Country Profile: North Korea
Updated January 2015
Population: 24.8 million
Government type: Totalitarian dictatorship
Religion: Non-religious 69.3%; Ethnoreligionist** 15.5%; Christian 1.4%; Other 13.8%
North Korea has one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
The extent of its repression is unknown because it is fiercely independent, politically isolated and is closed to all countries except China and Russia.
Defectors describe a society where human rights do not exist and freedom of association, worship, movement – even thought – are denied. These claims are credible in the light of the use of an active army of 1 million soldiers and just under 5 million reservists, a monopoly of state-run media (TV, radio and the press) that indoctrinates the population with the Party’s propaganda, and its notorious prison camps, estimated to hold up to 200,000 people.
North Korea was formed at the end of the Second World War, when the Korean peninsula was divided along the 48th parallel into the Soviet-sponsored Communist north and the US-backed south.
Its founder, Kim Il Sung (1948-1994), the ‘Great Leader’, is comparable to Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse-Tung as an ideologue who controlled the masses through propaganda, revolutionary zeal, ruthless elimination of opposition, and the sacrifice of large numbers of the population to starvation due to economic mismanagement. He used a philosophy of “Juche” (self-reliance and permanent revolutionary struggle) to achieve national unity which has produced an isolated nation that many call “the hermit kingdom”. His son, Kim Jong Il, the ‘Dear Leader’, continued his father’s policies, if anything, more destructively – until his death in December 2011.
Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s ‘great successor’, was sworn in as head of the Party, state and army within a fortnight of his father’s death. To date, there are no signs that the new leadership has any intention of allowing greater freedom.
Religious context and persecution
Citizens are obliged by law to display portraits of the late Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in their homes.
Having a religious faith is highly subversive. Anyone refusing to accept the Korean leader as the supreme authority is likely to be punished.
The precise number of Christians in North Korea is unknown. Before the Communists came to power, numbers were higher than today but, during the Korean War (1950-53), many fled to South Korea or were martyred.
Those said to remain in North Korea are forced to hide their faith – or face terrible consequences. People have reportedly been executed just for owning a Bible.
Many Christians have been sent to concentration camps as ‘political prisoners’ and subjected to brutal treatment in appalling conditions: torture, abuse, execution or simply being worked to death.
And still, the regime maintains the façade of religious freedom. In 1998, it opened three churches in Pyongyang. However, these are widely considered to be showcases for foreigners: sermons contain political material supporting the regime.
The harsh regime and grinding poverty have forced thousands of North Koreans to try to escape to China. It is estimated that there as many as 300,000 North Koreans in China today as illegal immigrants.
The Chinese authorities stubbornly uphold their policy of repatriating defectors found in their territory, even though repatriated North Koreans face notoriously harsh treatment. The North Korean authorities allegedly pay Chinese informants to denounce defectors. Release partners report that the punishment of would-be defectors has intensified since Kim Jong Un came to power.
So defectors in China are forced into hiding – and often into the clutches of ruthless individuals who trap them in forced labour or sex work. Some turn to Christ after meeting missionaries who share the gospel with them.
All this is extraordinary, given that just over 100 years ago, Pyongyang experienced Christian revival and was known as the ‘Jerusalem of the East’.
Current and recent projects include:
Offering financial support to Christians who provide refuge and spiritual support to North Korean refugees, especially to pastors who shelter them as they make their way along the “underground railroad” to South Korea.
Supporting discipleship training and comprehensive vocational training to help North Korean Christians successfully establish a new life in South Korea.
Sponsoring leaflet drops by slow-release balloons sent into North Korea.
Sources: BBC; Britannica Online Encyclopaedia; Chatham House; International Christian Concern; Operation World; The Voice of the Martyrs Canada; The World Factbook 2015; UN.
** Ethnoreligionist: followers of local, tribal, animistic or shamanistic religions, with members restricted to one ethnic group.
Updated January 2015