Imagine that even whispering your favourite Christmas carol in your own home carried enormous risk – not because of Covid-19 but prying authorities. This is the awful reality for Christians in North Korea, where Christmas cannot be celebrated. Timothy (not his real name) is a Christian from North Korea now living in the UK. Here he offers an important insight into what this time of the year looks like in North Korea, and how you can share Christmas with its secret believers.
Believers secretly listen to Christian radio programmes broadcast by Open Doors into North Korea
Every Christmas, I think of my persecuted brothers and sisters in North Korea. Christmas is not celebrated in the country, but they have created their own celebration on Christmas Eve.
On 24 December, the country remembers the birthday of Kim Jong-suk, wife of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea. In the evening, schools, universities, factories and public institutions must all participate in singing to celebrate her birthday.
I used to join in singing at my school. During the day, I also took flowers to her statues. My favourite part of the day was staying at home and watching films, although they were all propaganda films. But it was strange that, although I believed that Kim Il-sung was like my real grandfather, I never had a feeling that Kim Jong-suk was my grandmother.
She died aged 31 whilst giving birth to her fourth child. Only two of her children survived into adulthood – Kim Jong-il and his sister Kim Kyung-Hee. Kim Jong-il grew up without his mother’s love, and he missed her. This may be why, when Kim Jong-il set up his family as idols, he didn’t include his stepmothers.
But there are other purposes for celebrating Kim Jong-suk’s birthday. It isn’t just hijacking Christmas Eve from Korean people – it’s also for propaganda purposes. She is held up as a role model of loyalty to Kim Il-sung. There are many propaganda portraits and stories that say she was willing to be shot and killed for Kim Il-sung.
This is a key reason why Christians face such extreme persecution in North Korea. Every citizen is expected to be completely loyal to Kim Il-sung and his family – even willing to die for him. Instead, secret believers in North Korea recognise a greater authority than the Kims and are willing to die for someone else – Jesus.
North Korean believers can’t celebrate Christmas publicly. If their secret Christmas celebrations are discovered, the whole family could be arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed. They must keep most of their celebrations in their hearts.
And with the country’s food crisis, it’s hard to imagine believers having special food for Christmas this year. They might whisper hymns and pray in a hidden place, perhaps secretly read the Bible if they have one. They pray for what they hope for and earnestly seek Him.
"They must keep most of their celebrations in their hearts." Timothy
Despite persecution, our brothers and sisters in North Korea have hope, and don’t just pray for themselves, but for others – their neighbours, friends, colleagues, even their oppressors. They’re obedient in following the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:44: “Pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you.”
North Korea is one of the countries hit hardest by coronavirus – especially the economy. Border closures have radically reduced the amount of food coming into the country. Meanwhile, public farms and individuals’ allotments growing food inside the country haven’t even met half the amount required to feed everyone this year.
A major cause of this are the floods and typhoons that have swept away the largest rice fields. Shortages mean the prices of food, medicine and other items increase daily. The country faces an international emergency, with over 10.1 million people (or 40 per cent of the total population) in dire need of food.
As 2021 begins, it will be hard for North Korean people to feel hopeful going into the new year.
These challenges are reflected in the hopes of my North Korean friends now living outside North Korea. Their names have been changed.
Il-ho, now living in the UK, hopes North Koreans will be able to have at least one nice meal during the holidays. “My wishes for them are that they endure the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and no one dies of starvation in 2021.”
Ji-Yong, also UK-based, says, “It makes me feel guilty each time I have a nice meal in the UK. I know Covid-19 is making things very hard and there is a lack of rice, corn rice and powder and flour in the market. I really hope there is humanitarian aid and basic food for North Korean people in 2021.”
Myong-sook, who lives in Seoul, finds it hard to think of Christmas or New Year in North Korea, as the situation there does not seem to have improved since her escape several years ago. “It leaves me in tears,” she says. “My new year wish is that there is continuing evangelism by secret believers in North Korea. Churches and secret believers are the salt and light in the darkness.”
"Churches and secret believers are the salt and light in the darkness." Myong-sook
Seng-he, another in the UK, is thankful to God for where she is now during the pandemic. “But it makes me feel sad when thinking of North Korean people, particularly during the Christmas and New Year holidays,” she says. “It’s hard to predict, but there is a tomorrow for my brothers and sisters in North Korea, and my thoughts and prayers for them in the new year will continue.”
My own prayer for North Korea in 2021 is that I will not hear of anyone who has died of starvation. I usually cry when I pray for my brothers and sisters in North Korea. Sometimes the tears don’t come, but my heart feels the pain of their starvation and suffering, prisoners screaming for survival, street children crying for their parents as I did, and the deep sigh of families whispering, “We survived another day.”
My New Year wish is for more prayers from God’s people, and for international ‘good Samaritans’ to reach into this darkest land. During the holiday season, I will light a candle and pray for my brothers and sisters in North Korea. I know God loves them.
We may be thousands of miles away and living enormously different lives, but in our hearts, we will share the joy of Christmas with secret believers in North Korea, our brothers and sisters, remembering that Jesus came to earth for each one of us.
And your prayers and support are helping to bring hope and joy to North Korean believers this Christmas. For each believer who secretly listens to the Christian radio programmes broadcast by Open Doors into North Korea, or stays in a safe house in China, or receives food and medicines through our networks in China, this is a sign to them that they are loved by their global church family, and by our heavenly Father.
North Korea is number 1 on the current World Watch List, making it the worst place in the world to be a Christian. The 2021 World Watch List Parliamentary launch is on Wednesday 13 January 2021. This is a precious opportunity for the UK government to hear about the persecution Christians are suffering in North Korea and elsewhere across the world. You can make a real difference by inviting your MP to the launch.
Your support helps persecuted Christians continue to courageously follow Jesus.
Together, we can reach those where persecution hits hardest.