Everyone knows how dangerous it is to follow Jesus in North Korea. The communist dictatorship has been at the top of the World Watch List for more than 20 years – the latest World Watch List report has North Korea at #1 on the list of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian.
But even if it’s common knowledge, it’s still horrifying when a news report comes out that underscores the incredible risk Christians face in North Korea.
Radio Free Asia has reported that a group of five Christians were recently arrested during an underground church service. The five believers met to pray together at a farm in Tongam, a village in the central South Pyongan province, when police raided their meeting. The Christians were taken by the authorities, and their Christian materials were confiscated.
Sources told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that the small group had been meeting weekly and that the arrest followed a tip-off by an informant. “At the site of the worship service, the police retrieved dozens of Bible booklets and arrested all in attendance,” one source told RFA.
A potential death sentence
While it’s unknown precisely what has happened to the five Christians, being caught worshipping or possessing Christian materials can carry heavy penalties – including immediate execution. In the past, Christians who were arrested for religious practices and Bible possession have been sentenced to life in North Korea’s notorious system of labour camps. Open Doors estimates between 50 000 and 70 000 Christians are currently imprisoned in the country’s intricate prison system.
These camps can serve as a death sentence. Hea Woo*, a North Korean Christian who spent time in labour camps, described the horrors of one camp. “Constantly, there were people dying,” she says. “Death was a part of our daily life. The bodies were usually burned, and the guards scattered the ashes on the path. Every day, we walked down that path, and I always thought, one day, the other prisoners will be walking over me.”
It’s not clear where the five Christians are being held, but they reportedly have refused to renounce their faith. “A staff member of the judicial agency told us that the [believers] refused to tell where they got their Bibles and said: ‘All for Jesus, even in death,’” a source told RFA.
Constant danger needs constant prayer
It’s a rare glimpse into the reality of life for Christians in North Korea. That’s because even reporting on these kinds of incidents can be dangerous for believers there. “This case is only one of the many religious freedom violations happening in North Korea,” says Brother Simon*, an Open Doors coordinator for North Korea. (We can’t tell you his real name for security reasons.) “As Open Doors, we are aware of many similar incidents that have taken place all over the country in recent years. We do, however, not publish any details as they might put the local Christians in danger.”
North Korea’s estimated 400 000 Christians live in almost constant and unthinkable danger. But that doesn’t mean they are alone – they rely on the prayers and the solidarity of the Church around the world. Brother Simon notes that these reports ought to drive us to our knees. “What is clear is that continuous prayer and attention for the plight of North Korea’s secret believers should never stop,” he says.
God answers those prayers, even when we can’t see them in the face of such brutal realities. Even in the labour camps that are like hell on earth, He is at work. “God helped me to survive,” Hea Woo says of her time in a labour camp.
“Even more: He gave me the desire to evangelise among the other prisoners! He showed me whom I should approach. God used me to lead five people to faith. We met together out of the view of the guards. Often that was in the toilet. There, we held a short service. I taught them Bible verses and some songs, which we sang almost inaudibly.”
While the horrors of arrests, imprisonment and execution are part of the story of Christianity in North Korea, so is this powerful story of God’s work in the darkest setting imaginable. It’s a reminder to us to continue to pray for His people in North Korea – and that He will always sustain His Church, no matter what.
Click here to partner with us in prayer for North Korean believers and our persecuted family across the world.