March 17, 2009
North Korea’s oppressed people live in a state of constant fear. They suffer from poor economic conditions, and many are starving. To make matters worse, they are increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.
Open Doors World Watch List 2009 again ranked North Korea as the number one worst persecutor of Christians in the world. For seven years in a row, the county has topped the list.
North Korea is suspected of detaining more political and religious prisoners than any other country in the world. Estimates reveal there are at least 200,000 prisoners, with up to as many as 70,000 being Christians.
Paul Estabrooks, Minister-at-Large for Open Doors International and author of Escape from North Korea: A Desparate Quest for Food, Love and Life said officials in North Korea view Western Christianity negatively for several reasons.
“There are two aspects to this. One, they look at Eastern Europe and the fall of Eastern Europe, countries like Poland and others, and they feel that Christianity had a very significant part in the fall of Poland, and other countries in Eastern Europe. And, they don’t want that to happen in North Korea,” said Estabrooks. “But, even more importantly, they consider Christianity as an American religion.”
Christianity is not allowed in North Korea and the Bible is banned. If found to be a Christian, a person can be executed or put into a labor camp for years. The majority of people in the country have never heard the Scriptures, seen a church or heard about the biblical God, and the constitution is heavily based on Juche ideology.
Under the leadership of Kim Jong-Il, Christianity is considered to be one of the greatest threats to the regime’s power. Kim has elevates himself as a god among his people.
“Our brothers and sisters in Christ in North Korea live under the worst oppression in the world—a modern day Holocaust. But because we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus is making an impact through us against the powers of darkness behind Kim Jong-Il,” said Mrs. H.S. Foley, Executive Director, Seoul USA.
Foley, a fourth generation Christian, born in Seoul, South Korea, lived half of her life there before coming to the United States to earn an MBA. Through her work at Seoul USA and the new Underground University project, she is committed to making a difference around the world, and specifically in North Korea.
“My passion and purpose is to serve as a bridge between Korean and American culture, mobilizing the resources of both to equip and collaborate with those in Asia who are typically overlooked for ministry. I want to equip and collaborate with them to reach others who, like themselves, are overlooked by the church and by society in general.”
According to Foley, “Seoul USA is a network of people who want to go beyond the roles of donor or volunteer to become champions of the cause of serving the North Korean church. And, we want to expand our network to include others with the same goal.”
To that goal, Seoul USA collaborates with Voice of The Martyrs in the United States and around the world to launch a million Gospel tracts by balloon into North Korea every year. The group also runs Underground University, a one-year North Korea missionary-training program, as well as a host of literature, radio, family ministries to North Korea.
Foley hopes these efforts and new partnerships will raise up a new generation of church leadership for North Korea.
“The main thing we see is a change in the way North Korean exiles view themselves,” she said. “They’re called North Korean defectors. They’ve even swallowed that identity for themselves. But they’re not defectors. They’re the North Korean Church in Exile—and waking them up to what that means will blow the future and the present wide open for the Underground Church inside North Korea.”
Many defectors have previously trained in South Korean seminaries, hoping to return when the North is more open to the South. Such training may never be of use, Foley says, as North Korea shows no signs of warming to its counterpart.
“Worse, the bared arm of the North Korean Underground Church—the one arm we can fully strategize with, train, equip, and redeploy to thrive today back inside of North Korea and China and wherever NK citizens travel around the world—hangs limp and lifeless,” Foley continued.
Foley hopes to change that with the group’s April 2 banquet. The evening’s featured speaker, Kim Sun Min, is a North Korean defector who has twice escaped the country and now functions as dean of Underground University.
Meeting the Greatest Needs
“Probably the most restricted nation in the world is the country of North Korea, as far the gospel,” said Todd Nettleton, Director of Media Development for Voice of the Martyrs (VoM). The persecution watchdog partners with Seoul USA.
“The phrase that I use is, ‘North Korea is a prison camp disguised as a country.’ Everyone in North Korea is oppressed, everyone is persecuted. Christians are just singled out for the very worst persecution and the very worst oppression.”
The country’s government encourages its citizens to spy and report on each other, creating a “paranoid society,” Nettleton said. In such an environment, everyday needs such as food and clothing become huge challenges.
Because of that, current mission to North Korea mostly take the form of food assistance, said Alpha Relief President Chris Moore.
“The biggest push that we have right now, is doing everything we can to directly assist, and sustain the orphans, the street kids, believers, and people connected with believers in the county of North Korea, primarily in the form of food aid,” said Moore. “North Korea is in a situation where they are perpetually on the edge of famine, or actually in famine.”
While an increased food supply open the door to share physical and spiritual food with neighbors, Alpha Relief is mindful of the costs.
“If you are caught with any form of scripture, you get up to a thirteen-year concentration camp sentence,” Moore said. “So because of that we have to be very creative.”