Timothy Cho*, a North Korean escapee, explains how the cult of personality around its leaders has led to the extreme persecution of Christians in North Korea.
I was born in North Korea in the late 1980s, when the country was heavily controlled by the cult of personality surrounding the nation’s leaders, the Kim family. Like every North Korean citizen, I regarded the Kim family as gods, and embraced them in my heart. From nursery age, I asked my parents to take me to the Kims’ statues, and I even cried if I found a single grain of dust on them. (It’s estimated that there are 30,000-50,000 monuments to honour the Kim family in North Korea.) When Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of present leader Kim Jong-un, died on 7 July 1994, I cried all day – because I really believed he was my grandfather and god of all North Korean citizens.
Monuments and statues to honour the Kim family in North Korea.
However, the idea of seeing the Kims as gods in North Korea has gradually been decreasing since the 1990s, particularly by us, the third generation under the Kims. When we were growing up, when we were in nursery school, we were given free lunches, and before we ate this meal, we thanked the Kim family. We thought that as long as the Kim family lived, we would not have to worry about food, because they were gods and would take care of us.
But then, from the first year of primary school, we saw how some of our classmates could not come to school because they had no food. They were eating poisoned grasses in their desperation to find something to eat. We began to collect bread, rice and potatoes for our hungry classmates.
But this was just the beginning. The situation went from bad to worse, and eventually even I found myself living on the street, with nothing to eat. If the Kim family were gods, how could they leave us to starve to death? North Korean millennials (the so-called ‘market generation’) see that it isn’t the Kim family who help them to survive – it’s the black-market.
Everyday life inside North Korea.
Despite the glaring differences between what North Koreans are taught to believe about the Kims and the real experiences of the North Korean people, North Koreans are still expected to believe in the absolute authority of the Kims. There is no place for Christianity or any other faith that suggests there is a higher power than the Kims.
Many messages from the Bible are attributed to the Kims – for example, they have the ‘Ten Principles for Establishing the Party’s Unique Ideology System’, with a similar structure to the 'Ten Commandments' found in the Bible. Claiming that these come from Christianity, and not from the Kims, is seen as treason.
During my repatriation to North Korea in 2004 after a period living in China, I was among a group of people asked by the police, ‘Did you go to church and pray in China?’ One guy who was stood next to me denied going to church in China. But when the policeman came closer, he got scared and told him which church he went to and how many people used to attend Sunday services. He was beaten mercilessly: the blood streaming from the top of his head left the rest of us trembling.
Why would that questions matter to the North Korean policeman, when they could simply put us in a prison camp and leave us to die? This was a demonstration of North Korea’s continuing rejection of Christianity.
Christianity was clearly seen as a threat to the personality cult around the Kims.
I’m not the only one who has seen how desperate the North Korean regime are to eradicate Christianity. I met another North Korean escapee in the UK, and she told me her story: “When we escaped from North Korea to China, Christian missionaries looked after us. One day we were in the church service and all of a sudden, the Chinese police entered. My son, granddaughter and I had managed to escape through a hidden route. But my daughter was arrested in front of her two-year-old daughter.
“My daughter was sent back to North Korea and because of her Christian faith, she was then sent to a prison camp. We haven’t heard anything from her since then. My granddaughter barely remembers her mother’s face.”
As well as being seen as a rival to the personality cult around the Kim family, the ‘threat’ of Christianity is also seen as a matter of national security. The regime claims that that America uses Christianity as a weapon to destroy their socialist nation. The UK’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary on Support for Persecuted Christians confirmed this, stating: “The state ties Christian belief to the West and particularly the United States of America as a way of indicating that Christianity is a national security risk.”
North Korea’s persecution of Christians didn’t just start recently – it began in the earliest days of modern day North Korea, with the division of Korea at the end of World War II in 1945. The Kims quickly established a legal structure in North Korea that denied freedom of expression, thought and religious faith, and which justified punishments such as torture, execution, enslavement, enforced disappearance and starvation.
And it carries on today. There are around 250,000 people in closed off villages, detention centres, prisons and labour camps in North Korea - that’s one per cent of the population. And of those, 50,000-70,000 are Christians.
The US State Department, Aid to the Church in Need and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have all confirmed what Open Doors has been saying since 2002; that North Korea is the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian.
And yet, God is powerful enough to break through the darkness of the most oppressive regime on earth. We must not stop praying and providing for the practical needs of North Korea’s underground believers. We can send food and medicines to provide physical strength, and we can pray for spiritual strength for secret believers in North Korea. And our prayers must continue until the walls of persecution fall down.