You can’t have missed the fact that President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un are meeting over the next few days to discuss denuclearisation and international relations. But it’s the people of North Korea who face the daily nightmare of living under Kim Jong-un’s regime. These are five things you should know about life in North Korea.
North Korea has been ruled by the same family for three generations. Their portraits are hung in all homes and schools, and people bow in reverence to statues and images of them. They are believed to be all-powerful entities guiding North Korea.
John Choi*, a North Korean Christian who now lives in the UK, says, “There are between 30,000 and 50,000 monuments in North Korea to honour the Kim family. Some big, some small, but all are important.
“Children are taught that Kim Il-sung (the grandfather of Kim Jong-un and founder of modern day North Korea) was able to catch a double rainbow with one hand because of his ‘majestic powers’.
“According to North Korean legend, his son Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s father) was born on the mythical mountain and ‘birth place of Korea’, mount Paekdu. Actually, his birthplace was in Vyatskoye, in Russia.
“Everything in North Korea revolves around the Kim family. At nursery, the teachers prayed to the leaders at lunch time. We had to give thanks to them for our ‘daily bread’. Now I realise that they stole this prayer from the ‘Lord’s Prayer’.”
Christians are considered to be enemies of the state, because they believe in a higher power than the Kim family – Jesus. They must keep their faith completely secret. If they are discovered, they face imprisonment, torture, and even death.
Every year there are natural disasters, with droughts in the dry seasons and flooding and mud slides in the rainy seasons. Harvests are poor. North Korea operates a ‘military first’ policy for distributing food and resources, meaning that ordinary people are often left to go hungry.
North Korean Christians choose to share the little resources that they have with those who have even less. One Chinese worker who has been involved in missions among North Koreans says, “At the height of the famine a leader felt called to reintroduce the concept of ‘holy rice’, a practice whereby rice is set apart for use in God’s kingdom. Ever since, these Christians don’t consume all the food they receive from us. They save some to give to people who are even worse off than them.”
There are 60,000 secret believers in North Korea who depend on Open Doors to smuggle in food, medicines and clothes to help them survive. Every £58 can provide this vital support for a North Korean family for a month.
This includes where you live, where you can go, your profession, whether you will eat, and even what you think. The people of North Korea are under constant surveillance, and the authorities are always looking for signs of anything that might pose a threat to the ruling regime.
There is a neighbourhood watch system called Inminban, and every North Korean citizen is part of a local unit. The unit leader will write reports on each of the members, asking questions about who has been visiting their homes, any absences, whether they have participated in volunteer work, and even whether they clean the portraits of the country’s leaders on their walls.
Despite the huge risks and close surveillance they face, Open Doors estimates that there are 300,000 courageous Christians in North Korea. They follow Jesus in complete secret, not even telling their own children about their faith for fear of discovery. If they are discovered, they will be imprisoned, and possibly killed.
One of the ways that Open Doors is able to support North Korea’s secret believers is through broadcasting Christian radio programmes into the country at night. These programmes help them to learn more about their faith, and bring the encouragement that they are not alone or forgotten.
Open Doors estimates that there are between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians being held in these camps, simply for daring to believe in a higher authority than the Kim family – Jesus.
Hea Woo is a Christian who was imprisoned in North Korea. When she arrived at the prison camp where she was held, there was a sign saying ‘Do not try to escape, you shall be killed’. She says, “The guards were merciless. They kicked me and beat me with sticks. Christians are sometimes killed or locked up for the rest of their lives in concentration camps.
And yet, even in these labour camps that are like hell on earth, God is at work. Hea Woo says, “God helped me to survive. Even more: He gave me a desire to evangelise among the other prisoners! He showed me whom I should approach. God used me to lead five people to faith. We met together out of the view of the guards. Often that was in the toilet. There we held a short service. I taught them Bible verses and some songs, which we sang almost inaudibly.”
Thankfully, Hea Woo was eventually released and managed to escape from North Korea. She now lives in South Korea.
Perhaps that sounds impossible. They are thousands of miles away, trapped in a country that sounds like a nightmare, facing challenges we can only begin to imagine. But you really can make a difference in the lives of our brothers and sisters in North Korea today.
You can stand with them in prayer, knowing that there is nowhere too dark or too dangerous for the hand of God to reach. You can make sure others know what is happening in North Korea – bring your friends to Standing Strong, where they can hear Hannah* share her amazing testimony of surviving a North Korean labour camp.
And incredibly, you can put food, medicines and Bibles into the hands of a North Korean believer, through Open Doors secret workers. It should be impossible, but they are keeping 60,000 secret believers alive by smuggling food into the country.
*Names changed for North Korea
We support people who are beaten, tortured,
imprisoned, falsely accused, and hated simply for following Jesus.