North Korea may be small, but it leads the world as the most repressive existing dictatorship and has long been regarded as the single worst nation for religious freedom, where this sacred right is virtually non-existent.
According to the bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, North Korea has been engaging in horrific detainment, torture, and even execution of Christians as recently as 2020 in an apparent effort to “remove all traces of Christianity.”
In a report, the commission describes the government of North Korea as posing an “acute challenge to its citizens’ enjoyment of their right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief.”
“Violations of this right in North Korea are ongoing, egregious, and systematic, and they are perpetrated and overseen by the active mobilization of organs of the North Korean government,” the report’s introduction states. “For this reason, we find that the state is the source, the rationale, and the tool for the religious freedom violations documented in this report.”
Investigators spoke with survivors of religious persecution to draw many of its conclusions, many of whom escaped the authoritarian nation in 2019.
“We find that the denial of religious freedom is absolute,” the commission stated.
Some of the documented cases involved practitioners of Shamanic traditions, the Cheondogyo religion, and Christianity. Although persecution of the former groups has increased in recent years, Christianity has always been harshly and deliberately demonized by the North Korean state.
“The campaign to exterminate all Christian adherents and institutions in North Korea has been brutally effective,” the report states, “and continues through the work of the Ministry of State Security, networks of informants that stretch into China, the presence of ‘no-exit’ political prison camps, executions, and an educational and organizational system that deters adherence through schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods.”
According to the USCIRF, the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea keeps church buildings in the capital of Pyongyang and “instructs a small group of approved specialized cadres to perform Christian ceremonies in these buildings, while at the same time forbidding North Korean citizens — including that group of specialized cadres — to live as Christians.”
This brings to mind the far larger Chinese Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which is a state-backed “Christian” religious organization that has recently engaged in heavily promoting the teachings of President Xi Jinping from the pulpit.
North Korean defectors told the commission’s investigators that children are taught in school to despite missionaries and yet don’t even know what the Christian faith is based on.
One interviewee told them that “there was a separate subject that completely demonized the missionaries. The very purpose of that subject was to stress how horrible the missionaries are and how horrible religion and the practice of superstition is.”
Christianity is portrayed as almost inextricably linked with the demonized United States, and ample propaganda exists to demonize those who preach the gospel. The word “missionary” is even used as a curse word.
“I used to think that almost all missionaries were Americans when I was little. As I grew up, however, I started to know better,” one of the defectors stated. “Aside from the curriculum contents, this perspective was encouraged through graphic novels rather than movies. There were graphic novels featuring contents such as Christian missionaries coaxing children into a church and drawing their blood in the basements. These comic books were published by the government.”
Another explained, “We do not know who Jesus is, but we are educated to be afraid of the cross. They teach us in school that [crosses] are for hanging people or bleeding people to death.”
It is remarkable that, nearly 2,000 years since the early Christians were being fed to lions in the Roman Coliseum, there are still Christians being persecuted just as severely in our modern-day and age.
It is so easy to lose sight of just how precious the Good News of the Gospel is, and that those who live in such repressive conditions are willing to risk their lives to share it and follow the Lord.
Pray for the church of North Korea, whose boldness is likely unmatched by few in more liberal countries. Pray that every single person who is walking after Jesus would have the same boldness and dedication to spreading and living the Gospel message, and pray that these horrifically abused Christians would be filled with the comfort and mercy of the Lord.
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