North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il is dead. No one knows what is likely to follow. But one important measure of reform by the new leadership will be ending the regime's brutal religious persecution.
The so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea pioneered the fusion of Communism and monarchy when in 1994 Kim succeeded his father, Kim Il-sung, as supreme leader. Before his death, Kim Jong-il sought to ensure the same transition to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
But the latter Kim, tagged "Great Successor" by North Korea's official media, may not live up to his new title. Kim Jong-il spent a couple decades ascending the party hierarchy under his father's protection; he anointed his own son less than three years ago. There are plenty of claimants to the throne who have been waiting a long time for the Kims to step, or be pushed, aside.
Whoever wins the inevitable power struggle will face a nation in crisis: isolated and impoverished, the North wins attention only by highlighting its missile and nuclear programs. The country desperately needs economic reform if it is ever going to become "a powerful and prosperous country," the theme for next year's planned celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth.
Even more pressing is political reform. The DPRK suffers under the most murderously repressive government on earth. The stultifying personality cult, extensive system of prison camps, and ruthless suppression of dissent look a lot like Stalin's Soviet Union, Hoxha's Albania, and Mao's China. The North also is among the world's most vicious religious persecutors. For the Kim cult is akin to a religion, as evidenced by the exaggerated grief expressed over Kim Jong-il's death.
The regime claims the whole person, just like Christianity and other religions. And in North Korea any competition with the state must be destroyed. That's why believers are treated as "hostile elements," according to Human Rights Watch. The architect of the North Korean state, Kim Il-sung, reportedly explained: "we came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad habit if they are killed."
We know very little about life in the North other than that the regime is brutally repressive. Open Doors routinely rates North Korea number one on its World Watch List. International Christian Concern always places the DPRK in its "Hall of Shame."
Some 150,000 to 200,000 people are believed to be imprisoned in abysmal conditions. Of those, between 40,000 and 70,000 are said to be held for religious reasons — principally for Christian worship and evangelism. ICC figures that number may be even higher, perhaps 100,000, though no one really knows. Reports circulate of the execution of believers, especially leaders like pastors and Bible smugglers.
According to the State Department's latest report on international religious liberty, "the government severely restricted religious activity, except that which was supervised tightly by officially recognized groups linked to the government. Genuine religious freedom does not exist." Unfortunately, repression only seems to have worsened in recent years.
While it is impossible to verify any reports that come out of North Korea, State observed: "Recent refugee, defector, missionary, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reports indicated religious persons engaging in proselytizing in the country and those who have been in contact with foreigners or missionaries have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties. Refugees and defectors continued to say they witnessed the arrest and possible execution of underground Christian church members by the government in prior years."
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom regularly designates the DPRK as a "Country of Particular Concern." The Commission reported that "Severe religious freedom abuses occur regularly, including: discrimination and harassment of both authorized and unauthorized religious activity; the arrest, torture, and possible execution of those conducting clandestine religious activity."
Nevertheless, the regime is nervous. The flood of refugees into China and the regular flow back into the North has increased opportunities for evangelism. The Commission explained: "The North Korean government interrogates asylum-seekers repatriated from China about their religious belief and affiliations, and mistreats and imprisons as security threats those suspected of distributing religious literature or having ongoing connections with South Korean religious groups."
Even worse in Pyongyang's eyes is the rise of Christianity within the North's boundaries. Although no accurate count of Christians is possible, the Pew Forum estimates 480,000, most of them Protestants. The regime targets the faithful: "In recent years, police and security agency offices have infiltrated Protestant churches in China, begun training police and soldiers about the dangers of religion, and set up fake prayer meetings to catch worshippers." The penalty for law-breakers is high. Stated the Commission: "Anyone caught distributing religious materials, holding unapproved religious gatherings, or having ongoing contact with overseas religious groups is subject to severe punishment ranging from labor camp imprisonment to execution." One North Korean believer told Open Doors: "Since Kim Jong-un came closer to the helm, North Korea has stepped up its attempts to uncover any religious activities."
One of the most detailed accounts of persecution in the DPRK comes from Yoon Yeo-sang and Han Sun-young of the North Korean Human Rights Archives and Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, respectively. They interviewed North Korean defectors and refugees and published their report two years ago.
The authors stated: "only 2.9 percent of those arrested are sent to labor training camps. By contrast, 14.9 percent are sent to prisons and an astonishing 81.4 percent to political prisons camps, the harshest level of punishment in North Korean society. This testifies how severely the regime punishes those involved in religious activities."
The persecution is made worse by the lack of international scrutiny. Private and public violence against Christians and other religious minorities is common in countries such as China, Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan. However, the abuses frequently occur in front of the cameras. At least the names of many victims are known and circulated throughout the international faith community. Believers learn that they are not alone, while governments feel constrained to limit the worst abuses.
In North Korea the suffering church stands almost alone against the most repressive government on the planet. Yoon and Han attempt to personalize the persecution by including reports on North Koreans punished for their faith. Groups like the North Korea Freedom Coalition also work to highlight the reality of persecution, but the individual victims remain largely anonymous. One who spoke out, after escaping to South Korea, was Jeong Young-sil; she was tortured and imprisoned for evangelizing.
Yoon and Han warned that "Religious oppression is ongoing with no signs of any improvement." Even so, their research suggested that "The number of unofficial, behind-the-scenes and clandestine religious activities has increased little by little despite the North's anti-religious policies." No wonder the Kim regime was so nervous about religious freedom.
Of course, Pyongyang recognizes the international advantages of faking religious tolerance. Yoon and Han explain: "North Korea has adopted a so-called 'parallel policy' toward religion, whereby it takes advantage of religion politically, but in fact suppresses it. The 'parallel policy' is a dual policy through which the regime tries to appear in the international community as if it is tolerating religion and guaranteeing religious freedom, while implementing a policy of suppressing religion internally."
Four churches (two Protestant, one Catholic, and one Orthodox) operate legally in Pyongyang. I attended one when I visited the DPRK years ago. A friend, who speaks Korean, told me that he made a similar trip and heard a sermon filled with injunctions about obeying state authority. So much for the radical message of the Gospel. Several religious associations and seminaries also operate — under government control. Moreover, a number of Buddhist temples are open; the government is more tolerant of Buddhism, apparently viewing it largely as a cultural artifact.
Unfortunately, liberal religious groups occasionally have been taken in by the North's Potemkin religious activities. It is a curious blind spot. It should come as no surprise that a regime willing to allow hundreds of thousands or millions of people to starve to death and send hundreds of thousands of people to labor camps refuses to protect genuine religious freedom.
Kim Jong-il's death provides an opportunity for change. Some observers hope the new leadership will relax state control over religion — after all, it would be hard to "be as evil and non-caring as Kim Jong-il," observed Sam Kim, executive director of the Korean Church Coalition for North Korea Freedom. But no one knows how the leadership transition will turn out in Pyongyang. Nor does a Western education or even a commitment to economic reform guarantee increased respect for human rights.
The greatest threat to North Korea's communist system is not internal strife, but the people's transfer of allegiance to a different God, one who created human beings in his image and values them accordingly. That possibility must frighten any government in Pyongyang which continues to tie its legitimacy to the Kim dynasty.
The DPRK is a security threat to Northeast Asia. It also is perhaps the world's greatest humanitarian tragedy. The West should challenge whatever leadership emerges to treat the North Korean people as human beings rather than human chattel. At the same time, Western peoples should work and pray for such a transformation. The people of the DPRK should no longer suffer alone in the shadows.