Brother Simon has been Open Doors’ coordinator for North Korea ministry for almost 30 years. We cannot reveal his real name because of the huge risks involved in his work – in fact, secret agents have even attempted to capture him. We sat down with Brother Simon to discuss developments in the country that’s once again number one on the World Watch List.
North Korea is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a Christian
Due to the pandemic, North Korea shut its borders, making it even harder to get information from the country. What’s the situation been in the country between 2020 and now?
It’s been very difficult for the people. One major change was that, in early 2020, North Korea announced a new law, called the ‘DPRK Law on rejecting reactionary ideology and culture’. This basically punishes the possession and use of foreign propaganda and materials that are anti-North Korean culture. Think of South Korean pop music and dramas.
But this was forbidden already, wasn’t it?
Yes, but before the law was published, the punishment was usually light. People could even escape punishment if they bribed officials. Now punishment is much harsher.
What’s the impact of this law on Christians?
Reading and possessing the Bible have been illegal for years, and punishment is very heavy. At the very least you’ll be tortured in prison for months. Then you’ll be sent to a re-education camp or camp for political prisoners. It’s possible to survive a re-education camp and be released after several years. Prisoners are never released from a political prison camp. Most Christians end up in the political camps.
What’s interesting about the law is that it makes explicit mention of the Bible. It’s called an illegal book, and possessing it is punishable with ten years correctional labour and even death if you import a lot of material. This illustrates Kim Jong-un’s aversion against Christians. The North Korean state sees them as a huge threat.
Why are Christians considered to be dangerous?
They are patriots who love their country. But they don’t see Kim Jong-un as a god. Anyone who doesn’t is a traitor in the eyes of the state. I cannot share details, but we have learned that a high number of Christians have been killed for the faith.
Let’s return to the pandemic years. What was the impact of the pandemic on the citizens, including the Christians?
North Korea is always described as a closed country. In reality, there is a lot of traffic between North Korea and China/Russia. Goods are important and exported – sometimes legally, sometimes illegally. Shortly after the coronavirus began to spread, North Korea was forced to close all borders and stop the trade with other countries. This resulted in less available food and other daily necessities. Prices on the markets skyrocketed and it became more and more difficult for the ordinary people to survive.
What did they do to stop the coronavirus from spreading? Publicly they never admitted to have any cases until early 2022.
They knew the coronavirus was in their country, but the government didn’t have any Covid-19 tests. Everybody with symptoms was picked up and brought to an isolation centre. These are terrible places. First of all, you may end up there even if you don’t have Covid-19. Perhaps you’re only coughing or sneezing, but you’re still ‘incarcerated’ with people who actually may carry the virus. Second, there’s no medical care. Your family will have to bring you what you need. Needless to say that many people died in these isolation centres. The number must run in the thousands.
What about lockdowns?
There have been many lockdown periods. The question is if these were used just to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
What could be another reason for them?
Kim Jong-un seems to be in power in North Korea. However, it’s clear that he needs a lot of force to keep the people under control. The dissatisfaction with his regime is high. The lockdowns were an easy tool to restrict people’s movement and he could use the Covid-19 threat as an excuse. Case in point is that in most areas there are no more lockdowns, but they still are imposed sometimes near the Chinese border. This is to discourage people from trying to smuggle [items] or to illegally visit China.
Since the Second World War, North Korea has fiercely persecuted Christians. This intensified after the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. How has the church survived?
It’s by God’s grace that the church has survived. The Christians also take a lot of measures to protect themselves. It’s rare that people meet with other Christians, except if it’s a family gathering. Even then, usually the children are sent outside to keep watch. They talk and sing softly. Bibles are usually hidden. In recent years, Christians also rely more on digital materials to give themselves spiritual food. If you read a book and you get close enough, you can see what someone’s reading. But if they see you with headphones, it’s impossible to tell what you’re listening to.
" If they [children] quote a Bible verse or story at school, or hum a Christian song, the whole family could be in trouble" Brother Simon
In the past, you’ve also said that Christian parents often don’t tell their children about their faith.
Indeed. It’s highly dangerous. If they quote a Bible verse or story at school, or hum a Christian song, the whole family could be in trouble. That’s why the parents usually wait until the children are old enough.
Is there anything the parents can do before they are old enough to keep the family secret?
They can teach their children Christian values by sharing stories with them that don’t mention the Bible, Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit or any Christian terms. Or they talk about creation but, again, without mentioning God. Once the kids are old enough, the parents can teach them it was actually God who created the heavens and the earth. Then they can talk about how God came down, became human and saved us.
If it’s so dangerous to talk about faith, even to your children, how do people come to faith in North Korea?
God does a lot of signs and wonders in North Korea. Especially healings, because so many people suffer from malnutrition and diseases. The water supply in North Korea is usually filthy. Most people cannot afford to buy bottled water. A lot of people, and certainly children, fall seriously ill. Christians may help the sick people and pray for them. A lot are healed and, through their healing, experience the supernatural love of God. That means they are usually ready to hear the gospel. The Christians expose them to the good news and their faith grows gradually from that moment onwards. This isn’t just with adults; it happens with older children, too.
What do you expect of 2023?
We pray that the borders will open, and that more North Korean people can come to China, so that we can reach them through our networks. They are in dire need of food, medicines, clothes and spiritual materials.
How else are you going to help North Korean Christians?
We operate safe houses in China. In 2022, we were able to help more than a thousand people through them. We’ve also supported and trained about a hundred North Korean women who have forcibly been married to Chinese men. Some of them will be female leaders in the future North Korean church. Our radio ministry continues to grow. We have two programmes specifically for Christian parents to educate them how they can give their children Christian teachings without mentioning Christian terms. Our radio crew also produces programmes with sermons, Bible seminary materials and a programme where North Korean refugees discuss various topics.
How can we pray for your ministry?
Let’s start with thanking the Lord for His provision and blessings. It’s a miracle that we could support North Korean Christians last year. Then, please pray that God will open doors for us to stay connected with the North Korean underground church and that we can help them. Pray for protection of our team and contacts. Also ask the Lord that He will make seeing eyes blind. In other words, that Christians won’t be caught by the authorities. Pray also that the country will experience more freedom and prosperity in 2023, so that life will be less hard for the citizens.
Heavenly Father, thank You that the gospel is spreading in North Korea, despite such intense persecution. Make seeing eyes blind and hearing ears deaf so that secret Christians will not be discovered. Protect those serving North Korean believers and keep doors open for them to stay connected with each other. May the people of North Korea experience greater freedom and prosperity this year. Amen.
Your support helps persecuted Christians continue to courageously follow Jesus.
Together, we can reach those where persecution hits hardest.