Religious freedom in North Korea is infamously non-existent. According to estimates by Open Doors, there are about 400,000 Christians in North Korea — of which 50-70,000 are currently in political prison camps. Any religion outside the veneration of the Kim dynasty is strictly prohibited and punished with imprisonment, torture or execution.
On Christmas Eve, North Korean citizens are required to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-suk – the grandmother of the current dictator, Kim Jong Un.
“Kim’s regime will be urging the people to show their complete loyalty to the Kim family,” said Cho. “[I]f anyone is arrested for secretly celebrating Christmas, they could be killed straight away.”
The North Korean regime has a history of using firing squads to publicly execute those it defines as dissidents. Christians, according to Cho, are not exempt, particularly those 50-70,000 already in camps.
“They [North Korean officials] still need authority for public executions, but the only ones where they don’t need that is for Christians or political prisoners in prison camps,” said Cho.
With these unbelievably high stakes, Christians, particularly women, in underground communities have begun crossing the border into China to find Christian communities. Human rights organization Korea Future recently released a report titled “Religious Women as Beacons of Resistance in North Korea,” detailing how Christian women spread their faith and challenge the brutal regime.
Many North Korean women are trafficked to China and forced into marriages with Chinese men. According to Forbes, the trafficking of North Korean women to China is an industry that makes $105 million annually.
Some of these women escape, and despite how suppressed Christianity is in China, they learn the gospel and convert. If they are sent back to North Korea, they return to their home country often with a substantial knowledge of the Bible and Christian worship.
These women then frequently recross the border into China where, through underground networks, they “can receive support from ethnic-Korean churches or underground missionaries who provide religious literature, symbols, and other forms of information about the religion,” stated Korea Future.
But, of course, these journeys across North Korea’s border are far from safe.
“Upon their voluntary return or refoulment to North Korea, women who are suspected of adhering to Christianity fall under the surveillance of North Korea’s intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security, which proactively gathers information on religious women, including those who cross into China, through a network of informants.”
If discovered, they are subjected to higher levels of imprisonment and torture, as well as more gender-based violence, than the punishment endured by adherents to other religions. Korea Future recorded 140 arbitrary arrests and 33 incidents of torture of Christian women.
“In this context, it is remarkable that religious women have emerged as agents of change in North Korea,” stated Korea Future. “[R]eligious women have begun to deploy their gender and religious identities as platforms for personal and local change beyond the limits of the state. These actions come at great risk. We have documented the executions of women and girls who exercised their right to freedom of religion or belief.”
Additionally, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the China–North Korea border has been shut tight, with upped security and shoot-on-sight orders.
Image: The statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang (April 2012).