Serving Persecuted Christians Worldwide - North Korea reasserts authority as news emerges of two-year-old imprisoned because parents caught with Bible - Open Doors UK & Ireland
07 June 2023

North Korea reasserts authority as news emerges of two-year-old imprisoned because parents caught with Bible

A new report by the US Department of State has highlighted several harrowing cases of Christian persecution in North Korea. It comes as speculation mounts over the regime’s intentions and leadership following recent developments in the country. Please note that you might find some of the content in this article distressing. 

North Korea

The Kim dynasty is taking steps to reassert its control of the country

An entire family, including a two-year old toddler, were sentenced to life imprisonment in North Korea after the parents were caught with a Bible. 

The incident is not very recent, but has now come to light as one of many harrowing cases highlighted in a 2022 report by the US State Department on religious freedom in North Korea. It said that the authoritarian government had continued to ‘execute, torture, arrest and physically abuse people for their religious activities’. 

"I pray in my tears for my beautiful home country" Timothy Cho

“I pray in my tears for my beautiful home country,” says Timothy Cho*, a North Korean who escaped from the country years ago. “It still makes me feel very sad and terrible. How will history remember us – the children, the families?”

Whilst Christians aren’t the only group to suffer, one released prisoner said that they were singled out for particularly appalling treatment. To many of you who are familiar with the plight of our North Korean family, the report’s shocking findings come as little surprise.

In another reported case, a Christian bravely continued to pray, even as he was beaten senselessly by guards, whilst a Christian woman committed suicide after the authorities placed her in solitary confinement and deprived her of sleep. Another believer died after he was denied food. And in a reflection of the dangers facing Christians from within their own families, one believer was arrested after their partner reported them to the authorities for owning a cross and a Bible. 

Reinforced wall to reassert control

The report demonstrates the grip the North Korean authorities has on its people. However, recent developments suggest this hold is perhaps more fragile than it’s ever been.

Satellite footage has been released by Reuters which shows that extensive reinforcements are being made to its borders with Russia and China, featuring watchtowers, concrete walls, double fencing and barbed wire.

For many years, the borders have been used to smuggle goods that have led to North Koreans being influenced by the wider world, including different languages from dramas as well as fashions and hairstyles. These smuggling routes have also enabled the distribution of Christian materials to the underground church. 

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the North Korean regime and the reinforced fence – together with the anti-reactionary legislation – looks to be part of a concerted plan to reassert their authority. “They want to regain control of society from what has been has allowed over the past 20 years,” explains Timothy Cho. 

The fence will choke the black market, which many North Koreans rely on, particularly the rich who can afford the goods’ rising prices. It will also impact on the donju – the ‘money-lords’ or ‘money-masters’ – many of whom have direct links to the regime. A tightened border is part of Kim Jong-un’s plan to regain control not only of the general population but the elite. But it could backfire on him, making his hold on power even more fragile. 

Kim’s closed ‘digital state’

This drive for control is seen in another aspect of daily life – the digital sphere. Around three million North Koreans own smartphones developed by state brands, but coverage is limited (no internet or international coverage) and tightly followed. 

“The country has around 8,000 highly sophisticated and professional hackers,” says Timothy Cho. “They would not allow any messages to go freely, because they are concerned that any kind of communication platform could mobilise a revolt against the regime.” The phones even have a feature that automatically captures users’ activity with continual random screenshots of messages. Users cannot delete this feature.

"We have seen an increase in underground churches inside North Korea" Timothy Cho

However, older phones – or ‘Chinese phones’, which are often used to help North Koreans escape the country – remain in circulation, which can be difficult for even current technology to identify. It shows how, despite these recent clampdowns, smuggling networks will continue to operate.

“I know North Korea has a border fence of more than 400km, but this is sometimes circumvented by smugglers who give bribes to soldiers,” says Timothy Cho. “It still happens and it will continue because people are desperate for money, even the elite and the soldiers. They need money to survive.” 

And this is good news for the country’s secret Christians, because it means there is hope that Bibles and other support for believers will continue to make it through to them. “The smuggling route has introduced large numbers of Christian materials,” confirms Timothy Cho. “We have seen an increase in underground churches inside North Korea.”

Kim’s ten-year-old daughter and speculation over succession 

These developments come as speculation mounts over the leadership of Kim Jong-un. His ten-year-old daughter, Kim Ju-ae, is appearing at more events alongside him, including a military parade. It suggests that he could be preparing her for leadership, as opposed to his sister, Kim Yo-jong, who had previously been more prominent.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un often disappears from the public eye before returning, with rumours circulating that this is due to poor health. “If anything happens to the Kim family, even if Kim Jong-un died today, they would not reveal it to the public straight away,” says Timothy Cho.

Ultimately, the country and its leadership remain shrouded in uncertainty, and it’s unclear what recent developments mean for the country. But what is certain is that our North Korean brothers and sisters continue to follow Jesus amidst extreme persecution, where even owning a Bible has unimaginable consequences. Your prayers and support remain crucial to their survival. 

*Name changed for security reasons

Please pray
  • That God will soften the hearts of Kim Jong-un and his family, so they relinquish their authoritarian grip on power and turn to Jesus
  • That God will use this latest report, and recent developments, to bring greater freedoms to the North Korean people
  • That the Holy Spirit will continue to give supernatural strength, peace and encouragement to our North Korean family, particularly those in prison.
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