September 24, 2018

Reaching Underground Believers & Guiding Others in Flight: Silent Partners Assist North Koreans under Caesar’s Sword

By Tim A. Peters, Founder of Helping Hands Korea


The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) has the dubious distinction of being classified in the Open Doors World Watch List as the worst state sponsor of Christian persecution for 16 consecutive years through 2018.[1] Only when one contemplates the ‘rivals’ for this designation, such as Somalia, Afghanistan, China, Sudan, Yemen, and Uzbekistan, among other world-class persecutors, does the full impact of Pyongyang’s systemic suppression of its Christian population begin to register. The roots of this toxic strain of religious intolerance can be found in the personality and political philosophy of North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il-sung, the current absolute leader’s grandfather. From the very formation of the DPRK 70 years ago in 1948 under the leadership of Kim Il-sung, people of faith were viewed with great distrust and suspicion. Kim’s repressive measures were not part of some hidden agenda of the state or its Workers’ Party. Absolute and relentless indoctrination to dissuade religious believers from their faith was the open and initial phase ordered by Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung in his speeches. Secondly, religious leaders who were found to be engaging in “counter-revolutionary or anti-state activities [had to] be punished in accordance to related laws;” an ominous category of “targets of dictatorship” was designated for those clergy who stiffened their backs against reform by the Workers Party.[2] Kim Il-sung lost no time in punishing clergy in labor and re-education camps, uprooting Christians from their residences, killing others, and forcing some into relocation to different regions of the country, especially North and South Hamgyong provinces, nicknamed North Korea's ‘Siberia.’[3] Such harsh measures continue to be used under Kim’s grandson in 2018 as a vital tool to instill fear and to eradicate any loyalties that veer away from exaltation of the Kim family regime. As the subsequent examples painfully illustrate, state-sponsored repression of Christianity and the brutal persecution of its adherents have not changed despite the passage of 56 years since Kim Il-sung’s blunt pronouncements as quoted above. A special 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in the DPRK found that “religious believers [in North Korea] who practice outside the small number of state-controlled religious institutions…. are considered to introduce politically or ideologically subversive influences are subject to crimes against humanity” by the DPRK government.[4] During these painful decades, the rock-hard reality of being ‘under the sword of Caesar’ has resulted in a number of responses by believers.

In large part, sincere Christians have sought survival by going underground and keeping their faith in secret. It should come as no surprise that the remnant of the North Korean historical church, which dates from ‘Great Revival’ of 1907, operates with almost world-class security protocols as a ‘catacombs underground.’ This network is so effective at keeping ‘off the radar’ that many trained outside observers, both secular and ecclesiastical, do not even believe that it exists. So severe, for example, have been the penalties of the North Korean state for the evangelization of children, that many North Korean Christian parents have made the agonizing decision to refrain from revealing their faith to their own children. They do so to prevent the catastrophic consequences of the entire family being sent to a labor camp if authorities learn that Bible stories have been read to children leading to conversion. Despite such extreme caution, at present, the North Korean gulags  are a cheerless abode to multitudes of entire extended families who have been banished for holding firm to their Christian faith. In the absence of authentic and healthy above-ground church institutions inside North Korea, external Christian activists have devised strategies to assist their North Korean brethren out of necessity. With the majority of believers living at a subsistence level, humanitarian aid to the church takes on vital importance.

Especially in the past 25 years, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have fled their homeland, some to escape hunger, many other to find freedom, including religious freedom, beyond their nation’s borders. This bravery has often been rewarded by unplanned contact with sympathetic Chinese, South Korean, and other non-Asian foreign Christians in China and other neighboring countries. Here, we find creative, nearly invisible partnerships that assist North Korean escapees in the uncharted territory of the vast land of China, the government of which systematically repatriates refugees to certain harsh punishment in North Korea. In much the same way that external organizations and individuals of conscience quietly find ways to assist the North Korean underground believers, so do others help those traveling on the so-called ‘underground railroad of East Asia.’ This loosely-knit band of volunteers is reminiscent of the network of abolitionists, largely Christian, who assisted African-American slaves from southern states to free ones in the North before and during the U.S. Civil War in the mid-19th Century. Since open Christian partnerships with non-Koreans within the DPRK are virtually impossible, this paper, set in an historical context, will explore the intensely challenging fieldwork of assisting North Korean Christians in crisis, both inside North Korea and beyond its borders

Underground Believers Endure Harsh Internal Conditions Yet are Strengthened by External Assistance

1) Brutal detention and prison treatment can be based on inmates’ Christian faith:

North Korea’s Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 at Jongo-ri is noteworthy in that it houses a relatively high number of inmates imprisoned directly due to their Christian faith. A handful of former inmates of Kyo-hwa-so No. 12  have managed to survive their ordeals and escape North Korea. One such former prisoner, ChaeYoung-sik, was specifically charged with the “crime” of being a Christian in North Korea. His testimony is as follows:

One day in August of 1998, about 40 prisoners of a farm work unit were on their way to the fields at 1dawn. It was still quite dark. The weary workers came across a strange bag lying in the middle of the road. Opening the large bag, they found a human corpse wearing a red shirt. The prisoners immediately identified the deceased as Kim Ju-won, the Christian prisoner, who had been given a red shirt by his sister during a family visit. The prisoners remembered that Kim had recently been called out at night some days previously, ostensibly for reassignment to another prison.

A number of executed prisoners’ bodies had been carried away at night for burial upon the more remote hilly area of the prison camp. One of the primitive body bags had apparently tumbled unseen from a truck or cart carrying victims of secret executions to the disposal area for prisoners’ corpses. The discovery of the strangled body of their fellow prisoner and persecuted Christian, Kim Ju-won, in the distinctive red shirt, was soon whispered from prisoner to prisoner, thereby quickly exposing the prison’s secret executions, making them common knowledge among a wide circle of inmates.[5]

A female former inmate of Kyo-hwa-so No. 1 at Kaecheon provided her testimony at a UN Commission of Inquiry hearing and explained that she was “sent to prison for expressing her Christian religion, [and] was punished 10 times with solitary confinement during her seven years of detention. She was also assigned to pull the cart used to remove excrement from the prison latrines. Several times the guards made her lick off the excrement that had spilled over (the cart’s edge) in order to humiliate and discipline her.”[6]

Intervention #1 by external partners with North Korean believers who have fled:

Strategic NGO logistical support, in cooperation with fellow Christian activists, has enabled a number of former prisoners of Jongo-ri and other prisons to make their way to freedom and share with the world and the UN the ordeals of Christian persecution before and during North Korean detention.

2) Food security minimized or denied Christians due to their perceived disloyalty: 

North Korean society has, since 1970, been divided by government assignment into 51 social classification categories or songbun of perceived loyalty to the supreme leader Kim’s family. However, these 51 classifications boil down to basically three designations of citizen reliability: loyal, wavering, or hostile. Protestants were given a status of #36 from the top and Catholics were designated as category #39, both Christian groups clearly falling into the rock-bottom tier of the citizenry, deemed as ‘hostile’ and untrustworthy by the ruling elite.[7] It must be emphasized that such a social class designation is not simply a badge one wears on the lapel of his or her jacket. Songbun determines, among other privileges, access to food and location of residence. Sue Lautze in her landmark surveys over 20 years ago had already made the following observation about distribution of food in North Korea when scarcities have arisen: 

"There are reports that the DPRK government has stopped providing food through the PDS(Public Distribution System) to marginalized regions…Those areas without economic resources or political capital [i.e. songbun status] seem to have been left to fend for themselves.” 

Lautze goes on to observe, "… the DPRK’s insistence on maintaining a full army and providing for the population of Pyongyang [the capital and home to only ‘high songbun’ citizens] and other important areas [is] at the expense of those who are suffering…” [8] 

This analysis is consistent with the testimonies of thousands of North Korean refugees who have left their homeland.

It should not be overlooked that the pre-existing bias of food security towards the higher songbun citizens becomes exacerbated when adverse weather conditions reduce North Korea's national harvest. A World Food Program (WFP) representative in Seoul on September 13, 2018 presented high-resolution satellite imagery of North Korea's agricultural regions, highlighting the severe damage done to crops by heat stress, droughts, and flash floods in the spring and summer months of the current year. The WFP official lamented the above-mentioned conditions that have markedly worsened the harvest forecast for 2018. The WFP’s current grim assessment is that 10.3 million citizens, a staggering 40% of North Korean population, are currently malnourished.[9]

Intervention #2 by external partners with North Korean believers: 

A number of Christian missions and NGOs have undertaken official and unofficial food aid to the vulnerable sectors of the North Korean population since the extreme famine of the mid-1990s. Some organizations have continued to experiment with a variety of food aid strategies over the past 25 years ranging from rice, rice crackers, rice cakes, corn, bread, and a wide variety of vegetable seeds. A number of organizations provide food aid exclusively to Christians. However, others take a wider view and assist any seriously vulnerable sector of the population to which they are able to gain access, Christian or not. Certainly, an authentic and reliable human network to transfer food aid directly to the secret church inside the North remains one important component of some external partners’ assistance efforts. Avoiding the transport of food aid through North Korean government channels and mechanisms prevents the regime’s distribution patterns favoring the privileged songbun classes. Instead, the use of couriers, a combination of foreign Christians outside North Korea’s borders and local believers within North Korea, has provided a more reliable and secure distribution of food assistance, guaranteeing that a higher percentage of aid actually goes to the truly needy.

3) Healthcare, like food, is strictly tied to a citizen’s songbun classification. Hence, Christians are often unable to access proper medical treatment. A consistent theme in multitudes of refugee testimonies is the ‘broken medical system’ in North Korea. Although guaranteed universal free healthcare in the regime’s founding principles and propaganda, the simple reality is that medical facilities are skewed heavily to the privileged based on their social classification. A common joke among fleeing North Korean refugees is that the North Korean clinics and hospitals can diagnose your problem, but treatment is forthcoming only if you have found a way to prepare a bribe to pay inflated ‘under the table’ healthcare prices. With health so closely tied to nutrition, it is little wonder that the immune systems of a great number of people in the lower songbun classes are greatly weakened and vulnerable to any number of illnesses and maladies.[10]

Intervention #3 by external partners with North Korean believers: 

North Korea has tended to be more tolerant of foreign Christian healthcare organizations being resident within its borders than other types of humanitarian aid based on religious motivations. However, due to recent increased tensions under Kim Jong-un related to North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, some of these organizations have either been forced to leave or have left voluntarily. Consequently, medical assistance that is being provided by informal means has taken on greater significance in recent years. Medication to treat commonly-occurring illnesses such as dysentery, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, typhoid, paratyphoid, typhus fever, influenza, and other communicable diseases have provided the underground Christian community with urgent medical assistance. Antibiotics, treatment for the common cold, diarrhea, and age-related problems, such as arthritis and rheumatism, have been received with great appreciation by the hidden church, especially the elderly. In the past 20 years, many North Koreans have fled their country to China with grave medical emergencies for which they could not get treatment at home. Christian activists have helped to evacuate them to South Korea, where good medical treatment is plentiful under favorable government policies.

Christian refugees on the run and the ‘Russian roulette’ of China’s repatriation policy

In contrast to the believers who feel they have to go into hiding inside North Korea, a second and very vital component to the North Korean church could be colorfully described as the ‘refugee or émigré church.’ This expression recognizes those North Koreans who find some way to make human contact outside their own borders, especially with North Korea’s largest neighbor, China. Such contact has been frequent in large part because South Korean, Chinese-Korean, and other foreign Christians have made up the backbone of the aid community that reaches out to help North Koreans both inside and outside their borders.[11] Bible classes, leadership training programs, and food and medicine aid projects are conducted by believers along the Sino-DPRK border to provide both spiritual and humanitarian assistance. In most cases, unlike their brethren in the underground church inside North Korea, the refugees have had little or no contact with teachings of the Bible before they cross the river into China. Often still dripping wet from the river crossing, refugees are typically dismayed to discover that China is far less a ‘light at the end of a dark tunnel,’ but a ‘no-man’s land’ fraught with unexpected new risks and dangers: betrayal, capture, and the rampant human trafficking of women.

As a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is bound by its treaty obligations to protect populations fleeing from the fear of persecution. However, Beijing has continuously given a ‘one-size-fits-all’ label of ‘illegal economic migrants’ to the North Korean border crossers, and systematically returns them to North Korea.[12]

Dangers exist on every side: refugees dread interception by North Korea’s own secret police who roam China freely, tracking down refugees to either eliminate them “on the spot” or to drag them back to prisons in the North.

It is in these perilous and precarious circumstances that the refugees very often come in contact with people of Christian faith who offer them assistance. They see not a sermon but a living demonstration of unselfish concern in the lives of virtual strangers, sometimes for the first time in their lives. For many of them, the experience is powerful enough to lead to a rather dramatic conversion.

A simple illustration of this Christian strategy of helping North Korean refugees through action would be best described in a rescue mission of four refugees that is taking place at the very time of the writing of this paper. A distress call was received roughly two weeks earlier in which a grandmother in her 60s revealed that she was living in hiding in China with her 5-year-old granddaughter in northeast China. She reportedly agreed while in North Korea to take the job as a nanny in a Chinese household, which would allow them to stay out of the public eye. However, once in China, the Chinese family startled her by saying that she could not keep her granddaughter in the house with her. Suddenly, the grandmother and her granddaughter were out on the street, not knowing which way to turn, dreading detection by a Chinese policeman. Providentially, a foreign missionary in the region heard of their plight and gave them temporary protection, but said that a long-term stay could not be guaranteed due to constant surveillance by Chinese authorities in that city.[13]

Also in the group of four is a woman of 40 who used to be a coal miner in North Korea. She was weakened by chronic malnutrition while living in the ‘Siberia’ of northeastern North Korea and was diagnosed with a very early stage of tuberculosis. She was sold by human traffickers to a man in China who has polio and requires the use of crutches, and was expected to be a nurse for him. But the man became abusive and she could no longer tolerate his treatment. Once again, it was a missionary who came forward from a local Christian network to help this desperate woman.

Finally, the last member of the group of four is also a woman in her 50s. She had attempted to defect more than 10 years earlier, but was caught by Chinese police and forcibly repatriated to North Korea, where she was imprisoned in a labor camp. Undeterred by this dark episode in her life, she tried again to escape, only to be cheated by a Chinese employer and turned over to the Chinese police, who in turn sent her back to North Korea. On this occasion, she was imprisoned for three years in the Jongo-ri prison. Upon the completion of this prison sentence, she successfully crossed into China for the third time.

Although it is not always the case, the current group of four refugees were all assisted at a critical and dangerous juncture by a foreign Christian worker laboring undercover in China.


In conclusion, this paper has highlighted a number of distinct responses by North Korean believers to state-sponsored persecution under its government’s extreme form of militaristic and race-based nationalism guided by a brutal and atheistic hereditary leadership.[14] One course of action for believers has been to go underground for survival with full understanding that such an option could result in imprisonment for the entire family. An equally daunting choice for the believer has been to flee as a refugee from repressive North Korean policies that target believers. Implicit in this course of action is the calculated risk of possible detection by Chinese authorities followed by the dangers of repatriation, or the manipulation, especially of women refugees, by ruthless human traffickers in China. 

In a parallel manner, this paper has illustrated a number of concrete examples of assistance strategies devised by external Christian partners to assist both types of beleaguered North Korean believers described above. Providing help and support to North Koreans inside their nation has proven a most daunting challenge to traditional mission strategies. With very few notable clandestine exceptions,[15] setting up a residential mission within North Korea's borders is out of the question. Missionaries are officially vilified and foreign visitors are virtually suffocated with surveillance by “minders” whenever they set foot on North Korean soil.[16]

The logical alternative for many has been to set up a base in nearby China. This course of action is not without its complications either. Not only has its government shown itself consistently hostile to North Korean refugees found on its territory, China has also been anything but hospitable to the idea of being used as a staging area for foreign Christian activists who wish to focus on the desperate humanitarian and spiritual needs of 23 million North Korean citizens, including the church. With each passing year, the Chinese government has made a concerted effort to comb out from the Sino-DPRK border area these Christian helpers who have lent such meaningful assistance to North Koreans on the run.[17] Nevertheless, as with determined believers inside the North, brave, ordinary followers of the King of kings who labor quietly along the the Tumen and Yalu rivers find new and unexpected open doors and creative responses to deal with increasingly constrained conditions. Their actions are a fresh reminder that “…with God nothing shall be impossible.”[18]

Questions, comments, corrections, or constructive criticism can be addressed to the author at:

[1]Open Doors, World Wide Watch List 2018 (Summary: Top Ten Country Profiles),1.
[2]In-duk Kang, North Koreas Policy on Religion,” (East Asian Review, 7:1995), 94-95.
[3]Robert Collins, Marked for Life: Songbun, North Koreas Social Classification System(Washington D.C.: The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea: 2012), 79.
[5]Sang Hun Kim, Eyewitness: A Litany of North Korean Crimes Against Humanity(Seoul:NKHR: The 3rd Way: 2012), 82.
[7]Collins, 81.
[8]Sue Lautze, The Famine in North Korea:Humanitarian Responses in Communist Nations,Feinstein International Famine Center and School of Nutrition Science and Policy (Medford, MA:Tufts University, June 1997, 11.
[9]Praveen Agrawal, Changing Visions in DPRK <2018 Roundtable on DPRK Agriculture>(Seoul, Korea:The Office of Agricultural Affairs, U.S. Embassy Seoul, September 13, 2018),47-59. 
[10]Amnesty International, “The Crumbling State of Health Care in North Korea,” (London: Amnesty International Publications,2010. 2. 
[11]Kirkpatrick, Escape from North Korea, 45-46.
[12]Butterworth and Sleeth, Seoul Train <transcript of PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman on the status of North Korean escapees>, from 27:00 to 28:42 minute.
[13]Private missionary correspondence from China requesting assistance from HHK Catacombs NGO, August, 2018
[14]B.R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves-And Why It Matters(Brooklyn: Melville House, 2010),40
[15]Security concerns on behalf of those living and working inside North Korea prevent the author from providing further details.
[16]John Sweeney, North Korea Undercover: Inside the Worlds Most Secret State(London: Bantam Press: 2013), 12.
[17]Private conversations and correspondence with the author from many missionaries, aid workers and Christian activists who have been personally expelled from China since 2000 for their work helping North Koreans on the border.
[18]Holy Bible (KJV), New Testament, Luke 1:37