For the 12th straight year the Open Doors organization has ranked North Korea as the country in which the persecution of Christians is most severe. Its annual World Watch List, released in December, notes that an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 North Korean Christians are imprisoned in labor camps.
According to the report: “It is safe to say that nothing has improved for Christians since Kim Jong Un took over power….The God-like worship of the rulers leaves no room for any other religion. Any reverence not concentrated on the Kim dynasty will be seen as dangerous and state-threatening.
“Not only will the believers themselves be punished if they are discovered, but likely also their families. Immediate family members, even if they aren’t Christians themselves, will serve a sentence in a re-education camp. Christians are sent to political labor camps, from which there is no release possible.”
It was the third-century church father Tertullian who stated that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church, and certainly this is what we have witnessed in South Korea.
Korean Christians endured fierce persecution in the 19th century from their own government, and then in the early 20th century from the Japanese colonial rulers. Martyrs numbered in the many thousands.
But today Christians comprise some 30 per cent of the South Korean population, and a vibrant and dynamic Korean church is making its mark around the world.
Might we expect something similar from North Korea? This was the view of Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who experienced first-hand the brutality of life in North Korea when he worked there for 18 months.
“I am sure that once North Korea is free, Christianity will boom there in a way that will even dwarf its growth in the South,” he told a journalist in 2002.
Recently I interviewed Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, which works to help the persecuted Christians of North Korea. I noted that Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, was known in the early 20th century as “the Jerusalem of the East” for its strong and defiant Christian witness, and I asked him if Christianity might one day flourish there again.
“I do think such a phenomenon is a distinct possibility,” he told me.
“Just as the generation of persecuted Chinese believers grew into strong leaders when greater freedom came to China, I do feel that many North Korean believers will shine as purified gold once the Kim family regime is dethroned in the North.”
Then he added pointedly: “This would be all the more true because many South Korean Protestant churches are undergoing a serious crisis due to materialism and authoritarian leadership, among other challenges. North Korean Christians, in their simplicity, humility and utter dependence on God, could constitute just the antidote to the spiritual maladies in the South.”
No Christians in their right minds could wish on our North Korean brothers and sisters their present torment. But is it possible that from these trials will emerge a powerful and prayerful witness that could, eventually, shake up the very foundations of global Christendom?