Sources confirm North Korea has eased or lifted a number of restrictions for citizens since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il.
Kim Jong Il’s tenure as dictator was marked by intense persecution of Christians, including imprisonment of generations of a family for a single individual’s offense and executions.
Bans have been lifted on Western foods such as pizza and french fries, and restrictions on the number of cell phones have been loosened, for example, according to Ryan Morgan, an analyst with International Christian Concern Asia.
“The new ruler has even been uncharacteristically shown on state television, smiling and visiting an amusement park,” Morgan said.
However, whatever secular benefits may have trickled down to residents of the isolated communist nation, there is no evidence of any improvement in the condition of the persecuted church there, he said.
“We have not heard any reports of improvement for Christians in the country and have no reason to believe anything has changed,” Morgan said. “The regime still has up to 70,000 Christians locked away in virtual concentration camps.”
Morgan explained a Christian believer and three generations of his or her family can still go to prison for life just for owning a Bible.
“We’re hoping and praying this changes soon, but we haven’t seen any sign of it yet,” he said.
In fact, recent media reports say Kim Jong Un has moved to restructure the nation’s security apparatus to maintain his control.
Morgan pointed to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stating that the North Korean regime is increasingly viewing refugees with religious beliefs or contacts as “potential security threats.”
The report says the regime is offering rewards for anyone providing information leading to the arrest of individuals involved in distributing Christian literature.
Open Doors USA reports through a source who cannot be named for security reasons that border security is no longer the responsibility of the army.
“The NK secret service has taken over responsibility of guarding the borders from the army. They catch smugglers and force them to spy out Christian networks in China, especially those with ties to refugees,” the Open Doors source said.
Believers in North Korea tread softly because of the nation’s history of persecution as well as the message from the new dictator.
“Kim Jong Un seems to send signals to the people and other countries that he is in control. Christians are aware of this and operate with great caution,” the Open Doors source said.
The source emphasized that North Korean Christians are still focused on ministry.
“Christians pay attention to Kim Jong Un but are more concerned about doing God’s ministry,” the source said. “Our work has not been affected by these developments.”
Officials with both agencies say what is needed is prayer from Christians in the West.
“Christians continue to be thankful for our prayer and other support. It’s what keeps them alive,” the Open Doors source said.
Open Doors lists North Korea No.1 on its list of the worst persecutors of Christians in the world.
“Still the most hostile country in which to live and practice the Christian faith, there are reports of many Christians arrested, with at least 25 percent of Christians believed to be languishing in labor camps for their refusal to worship founder Kim Il-Sung’s cult,” the organization’s report states. “Half the population lives in the north, close to China, where family-based networks of house churches exist in significant numbers. Roughly ten million inhabitants are malnourished, with thousands eating only grass and bark.”
The organization reports: “In North Korea, any form of worship to anyone other than the ‘Great Leader’ (Kim Il-Sung) and the ‘Supreme Leader’ (Kim Jong-il) is seen as treason. North Korean Christians are often arrested, tortured or even killed for their faith in Jesus Christ.”
In fact, one Open Doors’ contact for Christians inside North Korea, said ever since it became apparent Kim Jong Un would follow Kim Jong Il in power, “North Korea has stepped up its attempts to uncover any religious activities. There have been more house raids and more spies trained to infiltrate religious and human rights networks. One South Korean Christian was murdered in China because he helped refugees.
“Christians fear what Kim Jong Un [is] capable of doing. He will do anything to keep hold of power,” the contact said.