|▲ Lim Chang Ho, a professor at Kosin University and minister at Jangdaehyun Church in Busan |
“Including prisoners in political prison camps, there are 40,000 underground believers,” Minister Lim Chang Ho asserts.
North Korean officials, in spite of asserting to the outside world that they guarantee the freedom of religion and maintaining some churches in Pyongyang for show, thoroughly control and repress all forms of religion.
An international Christian movement, ‘Open Doors’, in a report released earlier this year, ‘The top 50 countries for the persecution of Christians’, listed North Korea as the worst case for the 9th year running, while the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a federal bipartisan body, advised the U.S. Department of State to place North Korea on this year’s list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC), adding it to the 14 states already on the list.
For myriad reasons, then, North Korea has long been a target in Christian circles. However, religion is considered a crime against the state there, thereby adding a great deal of danger to spreading the message of the Christian gospel.
The capture of Jun Yong Su, a Korean-American who has been in North Korean detention for proselytizing for around six months to date, amply illustrates these dangers.
And yet, in spite of the cruel punishment that awaits both underground believers and their families should they be detected, people continue to spread religion in secret. The existence of these hidden evangelists is not only substantiated by missionary groups, but also by defector testimony.
Why do they struggle so hard to keep Christianity alive in North Korea in the face of the extensive detection network that the authorities have ranged against it?
Partly it is because, before the division of Korea, Christianity held far greater sway in the northern area than in the south, and Pyongyang was known to some as “The Jerusalem of East Asia.” Pyongyang, then, was home to many devout believers and the movement to spread Christianity flourished. After the division of the peninsula and the creation of North Korea, however, the thorough repression of Christianity began.
Lim Chang Ho, a professor at Kosin University, minister at Jangdaehyun Church in Busan and President of the Defectors’ Church Association, introduced one underground devotee in an interview with The Daily NK,. The woman, he said, was “an elderly woman unable to follow her father, a church elder, as he came south during the Korean War. She lives a pious life and since the war has been spreading the faith.”
Professor Lim says that underground worshippers preserve their religious lifestyle by marrying within their circle of evangelists. They then raise their children to follow in their own footsteps. Since their evangelizing efforts are realized under tight security, they focus firmly on the family unit.
“There has even been a case of a bride from Gangwon Province marrying a young man from Chongjin by way of an arranged marriage set up by underground devotees,” he remarked.
Professor Lim further asserted that the spread of Christianity in North Korea is influenced by the shape and devotion of its existing believers. Starting with one underground devotee in a village showing themselves to be reliable and admirable, he explained, religion spreads and people begin to see that “those who are good believe in the Lord.”
“If we share disinfectant, antibiotics and other medicines with underground Christians, they don’t use them; they save them and give them to local people. Seeing that, people in the villages believe that they are like saviors,” he explained
Professor Lim cites data collected from former prisoners in political prison camps, guards and an international watchdog in reaching his estimate of the population of believers, saying, “In the 12 political prison camps in North Korea there are approximately 30,000 Christians being held,” and added, “There about 10,000 underground evangelizers who have not been discovered.”
Other missionary groups broadly agree that there are between 20,000 and 50,000 believers in North Korea.
However, there are those who have criticized these estimations, believing that missionary groups may seek to exaggerate the size of their groups of followers by giving overstated calculations, while others fear a large degree of repeatedly counting the same believers by multiple religious groups.