That’s a revolutionary message in a country where dissent can bring imprisonment in the country’s vast gulag of political prisons.
FEBC broadcasts gospel-based programming around the world. Other groups focus exclusively on North Korea. Since 2006, a group of North Korean defectors at Free North Korea Radio have been broadcasting content daily via shortwave transmission. The hourlong programs include news about North Korea and the world and testimonies from North Korean defectors about what the world is really like.
The testimonies counter North Korean propaganda that all Americans are brutal enemies. The program also includes seven to 10 minutes of gospel-based content: portions of sermons from North Korean refugee pastors, passages of Scripture, and praise songs. At Christmas and Easter, the gospel programming expands to at least a full hour.
An hour is a significant block of Christian teaching in North Korea these days. But a century ago Christian messages filled the capital of Pyongyang.
This year marks the 110th anniversary of a revival that swept Pyongyang and surrounding cities in the era before Korea was divided in two. Presbyterian missionary William Blair wrote an eyewitness account in the book The Korean Pentecost, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.
Blair described a prayer meeting that turned intense: “The prayer sounded to me like the falling of many waters, an ocean of prayer beating against God’s throne.” Confession of sin and repentance followed prayer meetings, and local churches grew. Three years later, Blair said one of the weakest congregations had grown to 300 members.
Three decades of Christian growth followed. Pyongyang became a headquarters for Presbyterian missionaries of the day, and they established a hospital, a seminary, and other schools. Churches were common.
In the capital square now known for its mammoth military parades, American missionaries once settled into homes. Ruth Bell Graham, the late wife of evangelist Billy Graham, was the daughter of Presbyterian medical missionaries and went to high school in Pyongyang in the 1930s.
The dynamic began changing in 1940 as the dangers of World War II loomed. Many missions withdrew their workers as tensions with Japan grew. By the end of World War II, Japan surrendered, and Allied powers agreed to split Korea. Western leaders would manage the South. Soviet leaders took control of North Korea. Many Christians fled.
In 1945, the Soviet Union declared Kim Il Sung the leader of the communist Korean Workers’ Party in North Korea, and he demanded cultlike allegiance. The persecution of remaining Christians has been severe ever since.
Kim Il Sung (and subsequent regimes, led by son Kim Jong Il and grandson Kim Jong Un) set up a pseudo-religious system of devotion to the country’s leader: National songs give praise to the three Kim leaders. Citizens are expected to follow 10 guiding principles, and they often confess their sins against the regime in weekly sessions. The North Korean calendar begins with the year 1912: the year the original Kim was born.
These days, the country once home to many churches now punishes Christians for unauthorized gatherings. In 2013, reports emerged the regime had executed 80 prisoners by firing squad, including a handful of Christians.
The same year, the Korea Institute for National Unification included reports from North Korean refugees: One defector told the story of a family that had kept its Bible hidden in a magpie nest in a tree at the family’s home. A neighbor cut a branch down, and the hidden Bible fell out. Possession of a Bible can be a capital crime. Three generations of the family disappeared.
Last fall, Christian Solidarity Worldwide described testimony from other defectors: “Christians are reported to have suffered brutal violence. Forms of torture include beatings with fists or implements such as electric rods, wooden pokers, metal poles, water torture through forced submersion, and being used as test subjects for medical training and experimentation.”
Still, underground churches exist, though the number of Christians is difficult to quantify. (Open Doors USA estimates 300,000 Christians out of the country’s 25 million citizens.) Since most assemblies are forbidden, gatherings might include a small family or a married couple who don’t include their children until they are old enough to keep a secret.
Christians aren’t the only North Koreans who suffer. Gulags are filled with other prisoners, including North Koreans sent back after fleeing into China. In other cases, a citizen might be merely suspected of disloyalty and imprisoned with his whole family.
A landmark 2014 report by the United Nations described a litany of atrocities: “beatings, starvation, exposure to cold, various torture techniques, rape, infanticide, and public executions” (see “Fleeing hell,” March 22, 2014).
Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea identifies the most common cycle of death at prison camps: forced labor and malnutrition. Prisoners are expected to meet a work quota in the labor camps. If they fail, guards reduce their food. That leads to less production and more starvation. Many people die.
The regime indoctrinates North Koreans from an early age to adore “The Eternal Leader” and his two sons, including the current dictator. (A Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about life in North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, was a WORLD Book of the Year runner-up in 2012.) Still, some North Koreans grow disillusioned and try to flee. Leaving the country without government permission is illegal.
Others flee looking for supplies. This was especially true during a massive famine in the 1990s that killed as many as 3 million North Koreans. Some fled to China looking for help.
But Chinese officials aren’t known for helping North Koreans. Instead, the government often helps North Korean agents track down and repatriate escapees. For most, it means a prison sentence. For some, it’s a death sentence.
When North Koreans flee into the north, they usually cross the Tumen River into China. Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of Escape from North Korea (a WORLD Book of the Year in 2013), says some defectors say they learned to look for a building with a cross on it. Christians living in China have become known as an indispensable source of help for those who cross to escape.
It’s often a life-changing encounter. Many defectors have become Christians. For the average escapee, “It’s usually the first time in his life he’s encountered somebody who is helping him out of the goodness of his heart,” says Kirkpatrick. “And it has a profound effect on these people.”