By Robert Collins
As we in democratic countries sat comfortable in our homes while enjoying Christmas, whether secularly, socially or in the hallowed traditions of Christianity, we do so within the confines of relative personal safety, both physically and politically. However, there are Christians throughout the world that suffer for their faith at the same level of personal sacrifice as the Christians did in Rome in the 1st through the 3rd centuries, A.D. In the Roman Empire, Christians facing lions, tigers and other hunger-starved beasts was a norm established by the Caesars and executed with bloody precision. Today, that precision is equaled, if not exceeded, by North Korea, and no other country comes close. Being a Christian under the authority of the Kim Regime has historically been the equivalent of facing the hungry lion head-on. Not even today’s level of radical Islamic persecution of Christians equals the ferocity of the North’s state institutions’ mission of eliminating every aspect of Christianity within the confines ruled by the North’s supreme leader. Any person found to support that faith outside of the Kim Regime’s Pyongyang-based charade of Pyongyang’s “Potemkin Village” Christian churches serving the diplomatic community (more later) is a prime target for the proven savagery of the supreme leader’s political police.
Except for the informal ecclesiastical structures and mentorship found within the deeply hidden underground catacombs, there are no religious guidance events or institutions in North Korea to guide North Korean Christians to understand the true meaning of Christianity – they are on their own. And North Korean society certainly has no secular traditions promoting “good will toward men.” There is no Santa Claus, no Christmas tree, and none of the colossal economic activity associated with gift-giving in Western society. Rather than celebrating the birth of Christ, “loyal” North Koreans celebrate the birth of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-il’s mother, Kim Chong-suk, the latter’s 94th birthday being on the 24th of December. For those dates, the Kim Regime provides plenty of guidance – worship or face the full wrath party-state’s police and legal system.
Believe it or not, Pyongyang was formerly known as the “Jerusalem of the East” because of its explosive conversion to Christianity in the last decade of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century. Children of those converts who somehow managed to stay alive through all of the Kim Regime’s purges and executions of known Christians are now in the last years of their lives. Today’s North Korean Christians are grandchildren of those martyrs or those who crossed into China, converted to Christianity through the witness of Chinese or Korean-Chinese Christians, or South Korean or American Christian missionaries who work the China-North Korean border. Some of these converted North Koreans return to North Korea to preach the Gospel. They have demonstrated their faith to the point of trying to convert their jailers while they are being tortured for doing so by those who arrested them for being a Christian. Frankly, listening to the accounts of survivors, torture was a polite term for a description of the pain and suffering they went through.
Through the implementation of Kim Regime doctrine that there can be no being, supreme or otherwise, greater in prestige than regime founder, Kim Il-sung, the North Korean party-state, since its founding, has sought out and executed or imprisoned every Christian it could find along with the close relatives of that believer. The elimination of Christianity began implementation immediately after the Soviet Union moved into northern Korea in 1945 and provided support to Korean communist revolutionaries such as Kim Il-sung. The “Jerusalem of the East” was turned into “city of Kim Il-sung” and all Christians were expelled through death or exile to the isolated mountain villages of Hamgyong Province. All vestiges of celebrating Christmas disappeared overnight.
But as communism began to fail in Europe, the North Korean party-state chose to establish relations with more and more nation-states in the West. This led to the establishment of “Potemkin Village-style” Christian churches in Pyongyang to accommodate the diplomatic and other international community members residing in Pyongyang. These “official” churches do not exist elsewhere. Up to that point in time, the Kim Regime insisted all churches had been destroyed by the United States air attacks during the Korean War 1950-53. Their public excuse for not rebuilding any of those churches was that there were no Christians in North Korea. The “official churches” that were eventually built in Pyongyang include the Bongsu Church founded in 1988, the Jangchung Catholic Cathedral founded in 1988 (which has no priests or nuns), the Chilgol Church founded in 1989, and the Jeil Church founded in November 2005, and the Russian Orthodox Jongbaek Church dedicated August 2006. There was even a Pyongyang Seminary (1972-1995, 2000) presumably used to establish relations with Vatican. There are no officially sanctioned churches in the provinces where 84% of the population lives. Some direct descendants of Korean Christians from before the founding of the North Korean state are allowed to attend these churches for show purposes.
How many Christians are there within North Korea’s population of 24 million? What type of underground existence do they endure under such extremely dangerous conditions? Actually, the situation is not much different from that of early Christians of Rome who literally went underground to worship. The number of Christians in North Korea is no more easily discernible than determining the number of Christians existing in Corinth, Ephesus, or Thessalonica to whom St. Paul wrote 21 centuries ago. But the faith of those in the confines of the most pervasive counter-intelligence system ever devised requires more than courage. It requires a willingness to believe at the risk of exposure that would damn not only themselves but their family and extended family to three generations to execution or life imprisonment in concentration camps designed to work inmates to death.
One example is Mr. Lee. He was one of seven underground Christian believers who gathered to pray and study an old bible that he had hidden in the interior corners of his house for decades. In a face-to-face interview, he told of how his bible was so old it started to fall apart, page by page. He could no longer hold it without it crumbling in his hands. So the seven saved money and sent two from their group to China to buy seven new bibles. One man was caught on the way back by the state secret police carrying the bibles and was thrown into prison where he was tortured and died after three years. Mr. Lee lived to tell about it at a church in South Korea.
Today, there are about 27,000 North Koreans living in South Korea where they are free to worship any way they want. Many have converted to Christianity and celebrate Christmas according to Christian traditions. Meeting them is humbling, to say the least. Such meetings provide the opportunity to see into their strength of faith and determination to worship. There are thousands of North Koreans who wish to celebrate Christmas through faith in their own country, but the right of religious worship does not exist in a state where no one can consider any being to be superior to North Korea’s supreme leader.