NORTH KOREA: Christians murdered, sources state
A North Korean army general who become a Christian was, after he had begun to evangelise in his unit, shot dead by another senior army officer in 2003, Protestant sources have told Forum 18 News Service. Other known Christians are in some cases martyred by being shot, or are imprisoned. The sentence is dependent upon the situation. Forum 18 knows of the execution and torture of Christians continuing, but has not been able to establish if followers of other religions have suffered similarly. North Korean Protestants are said to be "very, very strong believers", resisting material inducements in prison to recant their faith, but when they stubbornly refuse to recant they are then shot. The state is said to be watching the increase in contacts between North Korea and the rest of the world "very carefully", and "false believers" may be used by the authorities to contact missionaries in humanitarian aid initiatives. Details of sources cannot be revealed by Forum 18, for fear of reprisals against them.
Forum 18 has been unable to gain independent verification of the shooting dead of the unnamed general, or of the executions and martyrdom of other Christians, as the secretive regime ruling North Korea (known officially as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) does not allow independent religious freedom monitoring. Nor can Forum 18 reveal details of sources, for fear of reprisals against them. Forum 18 has not been able to establish if any followers of other religions, such as Buddhism or the Chondogyo ("Heavenly Way") religion, an indigenous Korean religious belief, have suffered similarly.
Forum 18 has received other reports of the execution of Christians, and the torture of religious prisoners in North Korea. A Korean speaker, who has interviewed North Korean refugees, told Forum 18 that a group of elderly Christians, who had maintained their faith since before 1950, in a small town along the North Korean-Chinese border were executed in 2000, for their refusal to renounce their faith. Former North Korean officials and prisoners, like Soon-Ok Lee, have also testified that religious persons, particularly Christians, who were imprisoned, were subject to worse treatment than other prisoners (see F18News 25 February 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=261 ).
One Protestant who met North Koreans officially outside the country in 2002 told Forum 18 that none of them had any idea whatsoever about religion, "not even Buddhism". The Protestant said he had spoken of his faith one-to-one to a North Korean, a middle-aged man with a purely communist family background. The man described to the Protestant how he lived in communal conditions, with compulsory Party meetings every Saturday morning, and explained that he was outside North Korea to get extra food for his family.
He was interested in faith in principle, but said that a person who becomes a believer in North Korea might be shot for some kind of violation, or else bring negative consequences upon his or her family. The North Korean knew this to be the case, the Protestant told Forum 18, because he knew someone in an official position who was able to influence the nature of such punishments. The North Korean refused to accept a Korean-language Bible from the Protestant.
Such Protestant sources maintained that the main objection to Christianity is its incompatibility with state ideology, which demands sole faith – of a markedly religious nature - in the communist leadership, which is officially still headed by "Eternal President" Kim Il Sung, despite his death in 1994. "If you believe in Jesus you go to jail. You must believe in Kim Il Sung." However, they acknowledged that ownership of a South-Korean produced Bible, for instance, might also be a factor in punishment, since it suggested illegal contact with foreigners.
The sources also stressed to Forum 18 that North Korean Protestants are "very, very strong believers" and said prison guards sometimes offer material incentives to Christian prisoners if they recanted their faith, but that they stubbornly refuse to do this and so are then shot.
While acknowledging that they did not know who met there, the sources told Forum 18 that they thought the official Protestant and Catholic churches in the capital Pyongyang are "just buildings", intended to put on a pretence of there being religious freedom. These official churches are soon due to be joined by an Orthodox church (see F18News 27 September 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=419 ) and possibly also, if the North Korean government gives permission, by an "International Church" exclusively for foreigners, with Protestant services in English, to be built by foreign charities active in North Korea.
North Korea is also said to have established a fake Protestant church for refugees outside the country, run by a Pastor whose family is being held hostage in North Korea, members of whose congregation have been forcibly taken back to North Korea (see F18News 25 February 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=261 ).
Discussing the current increase in contacts between North Korea and the rest of the world, the sources told Forum 18 that some government officials might say they were believers in order to attract funds or gain information, and that the state was watching "very carefully" foreign missionaries and humanitarian aid workers who are trying to enter the country. "They [missionaries] will meet false believers, who will try to contact them," the sources warned.
The sources also told Forum 18 that there is no reliable estimate for the number of Christians, of any church, in North Korea, and that they could not name even towns where Christians are located for fear of an indiscriminate crackdown in those places. North Korean churches lead an entirely underground existence, they said, meeting in unpopulated areas of the countryside to evade bugging in homes or informants. Noting that the population lives communally, the sources said that the secret police were very prevalent in society with, for example, wives spying on husbands and vice versa.
North Koreans who became Christians as the result of a dramatic spiritual revival, which began in 1945-47 before the Korean War began in 1950, have been instrumental in Christianity surviving in North Korea, by the faith being passed on almost exclusively through families, the sources reported.
North Koreans outside the country with official permission remain highly fearful of religious contacts. A Korean-speaking Protestant pastor told Forum 18 that he had had some unofficial contact with such North Koreans, but that their superiors did not allow them to mix with foreigners, as this could have a negative impact on their families at home. He said that they might have some kind of memory of religion, but "they don't open up", adding: "One was interested to know what I did, but it was very difficult to determine his reaction."
For more background information see Forum 18's survey of religion in North Korea at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=261
A printer-friendly map of North Korea is available at
27 September 2004
Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, has two Protestant and one Catholic church, which are suspected of being "show churches" for display to foreigners, so it remains unclear whether any North Koreans will be able to or will dare to regularly attend an Orthodox church under construction. The building is funded by the North Korean state, and Forum 18 News Service has learnt that it is "65 per cent finished". By the early 1900s, about 10,000 Koreans had converted to Orthodoxy due to Russian missionaries in the now divided Korean peninsula. Dmitry Petrovsky, of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, expressed the hope to Forum 18 that links with this past missionary activity remain, as is the case with Orthodox churches in South Korea. Four North Koreans are studying at the Moscow Theological Seminary, and Petrovsky remarked to Forum 18 that they are displaying "zeal and a genuine interest in Orthodoxy".
27 July 2004
A draft law on "combating extremist activity" and amendments to existing laws about the "battle against extremist activity" do not define what "extremism" is. This makes it possible to use the proposed measures against religious communities the state dislikes, such as the unregistered Baptists. For example, concern has been expressed that the word "religious" appears 10 times in the draft law on combating extremist activity. One local lawyer told Forum 18 News Service that, if the law is passed, Kazakhstan could decide to close down religious communities based on information from oppressive regimes such as North Korea. Very few religious leaders are aware of the law's text.
25 February 2004
Although some things are known about North Korea's control over all aspects of its citizens' lives and about its chemical and biological experiments on prisoners, less is known about the country's religious life. Although religious freedom does not exist, there is dispute about how genuine religious practice is at the handful of "show churches" in the capital Pyongyang. Dusty pews suggest that they are not well used. Buddhist temples are mere cultural relics. Parents are reportedly afraid to pass on their faith to their children, as sporadic refugee accounts suggest believers are still punished for practising their faith in secret. It is often as refugees in China that North Koreans first encounter religious life. Refugees repatriated from China have reported that they are interrogated about their contacts with mainly Protestant South Korean missionaries, while the North Koreans have reportedly set up a fake Protestant church in China to lure back defectors. Evidence suggests that any religious revival in North Korea is a recent phenomenon resulting from repatriates sharing their faith. This might prove a challenge to the regime.