Editor's Note: The following is taken from the December 2017 issue of Whistleblower magazine, "LIGHT VS. DARKNESS: The global war on Christians." Whistleblower is also now available in state-of-the-art digital form.
Behind the current nuclear brinkmanship of North Korea's rogue regime that dominates today's headlines is the relatively unknown story of the dire plight of hundreds of thousands of Christians in the ultra-dictatorial communist nation.
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In a totalitarian state that effectively demands worship of the third heir to the Kim dynasty, Kim Jung Un, the exercise of traditional religion is severely punished, with the exception of a handful of heavily state-controlled congregations in the capital regarded as showpieces for foreign visitors.
Since 1948, North Korea has been under the one-man rule of a dynasty that began with Kim Il Sung, "the great leader," who developed a cult of personality centered on the state philosophy of Juche. Usually translated as "self-reliance," Juche is described by the government as Kim Il Sung's "original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought." It holds that an individual is "the master of his destiny," and the North Korean masses are to act as the "masters of the revolution and construction" to achieve true socialism.
Raised in a Presbyterian family during Japanese colonial rule, North Korea's founder, who was installed by the Soviet Union, is cast in official propaganda as a messianic figure. According to the mythology, he was born on Korea’s highest peak, Mount Paektu, beneath twin rainbows in a log cabin during the armed struggle against the Japanese occupiers. Propaganda posters often employ the imagery of pristine, mountain-top snow to communicate the doctrine of the Korean people as a pure, unblemished race.
Four years after Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, the presidency was eliminated from the constitution, and he was named "Eternal President of the Republic." He was succeeded by his son, "the dear leader," Kim Jong Il., who died in 2011, after which his son Kim Jong Un, the current leader, took over.
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Despite the suffocating mythology of being the "pure, unblemished race" and "masters of their destiny," in reality, under the dictatorial rule of the Kim dynasty – in which every aspect of life is regulated, from speech to food, employment and travel – millions of North Koreans have died in recent years, either of starvation or in labor camps.
Long history of persecution
After Christianity came to the traditionally Buddhist and Confucian region in the 1880s, a revival began in 1907 that earned the present capital of the "Hermit Kingdom," Pyongyang, the nickname "the Jerusalem of Asia."
However, after just three years, systematic persecution began when Japan annexed the Korean peninsula and mandated worship of the Japanese emperor. Torture, imprisonment and execution were consequences of failing to bow down to his portrait.
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Yet the church grew during the subsequent three-and-a-half decades, until the Japanese surrender that ended World War II.
Five years later, the Soviet-backed forces of Kim Il Sung occupied the north, went to war with the south and then consolidated his communist regime.
The persecution of Christians intensified after the Korean War, as Kim demanded citizens renounce any religious faith and swear allegiance to his "Juche" ideology or face execution or deportation to remote concentration camps. Thus, Christians were forced underground.
The Juche ideology evolved into a quasi-religion as Kim Il Sung became venerated as a god, with his son, Kim Jong Il, as the son of god, evoking the father-son imagery of Christian theology.
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Death penalty for church attendance
The organization Open Doors, which ranks North Korea as the world's worst persecutor of Christians, estimates the totalitarian state has 300,000 Christians who are forced to hide their faith.
Anyone doubting what North Korea is willing to do to its people should recall its recent treatment of an American citizen, 22-year-old Otto Warmbier. A college student, he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster while on a tour. When he was returned to the U.S. after 15 months, he showed signs of torture. Healthy when he went to North Korea, he returned blind and deaf, with a shaved head and a feeding tube coming out of his nose. His father said he found his son "staring blankly into space, jerking violently," and "it looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and rearranged his bottom teeth." Warmbier died six days after being taken to a U.S. hospital.
In October, a North Korean Christian who escaped from a work camp, Choi Kwanghyuk, offered a rare glimpse of what life is like for religious believers under the Kim regime.
Choi, who now lives in the United States, said he started an underground church in North Korea.
"We couldn’t raise our voice during a service, we couldn’t sing out loud during a worship … that was hard," he told Fox News through a translator. "Also, we had to hide so that other people could not see us."
Had it been discovered that he had a church, he said, the members could have faced the death penalty.
In 2008, North Korean authorities arrested Choi, and he was held by the state security department in prison, where he said he was tortured because of his faith.
He was about to be sent to one of North Korea’s brutal labor camps, he said, when he was able to escape.
"I decided to escape because I thought that once they sent me to the other camp, they could eventually send me to the concentration camp or kill me," Choi told Fox News. "I was traveling back and forth between China and North Korea, but they kept searching for me, and I knew it could put my friends in danger too, so I left."
According to the testimony of a former guard from the most notorious camp in North Korea's system, Camp 22, prisoners live in bunkhouses with 100 people per room, and some 30 percent show the markings of torture and beatings, including torn ears, gouged eyes and faces covered with scars.
Jeff King of the non-profit International Christian Concern told Fox News, "it is inexplicably easy to wind up in one of these camps."
"While someone can be sent to one of these camps for openly evangelizing, someone can just as easily be sent there for simply being in contact with a religious person," he said.
The former Camp 22 guard said the torture includes forcing prisoners to stand on their toes in tanks filled with water up to their noses for 24 hours. The tiny rations force prisoners to hunt rats and snakes, and some search through animal dung for undigested seeds to eat. Prisoners are used as practice targets during martial arts training, and guards routinely rape female inmates.
A grateful Choi told Fox News, there is "an enormous difference between my life in North Korea and my life in the U.S."
"The life in North Korea is hell … life in America is heaven."
Christian faith 'an act of espionage'
Human rights investigator David Hawk gathered remarkable insight into life under North Korea's oppressive state religion when he interviewed 40 North Korean escapees in 2005.
"Hanging portraits of Kim's family is compulsory for every household," one escapee said, according to the website NorthKoreanChristians.com. "The portraits must be hung on the best wall of every home, and nothing else can be hung under the portraits. Families with high loyalty to the Party bow down under the portraits even when nobody is watching."
Another observed that religious freedom is not allowed in North Korea, "because it will ruin the deification of Kim Il Sung."
One North Korean escapee described having faith in God is "an act of espionage," concluding "only Kim Il Sung is a god in North Korea."
Hawk collected many heart-wrenching stories.
He interviewed an escapee who told of a young woman in her 20s who lived near the border with China and worked as a clothes washer. The woman accidentally dropped her small Bible, which was discovered by another washer woman and reported to police. The young woman and her father were arrested and held by police for about three months before being found guilty of a capital offense.
In the summer of 1997, the two were taken to a public place, condemned as traitors and sentenced to death after a brief show trial. Assembled were students and teachers from the local schools along with people sent over from a nearby market. Seven police fired three shots each
into the two victims, who had been tied to stakes a few meters from the “trial” area.
The force of the rifle shots, fired from 15 yards away, caused blood and brain matter to be blown out of their heads. The interviewee, who was in the fifth row, sketched from memory a schematic drawing of the execution scene.
A former North Korean Army soldier recalled to Hawk that members of his unit demolished a vacated house in Yongkang County when they found a Bible and a small notebook that contained 25 names, including three pastors and two church elders. After the Bible and notebook were turned over to the local branch of the Korean Workers Party, the 25 persons were picked up without formal arrest by the military.
In November 1996, the five leaders were brought to the demolition site to be executed. They were bound hand and foot and made to lie down in front of a steamroller, the former soldier told Hawk. The other 20 persons were held just to the side. The condemned, accused of being Protestant Christian spies, were told that if they abandoned their religion and served only Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, they would not be killed.
None of the five said a word, according to the escapee. Some of the fellow parishioners who had assembled to watch the execution cried, screamed out or fainted when the skulls made a popping sound as they were crushed beneath the steamroller. The interviewee heard from the soldiers who took away the other 20 prisoners that they were being sent to a prison camp.
Hawk interviewed a number of people who secretly possessed Bibles smuggled in from China and knew of clandestine gatherings of believers.
A woman in her 60s from Hamhung knew of eight persons who were Christians who met secretly in groups of three and four to read handwritten Bible verses. A woman from Musan participated in an underground church of 12 members, all relatives, who received missionaries from China, just across the river.
"North Korean Christians aren't simply killed for their faith in Christ," summarizes NorthKoreanChristiams.com. "They are pulverized with steamrollers, used to test biological weapons, shipped off to death camps or shot in front of children, while newborn babies have their brains pithed with forceps in front of their mothers. Crimes against humanity reminiscent of Auschwitz and Treblinka to which the world declared 'Never Again!' more than 60 years ago are being perpetrated today against the North Korean Christians."
Yet the site then exhorts readers: "Do something to help them, bearing in mind that they aren't asking us for handouts, but to help them fight for Christ. Many of them risk their lives to escape from their hell into China, receive the Gospel, and then volunteer to return to North Korea as one-way missionaries. It is our privilege to support these courageous Christian warriors in the Lord's battle."
Indeed, the North Korean regime's mortal fear of Christianity is hinted at by another of Hawk's interviewee's, this one a former police official, who became disillusioned and fled to China and subsequently to South Korea. He reported that North Korean officials are anxious to catch believers because they fear Christianity will "defeat" Juche.
"The secret increasingly being unveiled," concludes NorthKoreanChristians.com, "is that not only is there Christianity in North Korea, but that Christianity is actually expanding."
The preceding is taken from the December 2017 issue of Whistleblower magazine, "LIGHT VS. DARKNESS: The global war on Christians." Whistleblower is also now available in state-of-the-art digital form.