Rumours have recently been circulating about the health of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. But what does this mean for the country’s secret Christians?
28 April 2020
Rumours have recently been circulating about the health of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. But what does this mean for the country’s secret Christians? For nearly 20 years, North Korea has been the country where Christians face the most extreme persecution in the world.
The Open Doors field team have tried to answer some of these questions.
Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea
Because Kim Jong-un – like his deceased father and grandfather – is treated as a deity, all information about him will be strictly weighed before it goes out. The North Korean government will only announce bad news if there’s no denying it and, so far, they have remained quiet about Kim Jong-un’s health.
This is surprising, because in the past, whenever the international media has speculated about his health, the North Korean government has countered this with propaganda messages. The fact that this hasn’t happened indicates that something is going on.
It’s likely that Kim Jong-un underwent heart surgery in a hospital in Hyangsang on 12 April and is recovering from the surgery in a villa outside of Pyongyang. Both the hospital and the villa are for the exclusive use of the Kim family. According to DailyNK, a news website run by North Korean defectors, several doctors are with Chairman Kim to attend to his medical needs.
Open Doors wants to emphasise that this news cannot be confirmed. It seems clear, however, that Kim Jong-un’s health condition is not good at all currently, though we don’t think he has died. On 22 April, the Korean Central News Agency released a statement that Kim Jong-un had thanked the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad for expressing his respect for the late president Kim Il-sung on his 108th birthday (15 April). North Korea would be taking a huge risk to send a thank you message on behalf of a dead leader.
The current leaders are very dependent on the Kim family for their survival. Kim Jong-un has at least one child, but possibly two or three. All of them are below the age of ten and not ready to succeed their father.
Despite North Korea being a male-dominated society, it is very likely that, for the time being, Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, would be appointed as the new formal leader of the country. However, the most probable scenario is that political figures, such as Vice-Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, would form a collective leadership, with Kim Yo-jong as the figure head. When Kim Jong-il died in 2011, there was great upheaval and chaos at the political top, which may well happen again.
Choe Ryong-Hae (70) is a North Korean politician and military official. After Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011, Choe played an important role in securing the position of the Kim family, but he was demoted and probably imprisoned for a while in 2014. Somehow, he got back to the top and he is one of the most important leaders after Kim Jong-un.
Kim Yo-jong (31) is Kim Jong-un’s youngest sister. She became gradually more important around the time her father Kim Jong-il died (in 2011) and entered the world stage in 2018, when she visited the 2018 Winter Olympics ceremony in Pyeongchan in South Korea. She was the first family member of the Kim dynasty to visit their southern neighbours, and later also acted as a diplomat during the summits with American president Trump.
It’s clear that both leaders are an integral part of the current regime and we shouldn’t expect too much change from them. The reason they are at the top is because they are loyal and want to preserve the current dynasty.
We expect that the situation for Christians and others who are considered to be enemies of the state will continue to be fragile. Certainly, the current candidates to replace Kim Jong-un are not likely to be more compassionate to Christians.
What we saw after the previous leadership transitions in 1994 and 2011 was an increase in social control. The weaker the leader, the more he or she needs to exercise an iron fist policy to make sure people stay in line.
That’s hard to say. Firstly, we don’t know the exact condition of Kim Jong-un. Second, if he dies, what will happen in the country? Perhaps reunification is possible if the North Korean system collapses and with it, the ideology that once founded the whole nation – that of a united, self-reliant Korea under the leadership of the Kim family.
However, reunification is a tremendous political chess game that would be played on many boards.
With the absolute power in North Korea held by Kim Jong-un and his family, the country will always persecute Christians, at least at the current level and possibly at a higher level. This is because the Kim's regime believes that Christianity has the potential to threaten their absolute power. Propaganda films are still being released with the intention of indoctrinating North Koreans against Christians.
In the short term, we’re not expecting any significant changes for the people in North Korea. They will continue to be oppressed, they will continue to seek help and we will continue to support them through our networks in China.
In the long term, we do hope for a significant change in the country, one that allows more freedom and prosperity for all citizens. When that happens, Open Doors needs to be ready to help the North Korean Christians. At the moment, our radio programmes are a great source of encouragement for our secret brothers and sisters.
Most refugees outside North Korea are very concerned. At the moment, because of the Covid-19 restrictions, they are unable to contact their families, but they are earnestly praying for the situation.
The believers pray for the safety of the underground churches, for an end to the coronavirus situation, for the country’s stability, and for the alleviation of the persecution of Christians. Above all, they pray for the gospel to shine through in North Korea.
Refugees also pray for the safety of their families inside North Korea, for a regime change and the collapse of the current system, and for a government that’s more open and less controlling. They pray for a reunification that leads to a democratic system. Actually, what most people pray for is a reunification by the gospel.
Timothy Cho, a North Korean refugee, says he is praying for the Kim family. “The country will need a great reconciliation,” he says. “I pray for the Kim family - let them seek the truth and accept the love of Jesus. And most importantly, they need God’s forgiveness.
“With all this uncertainty, I’m crying out to the Lord and His mercy for the 25 million North Korean people. I’m also praying for the North Korean leadership, that they will come to kneel down before God. The Korean Peninsula needs peace, stability and wisdom. ‘For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose’ (Philippians 2:13).”