Written by North Korean escapee Timothy Cho (who now lives in the West)
It wasn’t possible to celebrate Christmas during my life in North Korea. I hadn’t even heard of it. There is no Christmas, but they have created their own version of Christmas Eve. On 24th December, it is the birthday of the wife of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea – her name is Kim Jong-suk. Schools, universities, factories, and public institutions all have to participate in singing in the evening, similar to carol singing, and celebrate her birthday.
Image: North Korean musicians perform for tourists
I used to join a singing evening at my school to celebrate Kim Jong-suk’s birthday. During the day, I also took flowers to her statues.
She died at the age of 31 during the birth of her fourth child. Only two of her children survived into adulthood – Kim Jong-il and his sister Kim Kyung-Hee. Kim Jong-il, the founder of North Korea, grew up without his mother’s love, and he missed her. This may be why, when Kim Jong-il set up his family as idols!
But there are other purposes for celebrating Kim Jong-suk’s birthday. She is held up as a role model for the people in North Korea, demonstrating her loyalty to Kim Il-sung. There are many propaganda portraits and stories that say she was willing to be shot and killed for Kim Il-sung.
This is part of the reason why Christians face such extreme persecution in North Korea. Every citizen is expected to be completely loyal to Kim Il-sung and his family – even willing to die for him. Instead, the secret believers in North Korea recognise a greater authority than the Kims, and are willing to die for someone else – Jesus.
North Korean secret believers can’t celebrate Christmas publicly. If their secret celebrations of Christmas are discovered, that can lead to their whole family being arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. They must keep most of their celebrations in their hearts. With the food crisis in the country, it’s hard to imagine the believers having special food for Christmas this year. They might whisper hymns and pray in a hidden place, perhaps secretly reading the Bible if they have one.
Despite the persecution they face, our brothers and sisters in North Korea have hope, and don’t just pray for themselves, but also for others – for their neighbours, friends, colleagues, even their oppressors. They’re obedient in following the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:44, which says, “Pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you.”
Image: North Korean propaganda in a school
We may be thousands of miles away and living very different lives, but in our hearts, we will share the joy of Christmas with the secret believers in North Korea, our brothers and sisters, remembering that Jesus came to earth for each one of us.
And your prayers and support are helping to bring hope and joy to North Korean believers this Christmas. For each believer who secretly listens to the Christian radio programmes broadcast by Open Doors into North Korea, or stays in a safe house in China, or receives food and medicines through our networks in China, this is a sign to them that they are loved by their global church family, and by our Heavenly Father.
As we start looking forward to Christmas, could you send hope to young Christians facing persecution?
1. Write a message of hope to a few different young people and let them know that you’re praying for them.
2. Lose something from your Christmas list, and ask for a donation to Open Doors instead…
We support people who are beaten, tortured,
imprisoned, falsely accused, and hated simply for following Jesus.