From the Jerusalem of the East to a Totalitarian Regime: North Korea’s History Behind Christian Persecution
By Rebecca Pankratz, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor, and Sophia Hapin, HRNK Research Intern
January 21, 2021
It is astonishing that Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, was once called the “Jerusalem of the East” for historically being one of the largest contributors to the spread of Christianity throughout Korea in 1907. This movement led to the conversion and rededication of thousands of people to the Christian faith, which made North Korea one of the main places for Christian seminaries and teachers in Asia. Today, the reality of Pyongyang is quite different. It is now controlled by a regime that sees religion, especially Christianity, as a threat to the worship of its leaders and to their communist party.
Otto Warmbier, an American college student who visited North Korea, was arrested for allegedly stealing a North Korean poster. Although he was Jewish and lacked prior connection to the Christian faith, the North Korean regime claimed that Otto was sent as a spy from an American Methodist church. In this case, North Korea portrayed the church as an enemy that wanted to bring their country down. This type of propaganda is prevalent throughout North Korea, as there are many posters, which are displayed throughout their cities, that specifically demonize missionaries and Christians along with the United States. In a Daily Mail article detailing human abuses in political prison camps, inmates stated that while all religions were persecuted in North Korea, the harshest and most cruel punishments were “reserved” for Christians, with many Christians being killed by firing squads or sent to prison camps with their entire family for merely being found with a Bible. One man recounts that after having converted to Christianity, he was placed in an electric cage three feet tall by four feet wide. He remained there for twelve hours, praying before he passed out, only to be awakened to the beatings of brutal prison guards.
There are multiple reasons as to why the Kim regime would feel particularly threatened by Christianity. Along with its historically strong connection with North Korea’s enemy, America, Christianity has had a transformational effect on Korea both politically and ideologically along with the promotion of social change on the peninsula.
Originally, teachings from the Bible came to Korea when Korean scholars visited China and studied Catholicism as a philosophy in the 1780s. Churches were formed and Catholicism spread under immense persecution from Chosun Dynasty kings, who perceived Christianity as a threat to their power. Then, around the 1880s, a second wave of Christianity spread through American missionaries. Mission schools established in Korea built up communities and provided the poor and women with access to education, previously denied to them. American missionaries had a strong influence over the spread of churches throughout Korea, and many Christians became connected to politics in Korea. Multiple churches were active in fighting for human rights and social change during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 1900s, which was very abusive to the Korean people and their rights. At that time, missionary schools educated many of the Korean people who became prominent figures in Korean politics. In fact, there were many members of the communist party who had previously attended these schools or came from Christian families, even though Christians made up less than a third of the population. Ironically, Kim Il-sung, the founder and leader of North Korea and the communist party there, grew up in a Christian family. His father worked as a missionary part time and his mother was a deaconess.
Kim Il-sung continued to grow as a leader in the communist party, eventually becoming the supreme ruler of North Korea. He initiated the persecution of Christians and Buddhists, along with other faiths. He viewed Buddhists as weak and Christians as unpatriotic and traitors to the communist ideals of a united nation. Christianity was viewed as more of a direct threat to the regime, inciting submission to one God and no other, and providing hope for living for eternity after life rather than living in fear of death. In a country where death and torment are used to intimidate and control its people, these ideas are dangerous to the unrelenting North Korean regime. 
Ironically, while adamantly opposed to Christianity, the Kim regime borrowed many aspects of the Christian faith. Instead of the Ten Commandments from the Bible, the Kim regime has a cult with laws called the “Ten Principles of Monolithic Ideology.” Robert Collins, an expert in North Korean affairs, details these principles and their effect on North Korean society in his report on North Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department. Children are taught these principles from a young age, and the ruler of North Korea represents the god for the people as Jesus does for Christians.
North Koreans learned about miracles that the “great leader” performed, similar to the biblical accounts of Jesus and his miracles. North Koreans are taught that their country is the best in the world because of their “great leader,” and are taught stories of their leader being born under a double rainbow, being revealed by a star, or having the power to fly.  His devout Christian parents are even portrayed as deified figures, to further emphasize Kim’s “divine” origin. Barbara Demick states in her book, Nothing to Envy, “Kim Il-sung took the cult of personality to a new level. What distinguished him ... was his ability to harness the power of faith. Kim Il-sung understood the power of religion."
While the people worship Kim as a god, they are also bound by devotion to their country. As a community, North Koreans are united by juche. Juche is an ideology in which man is the center of everything and should be self-reliant. Juche also portrays North Korea as an earthly paradise that is built up by the mutual work and the support of its people. 
Even with these entrenched ideologies, Pyongyang strives to keep up the appearance of religious tolerance. There are five Christian churches in Pyongyang. There is one Catholic church, three Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox church in Pyongyang along with a few Buddhist temples. However, religious services held in these supposed places of worship mostly encompass messages on the merits of the regime. In a probable attempt to portray religious tolerance to the world, Kim Il-sung even invited famous evangelist Billy Graham, whose wife Ruth used to live in North Korea, to Pyongyang. He spoke highly of Graham, and reportedly hugged him when they met. Graham was able to do a lecture at Kim Il Sung University and donated a large sum of money to North Korea. Kim Jung-un recently offered an invitation to the Pope, most likely for propaganda reasons, that was declined.
Devout Christians are forced to live in hiding or forced to labor in political prison camps under horrific conditions. As a people, North Korean Christians are oppressed, but their underground church is growing. The estimates vary as to how many Christians are in North Korea. However, Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of the book Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, believes that there are over 400,000 secret Christians in North Korea. In her book, she describes the house churches as tiny, many only consisting of one family, or just a husband and a wife. Reports convey that children were often excluded from worship until they were old enough to keep the family secret hidden. All precautions are taken to escape torture, execution, and imprisonment. Many Christians who are caught are threatened and asked to return to their communities and act as spies to report on others practicing their Christian faith.
As North Korea continues to persecute Christians, the missionary movement in South Korea and the border regions of China continues to persevere, with pastors even sneaking into North Korea to share the gospel, relief groups engaging in smuggling North Koreans out, radio broadcasts to North Koreans about the Bible, and South Korean citizens sending balloons over the border that drop pamphlets on the Bible around North Korea. Recently, the Moon administration has implemented a controversial law banning South Korean citizens from sending pamphlets over the border to North Korea. Even with such a strong deterrent, with some facing the possibility of three years in prison, many activists have insisted that nothing can keep them from sending pamphlets sharing messages on the Bible or stories concerning the truth of the regime to North Korea. Along with all these efforts, there are a few missionaries and church groups that live along the Sino-North Korean border to support escapees. Sometimes, they will even give North Koreans Bibles to take back home.
North Korea’s persecution of Christians has not stayed within their borders. Stories have surfaced of North Korean agents either kidnapping or killing activists who support North Korean escapees. Han Chungryeol, an ethnically Korean pastor in China and an activist for North Korean defectors, was lured from his home and stabbed to death after the defection of 13 North Korean restaurant workers in China. About a year before, his partner, Deacon Jang Moon Seok, was kidnapped from his home on the border of China and North Korea, and dragged by North Korean agents into North Korea. He was then sentenced to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.”
Even with strong ties to Buddhism and Christianity in its history, North Korea could not be farther from religious freedom. In a place where there is little hope for freedom or, in many cases, survival, having a faith that transcends all challenges can be essential. This is a fundamental human right that every person should enjoy.
Rebecca Pankratz received her B.A. at Pepperdine University in International Studies. She was also a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship to teach English in South Korea.
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HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul in May 2020, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.