum principle that dictates a state shall not forcibly return a refugee to a territory where their lives or freedom would be threatened. 

China’s active repatriation of North Korean refugees is particularly painful given that South Korea grants North Korean refugees automatic citizenship, and nearly all North Korean refugees pass through China to eventually reach South Korea. China is the gateway to other Southeast Asian countries where there are South Korean embassies, and very few defectors successfully cross into South Korea through the demilitarized zone. Majority of the defectors in hiding in China are women who are sold as wives or cheap labor in rural villages and are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. Resulting from these marriages are an estimated 30,000 stateless orphans in China as half-North Korean children are not granted citizenship via naturalization. 

What about South Korea?

North Korean refugees’ difficulties do not end once they are in South Korea; North Korean refugees are entering South Korea at a unique time. While the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opening ceremony presented a hopeful image of the two Koreas marching together, many in South Korea were unimpressed. Attitudes toward North Korean refugees and reunification in South Korea are complicated, particularly for the younger generation consumed by immense societal and cultural pressure. 

South Korea is such a small country whose economy developed rapidly; competition in schooling and high youth unemployment cool what empathy the passage of time has left for a generation born after the partition of Korea. Further, South Korea’s birthrate reached an all-time low in 2018 falling below 1 birth per woman as more are delaying marriage and having kids. This presents a concerning dynamic and opportunity for prayer for the plight of North Korean refugee children in South Korea where adoption is not widely practiced.

Of course, there are exceptions to every generation. There are those in the older generation who view North Korea as an enemy, and there are those in the younger generation who are supportive of escapees living in South Korea. Whatever negative attitudes toward North Koreans that exist in South Korea are not because South Koreans have no compassion or are obsessed with only economic success. Such attitudes most likely arise from any real enduring interactions between North and South Koreans. 

When news clips of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the official name of North Korea) portray its citizens fawning over the Kim family or its soldiers marching in step, it is difficult to see North Koreans as different from their leader. This is why the work of organizations, such as the ERLC’s recent short film, is so important because it portrays the human interest stories of North Koreans, even highlighting those who come to faith in Christ.

A reverent and prayerful advocacy

As ERLC President Russell Moore stated, “our remembering of those persecuted is not only so that we can advocate for our brothers and sisters, but also so that we can learn from them how to live as Christians.” Even in the most dangerous nation to be a Christian, believers seek to live according to their faith and the risk of their lives. Through the testimonies of North Korean escapees, we are able to witness the indefinable human spirit of survivors who repeatedly tried to escape from a state that could not control their faith. Further, God continues to work through families as parents pass their faith on to their children, though few North Koreans risk sharing their faith. 

There are already movements among nonprofit organizations and churches in South Korea and in the U.S. to minister to North Korean escapees, to empower and provide job training, and to educate people on human rights and religious persecution violations in North Korea. These movements are encouraging as they raise awareness where there is a deficit and call Christians to prayer and civic engagement across generations and cultures. Here are a few ways you can pray for those who are suffering in North Korea: 

  • South Korea’s recent $8 billion in food aid will reach North Korean citizens truly in need as negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea remain at a standstill
  • The end of the concentration camps in North Korea, and the protection of those imprisoned in North Korea
  • The sustained hope and perseverance of believers in North Korea and that the gospel would spread
  • The hearts of South Koreans will be ready to accept North Korean refugees and that churches and Christian organizations in South Korea will lead in this endeavor socially, culturally, and politically
By / Jul 19

On Thursday, ERLC hosted an event in Washington, D.C. called “Humanity Denied: Religious Freedom in North Korea.” The speakers included Kenneth Bae, the longest-held U.S. prisoner of North Korea, and Jin Shin, president of the Institute for Peace Affairs a researcher and educator who has spent over 30 years on issues relating to the peaceful reunification of North and South Korea, and Olivia Enos, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Institute who specializes in human rights and national security challenges in Asia.

Here are five things you should know about North Korea and the Kim family:

1. Since the mid-1940s, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been ruled by the autocratic and cultish Kim family: Kim Il-sung held power from 1948 until his death in 1994; his son, Kim Jong-il, ruled the country from 1994 to 2011; and his grandson, Kim Jong-un, has been the supreme leader since 2011. After taking control of his country, Kim Il-sung developed such a strong personality cult that under the DPRK constitution he remains, even in death, the “eternal President of the Republic.” Similarly, within a year of being appointed premier, Kim Il-sung was referring to himself as “The Great Leader” and erecting statues of himself (the country now has more than 500 statues of him). His birthday is a national holiday known as the “Day of the Sun”, and in 1997 Kim Il-sung even created a new calendar that recalculated time from the year 1912, when he “came to earth from Heaven.”

2. Kim Il-sung instituted the ideology known as Juche, a form of hyper-nationalistic self-reliance. As the DPRK website explains, “The Juche idea means, in a nutshell, that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction. The Juche idea is based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything.” Writing in the Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, Grace Lee explains how this official autarkic state ideology is used to keep the North Korean population under control:

The Kim Il Sung regime instructed the North Korean people in the juche ideology using an analogy drawn from human anatomy. The Great Leader is the brain that makes decisions and issues orders, the Party is the nervous system that channels information, and the people are the bone and muscle that physically execute the orders. This belief system, inculcated in North Koreans since early childhood, made them docile and loyal to Kim Il Sung even in the face of famines and energy crises that have devastated the country.

Under the idea of Juche, says The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann, “Farmers were expected to overcome nature and grow enough crops to feed the entire population.” The result of this agricultural system was a famine that killed 3 million of the country’s 22 million people. As his people starved, Kim Jong-il focused on a policy of songun (military first) to maintain the world’s fourth largest army. The Defense Department says North Korea uses reunification with South Korea as a key component of its national identity narrative to validate its strategy and policies, and to justify sacrifices demanded of the populace.

3. Knowledge of the outside world is limited for most North Korean citizens. All legal televisions are tuned to state-controlled domestic programming, and outside of a closed domestic network, there is no internet access. The state maintains a network of informants who monitor and report to the authorities fellow citizens they suspect of criminal or subversive behavior, USA Today notes, and unauthorized access to non-state radio or TV broadcasts is severely punished. To keep control of the population, the Kim family maintains a massive system of kwanliso (gulag-like political prison camps). As Human Rights Watch explains:

Between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are estimated to still be in kwanliso, which are characterized by systemic abuse and deadly conditions, including torture and sexual abuse by guards, near-starvation rations, back-breaking forced labor in dangerous conditions, and executions. Working conditions at these sites are extremely difficult, including exposure to harsh weather, rudimentary tools, lack of safety equipment, and high risks of workplace accidents. Death rates in these camps are extremely high, political prison camp survivors told Human Rights Watch.

4. Freedom of religion or belief does not exist in North Korea and is, in fact, profoundly suppressed, says the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The North Korean government relentlessly persecutes and punishes religious believers through arrest, torture, imprisonment, and sometimes execution, USIRF adds. Once imprisoned, religious believers typically are sent to political prison camps, where they are treated with extraordinary cruelty.

5. The United Nations estimates that less than 2% of the 25 million population are Christian. The North Korean regime reviles Christianity the most and considers it the biggest threat, the USCIRF says, because it associates that faith with the West, particularly the United States. The USCIRF notes that the regime actively tries to identify and search out Christians practicing their faith in secret and imprisons those it apprehends, often along with their family members, even if they are not similarly religious. According to the U.S. State Department, tens of thousands of Christians are in political prison and facing hard labor or execution because of their faith.

By / Jul 17

North Korea today remains one of the most repressive regimes on earth restricting the freedom of its own people and considering Christianity a threat to the state. Kenneth Bae is a Christian missionary and American citizen who knows all too well about North Korean oppression. Although it is difficult to enter North Korea, Bae hosted state approved tourism visits from China. Each trip, though a risk, was a successful time of prayer for the Korean people until the country’s security officials arrested Bae after believing he posed a threat to the communist state. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and, after two years, became the longest held U.S. citizen to be imprisoned in North Korea. He was released in 2014 returning home on a flight with then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Kenneth Bae joins Jeff Pickering at the Leland House to share his story of imprisonment and release, holding onto hope in Christ, and his ministry to the North Korean people.  

Guest Biography

Kenneth Bae is an American citizen, born in South Korea, who serves as a Christian missionary in Seoul, South Korea. Since being released, Kenneth founded the Nehemiah Global Initiative, which is devoted to remembering the 25 million North Koreans and helping North Korean refugees physically and spiritually to rebuild new lives in South Korea. His book Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea recounts his full story.   

Resources from the Conversation

By / Jul 11

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,
  2. ^ 1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV
  3. ^ Open Doors, Final World Watch List 2019 North Korea Country Dossier, December 2018, available at
  4. ^ Lindy Lowry, “Naked, Shaved and Stripped of Her Name—Life in a North Korean Prison,” Open Doors USA, Feb. 7, 2019,
  5. ^ U.S. Department of State, “People’s Republic of Korea,” Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017, 6, available at
By / Jun 12

Jeff, Steven, and Travis welcome national security expert and Asia analyst Olivia Enos from the Heritage Foundation to the Leland House to discuss the latest news from North Korea, especially the plight of the persecuted church. Olivia traveled to Singapore and Hanoi for the nuclear summits between President Trump and Chairman Kim-Jong un. And Steven recently traveled to South Korea as part of ERLC’s religious liberty efforts on the Korean peninsula and visited the DMZ to hear from Christian North Korean defectors.

Guest Biography

Olivia Enos serves as a policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation specializing in human rights and transnational criminal issues. Enos has published numerous papers on human trafficking in Asia, human rights in North Korea, and reforming the U.S. refugee program and writes a bi-monthly column in Forbes. Her commentary has appeared in The Washington Post, The National Interest, The Diplomat, and Real Clear World, as well as numerous scholarly publications. She has also appeared on Fox News, CNN, and the BBC. She earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Patrick Henry College in Virginia, and a master of arts in Asian studies at Georgetown University. She and her husband Zach currently reside on Capitol Hill.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Jun 10

The freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right. The ERLC consistently upholds its commitment in the Southern Baptist Convention’s summary of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message, that “A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.” The right to believe, practice, and live according to one’s own religious faith is an innate human right of all people. While nearly all modern societies reflect this foundational truth of conscience freedom, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea does not.

International law upholds the importance of freedom of religion and belief. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 18, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” In addition to this important declaration, numerous other international treaties provide similar protections for religious freedom such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea does not afford its citizens the freedom of religion and belief. Although there are three Protestant churches, one Catholic church, and one Russian Orthodox church in the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang, they are little more than a state-sponsored façade. The reality of religion in the DPRK is best seen in Kim Jong-un’s demand for total allegiance to himself from the North Korean people. The DPRK constitution does not allow religious freedom because the constitution bars any religious ideology from posing a threat to the political status quo. In practice, DPRK government officials completely suppress the religious beliefs of their citizens.

Christians and other religious believers in North Korea face the most severe persecution of any religious minorities in the world. The government does not tolerate those who lead a spiritual life or practice a religion other than total allegiance to its own governing authority. Christians face especially severe punishment because this faith practice is seen as a subversive tool for foreign intervention. Christians are socially and economically ostracized by propaganda efforts and denied access to education, food, and healthcare. 

Prayer, worship, congregating, and possessing sacred texts are severely penalized with torture and imprisonment. One news agency estimates there are between 200,000 to 500,000 Christians in the country, of which 50,000 to 70,000 are imprisoned in labor and concentration camps. North Korean defectors testify to the appalling, violent torture endured by Christians from the hands of government authority. The torture of Christians and other religious minorities is routine and ongoing, as is their execution at the hands of the regime for practicing their religious beliefs.

The international community must prioritize the opposition of the egregious religious freedom violations propagated by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea government. Religious freedom is a right that goes to the very center of what it means to be human. While other rights like freedom of expression and assembly protect religious freedom, the oppression of this fundamental right denies the North Korean people the opportunity to pursue the answer to life’s most fundamental questions. Various human rights groups, journalists, and North Korean defectors witnessed and testified to the heinous violations of human rights, especially the abuse of religious people across the DPRK. The ERLC affirms “the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men,” as stated in the Baptist Faith & Message. The international community must continue to stand firm in favor of this right everywhere, and specifically in North Korea.

The ERLC is committed to seeing an end of all persecution in North Korea and will work to prevent the Kim regime from persecuting Christians. The messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention spoke to this critical moment in the 2019 SBC Resolution, “On Religious Persecution And Human Rights Violations In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Protecting the religious freedom of all Koreans as well as other basic human rights are top priorities of the ERLC. We will continue to collaborate with United States government leaders as well as the international community to end the egregious oppression of religious freedom and the violations of human rights in North Korea.

By / Jun 10

Executive Summary

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting human flourishing and justice around the world with a focus on freedom of religion. The ERLC is the public policy entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, the United States’s largest Protestant denomination with more than 15.2 million members and over 46,000 churches. The ERLC holds ECOSOC Special Consultative status before the United Nations.

ERLC calls on the international community to make FORB related recommendations to DPRK during the 33rd session of the 2019 Universal Periodic Review. It is undeniable that the right to freedom of religion is not respected in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Pyongyang regime persecutes Christians in a particularly brutal fashion. Prayer, worship, congregating, and possessing sacred texts are severely penalized by torture and imprisonment. One news agency estimates there are 200,000 to 500,000 Christians in the country, 1 of which 50,000 to 70,000 are imprisoned in labor or concentration camps.2 North Korean defectors testify to the appalling, violent torture of Christians. Torture is routine in North Korea, as is death at the hands of the regime. Database Center for North Korean Human Rights estimates that more than 75% of Christians die in these camps.

The international community must prioritize the opposition of the egregious religious freedom violations carried out by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea government. Religious freedom is a right that goes to the very center of what is means to be human. While other rights like freedom of expression and assembly protect religious freedom, the oppression of this fundamental right denies the humanity of the people of North Korea. Various human rights groups, journalists, and North Korean defectors witnessed the heinous human rights violations of religious people across the DPRK. The international community must not allow the denial of such a fundamental right to continue.

By / Nov 2

A call to action for the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.

“Each person received one handful of rotten corn [and] there was nothing else to eat.”

“People are obligated to work more than cows or animals.”

“So many died—and there was no hope in the prison. All [inmates] were on the verge of death.”

These sentences might seem as if they’re from a different era—perhaps a survivor recounting the horrors of a Nazi death camp, or a political prisoner describing the conditions in a Soviet-era gulag.

But these quotes are from Hea Woo, a woman living now in South Korea. They are about her experiences in a North Korean labor camp. And for her, one experience was even worse than the physical desperation of her situation—as a Christian, she yearned to pray and worship God, but because of where she was, such worship was forbidden and would have made her condition all the worse.

Physical labor was hard, but something harder was that we did not have freedom of faith,” she says. “We could not pray freely but I still prayed in [my] heart. When people were asleep, I woke up to pray. It was so pitiful that we did not have freedom of faith; I really yearned for freedom.”

There are thousands of other gripping stories about conditions in North Korea. Some Christians die in labor camps for their faith. Some North Korean women are trafficked when they escape into China. Some North Koreans go to China to find food or money and are threatened with arrest if they return home. And there are Christians who can’t share their faith with their own family members, for fear of arrest and imprisonment.

Your prayers make all the difference and remind Christians living in secret that they are part of the worldwide Body of Christ and have not been forgotten.

These are the stories that don’t get told in the constant news cycle about North Korea and U.S.–North Korea diplomatic talks. Open Doors estimates there are about 300,000 Christians in North Korea, most of whom are forced to live and worship in secret. Of those, there are estimated to be around 50,000 Christians suffering in detention, prison, or labor camps like the one Hea Woo spoke about.

At Open Doors, we think these stories need to be heard. Particularly, we must listen to accounts of Christians like Hea Woo, who can give staggering testimonies of both human rights atrocities and how God is active and at work, even in the darkest circumstances.

In North Korea, Christianity is regarded as “a particularly serious threat” by the government. A recent study by the International Bar Association found that Christians are targeted for brutal abuse in North Korean labor camps. Kim Jong Un has continued to build up a cult of personality, which means faith in Christ is a direct challenge to his rule. Even a recent invitation to a Christian leader to visit North Korea highlights the regime’s extreme persecution of Christians who truly yearn to follow Jesus.

And yet, God is doing amazing things in North Korea. In the midst of devastating persecution, God is strengthening his church. The scope of our work in North Korea focuses on:

  • Supplying persecuted believers with emergency relief aid (food, medicines, clothes, etc.).
  • Distribution of books and other Christian materials.
  • Training through radio broadcasting.
  • Providing shelter, aid, training, and training materials to North Korean believers in China.

That’s why we’re asking Christians everywhere to join us in prayer and solidarity for Christians in North Korea on the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP), which is this Sunday, November 4.

We know that North Korean Christians long to know they are not alone. Because of the restrictive nature of North Korea, it can be hard for them to see how much support they truly have. But we’ve heard countless times from North Korean believers who have left the country that the prayers of God’s people have made a critical difference.

“While I was in prison, I could not understand everything, but I felt that the Christians . . . in different countries were praying for us who were imprisoned,” Hea Woo remembers. “It provided comfort, and it became a source of energy for us. So, I really thank you; even if we cannot meet each other, let us communicate through the spirit in Jesus Christ. Let’s pray together and make good out of it—[and] I hope that our Lord will be glorified. I believe that at God’s appointed time, all the prayers will be answered and there will be freedom of faith in North Korea.”

Prayer changes things, even if we don’t understand how or where. Open Doors Founder Brother Andrew reminds us that our prayers “can go where we cannot . . . there are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray.”

Ways North Korean believers want you pray for them

We asked believers in the region how we could pray with them, and here are some ways they told us to pray:

  • Pray with North Korean Christians for their protection, strength, and endurance. They face persecution from state authorities and their non-Christian families, friends and neighbors.
  • Pray that North Korean President Kim Jong-un and his regime will come to know the one true God and open his country to the gospel for healing and restoration.
  • Pray that God will move on Kim Jong-un to release the estimated 50,000 Christians who are unjustly held in detention centers and prison camps throughout the country.
  • Pray that the underground church would grow in boldness and be ready for widespread evangelism efforts when the opportunity arises.
  • Pray that Kim Jong-un will allow for the creation of new churches where North Koreans can freely worship.

Join your North Korean Church Family in prayer this Sunday, and every day. Your prayers make all the difference and remind Christians living in secret that they are part of the worldwide Body of Christ and have not been forgotten.

For more information, and downloadable resources for your church or small group or personal prayer group, visit the Open Doors IDOP page.