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 being a Christian in 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. 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, even being a Christian in North Korea. 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.”
In order for us to pray for and take action to support our brothers and sisters, and every Christian 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 Christian 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 Christian in North Korea—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.
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.
Being a Christian in North Korea means they 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.