North Korea is the hardest place in the world to be a Christian. Being discovered to own a Bible could lead to execution or a life-sentence in a brutal prison camp. Your whole extended family might be punished alongside you. At the head of this horrifying regime is Kim Jong-un, a dictator known for his severe persecution of enormous numbers of people, including turning on those who have once been close to him.
North Korea is back in the news at the moment, with investigations into the increasing desperation faced in the country. Many believe that there could be a return of the North Korean famine of the 1990s, which killed around three million people. This is the context in which believers maintain their secret faith, knowing that discovery could make life even harder.
"North Korea truly is the place where faith costs the most." Brother Simon
“God watches over the North Korean church,” says Brother Simon*, coordinator for Open Doors’ ministry to North Koreans. “But we should never forget the high price the Christians pay. North Korea truly is the place where faith costs the most.”
Many Open Doors supporters pray every day for the estimated 400,000 courageous Christians who continue following Jesus in the face of these extraordinary risks. But have you prayed for Kim Jong-un today?
The question is similar to one that Brother Andrew, the founder of Open Doors, used to ask people. He was known for arranging meetings with people the world regards as terrorists and enemies. Just because someone violently attacked the people of God or led violent campaigns didn’t mean Brother Andrew didn’t want to share the gospel with him – in fact, it made him want to share the love of Jesus even more.
From guerrillas in Latin America to brutal militia leaders in Africa to the heads of terrorist organisations in the Middle East and the Gulf, Andrew insisted on meeting with them. He would tell them about Jesus, give them a Bible and pray for them. As he was fond of saying: “Better a Bible than a bomb.”
The one person he really wanted to meet, but was never able to, was Osama bin Laden, the notorious leader of Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda. However, Andrew prayed for him every day – and challenged others to do the same with a simple question: “Have you prayed today for Osama Bin Laden?” Of course, he is only echoing Jesus’s instruction: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Kim Jong-un is the third ruler of North Korea who has come from the Kim dynasty. His father Kim Jong-il, led North Korea from 1994 to 2011. And Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, founded the modern North Korea in 1948 – and built a cult of personality around the Kim family during his nearly 60-year rule.
Perhaps surprisingly, given North Korea’s decades-long persecution of all religions, the Korean peninsula hasn’t always been known for brutality toward Christians. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Christianity flourished, and in the first half of the 20th century, it was even called the ‘Jerusalem of the East’.
After World War II, Korea was split into two: the north was occupied by the Soviet Union, and the south was occupied by the Western Allies. Eventually, this led to the creation of the two-nation peninsula that continues: a communist North, ruled by the Kim family, and a democratic South that is allied with much of the West.
When Kim Il-sung took control of North Korea in 1948, he came with a surprising background. His mother was a Presbyterian deaconess and Kim Il-sung went to a Christian school. Yet, when Kim began to rule, he immediately began to brutally persecute Christians, as well as any other religion. Putting a deity above the Kim family was, and is, forbidden. Many North Korean priests were executed, and there was a mass exodus of Christians to South Korea.
Ever since, the persecution of Christians has been brutal. The two-pronged goal has remained the same: to stamp out any religious movement that might threaten the rule of the Kim family, and to remove the Christian presence in North Korea. With the exception of 2022, North Korea has been number one on the Open Doors World Watch List for two decades – and the level of persecution is only increasing. In the World Watch List 2023, North Korea’s persecution score is the highest that any country has ever received.
It’s hard to pray for those who persecute the body of Christ. But that is Jesus’s command, and North Korean Christians faithfully follow it. And it’s hard to even know how to pray.
Open Doors experts in the region, who work with North Koreans through secret networks in China, have spent much time prayerfully considering the question. They have sent six ways that we can all pray for King Jong-un today.
Brother Andrew said, “Our prayers can go where we cannot... there are no borders, no prison walls, no doors that are closed to us when we pray.” If we as Christians truly believe this, then what choice do we have than to fall to our knees, praying for Kim Jong-un and for the country of North Korea?
Will you join the North Korean church in this radical act?
*Name changed for security reasons
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