By Timothy Cho
North Korea is officially the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian. That's according the newly published World Watch List. The list, started by the Christian charity Open Doors, logs annual levels of persecution and discrimination across the world.
This is the 20th year in a row that North Korea is top of the listing. As a North Korean Christian, it’s heartbreaking.
Why is it so dangerous to be a faithful Christian in North Korea? The simplest answer is that North Korean people must show complete loyalty to the ruling Kim family. Christians are considered a national security risk because they are loyal to someone else first – Jesus Christ. Christians whose faith is discovered, by something as simple as owning a Bible face imprisonment, torture, and even execution.
The idea of God’s unconditional love and faith are toxic to the Kim family’s personality cult. Instead, North Korea continues to promote the personality cult.
The scale of persecution in North Korea seems unstoppable. In December 2020, North Korea adopted a new law against ‘reactionary thoughts’ that controls access to information from outside the country. If anyone listens to, records, or distributes foreign radio broadcasts, or anyone smuggles in or distributes foreign records, videos, USBs, music, clothes, books, magazines, newspapers, or any materials that are unapproved by the state, they will be punished.
In the Kim family cult, there is no space for the Christian faith. But ‘what is impossible with man is possible with God,’ as Jesus said in Luke 18:27. Open Doors estimates that there are between 300,000 and 500,000 Christians in North Korea, and secret evangelism is being carried out by North Korean believers. Faith has been planted even in the darkest soil.
Sixteen years a free man
I escaped from North Korea 16 years ago – it was my only hope of surviving. Since then I have had unimaginable freedom: freely worshiping God, listening to hymns, and praying each day. And I have dreamt hundreds of times of going back to my hometown and even attending a beautiful church there. For the next 16 years, I will keep asking God to allow me to go back to my home country, and to freely sing songs of worship to God with the people of North Korea.
My fellow brothers and sisters are still escaping from North Korea for the same reasons – survival. It is even harder to escape nowadays, as the covid-19 border restrictions have prevented people from escaping, and yet still people try, and some succeed.
The situation there doesn’t seem to show any signs of improvement. The state continues to spend its resources on nuclear development, as seen with the weapons of mass destruction that were displayed during the military parade for the 75th anniversary of the ruling party in October 2020.
Meanwhile, millions of North Koreans face a food shortage – over 10 million people, or 40 per cent of the total population, are in urgent need of food. The situation has been made even worse by Covid-19. The border closures have significantly decreased the amount of food coming in from outside. Collective public farms and individual allotments haven’t even met half the amount needed to feed the country.
The North Korean government asks for their citizens to conserve food. Part of the country’s slogan is ‘food saving struggle,’ and urges people to eat less so that they can survive and protect the socialist system. But people have tightened their belts already, and the news external news outlet DailyNK report that ‘entire families are starving to death on the street.’
The unpredictable humanitarian situation in this country will come to a head as 2021 begins. And when will the North Korean regime take their responsibility for protecting their own citizens seriously? There is a complete absence of servant leadership that focuses on the well-being of the nation to which they belong.
Will North Korea ever change?
Despite all this, if anyone asks me if North Korea could ever become a free nation my answer is ‘yes’. God makes impossible things possible. When we have faith in God, we live for tomorrow.
That is my firm belief, and I will continue to ask God to work in North Korea and set it free. I long to see a North Korea where no one has to run away from starvation or persecution. Ultimately, God will answer my prayer, and the prayers of thousands worldwide who cry out to Him for North Korea.
That longing may not come to fruition in 2021. The economic crisis means that our brothers and sisters will have to endure another difficult year. It’s unlikely that the regime will change its view of Christianity and allow for more freedom or accept aid from the international community.
The Irish statesman Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to do nothing.” There is indeed something we can do...
In the darkest land of North Korea, secret believers will continue whispering hymns, praying in hidden places, and secretly reading the Bible where they can. By faith, they are hopeful and obedient, even though they know the consequences of being discovered. The chains of starvation, imprisonment, torture, and execution can’t stop their faith in God.
Your prayers and support help to strengthen their faith. Open Doors broadcasts Christian radio programs into North Korea from outside the country. It has safe houses in China where those who escape can learn more about Jesus and find shelter. Our networks in China provide vital food and medicines for North Korean believers. They need this lifeline of support as much as ever.
Please pray for our persecuted church family in North Korea and beyond. They are going to face another challenging year in 2021. But we can also give them hope as God’s people, and international Good Samaritans.
Timothy Cho escaped from North Korea after living on the streets and being imprisoned and tortured. He now works for the charity Open Doors, who offer support Christians around the world, who face persecution and discrimination because of their faith.
Learn more about this year’s World Watch List and where it is hardest to be a Christian.