SEOUL, South Korea — As she languished in a North Korean prison camp for the crime of trying to escape her repressive homeland, Hae Woo furtively spread the word of God.

Offering a message of hope inside hell on earth, she won a handful of converts, and a tiny secret church was formed. On Sundays and religious holidays, the faithful few would gather to worship at the toilets or another unwatched corner of their wretched home.

“I remained faithful, and God helped me to survive. Even more: He gave me a desire to evangelize among the other prisoners!” Hae Woo said in testimony provided to the Register by Open Doors, a charity working to end the persecution of Christians around the world. “But I told God that I was too scared to do so. If I were caught, I would certainly be executed.”

Hae Woo (a pseudonym provided to protect her identity), who found Christianity in China during a botched defection attempt, was ultimately able to flee to South Korea, where she can now freely practice her faith. But for Christians still living under Kim Jong-un’s regime, who activists believe could number in the hundreds of thousands, worshipping openly carries the risk of being sent to a labor camp, where malnourishment, torture and death are commonplace.

North Korea has long been known as one of the world’s most brutal repressors of Christianity, which has been viewed as a threat to the supreme authority of the ruling Kim dynasty since it took charge in the aftermath of World War II. Like the heads of other communist states, founder Kim Il-sung considered Christians undesirables, smothering a religious tradition that was once so vibrant the capital Pyongyang came to be called the “Jerusalem of the East.”

Today, Open Doors estimates that 50,000-70,000 Christians may be residing in the country’s gulags.

“Christians were not capable of ‘revolutionary acts’ and so were enemies,” said Hae Woo, explaining how she was taught to hate Christians prior to her conversion. “Every form of religion, and especially Christianity, was like opium: addictive and destructive. I heard stories about Christians who went to hospitals, enticed people into cellars, killed them there and sucked the blood out of their bodies so that they could sell it. The thought of it was horrifying to me.”

Although an exact figure is impossible to arrive at, Open Doors believes that 200,000-400,000 Christians may be living under the shadow of the regime. Of those, Catholics — survivors from before the division of Korea in 1945 — are thought to make up a small fraction.

“Some sources say that their number is up to 20,000, but that is just a wild guess; nobody knows for a fact,” said Francis Lee, a translator for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, which is headquartered in Seoul.

 

Little Sign of Improvement

With the transition of power to Swiss-educated Kim Jong-un in 2011, outside observers held out hope for a new era of openness. But in his five years of rule, the third-generation leader has done little to suggest any softening toward Christianity.

Tim Peters, an American missionary who helps North Koreans flee the country, said repression has gotten even worse as the leadership continues to alienate its citizens by diverting scant resources toward the military and nuclear weapons.

“As that social stability weakens, naturally any organization or any group that is looked at as a potential destabilizer or an opponent to the regime itself is going to be further stigmatized,” said Peters, who runs the South Korea-based nongovernmental organization Helping Hands Korea. “And that’s, I believe, what we’re seeing with the Christians.”

While North Koreans themselves are the biggest victims of state oppression, the regime’s hostility toward the faith has been felt by outsiders such as Peters. Foreigners caught attempting to proselytize inside the country have been arrested and detained for months or even years on end, usually only gaining their freedom after a visit by a high-profile American dignitary such as Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. Among three Westerners currently being held by the regime is Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, who has been accused of plotting to bring down the leadership.

An especially chilling warning against outside interference arrived in May, when the mutilated body of a Chinese pastor who had helped defectors was found along the border with North Korea. Han Choong Yeol, who dedicated his life to helping North Koreans materially and spiritually, had been hacked to death with an ax. It is believed by the Christian aid worker community that he was murdered by North Korean agents.

“He was famous for the last two decades for helping North Korean refugees, obviously on the China side of the border,” said Peters. “This man was stabbed 18 times and murdered in cold blood, obviously for the reason of helping defectors.”

 

Controlling Religion

Even while suppressing the “subversive” message of Christianity, the regime has used the religion for its own purposes, allowing certain elements if they can be controlled. In Pyongyang, there are several official Christian churches, one of which is Catholic. These places of worship are almost universally recognized as “showcase venues” intended to convince outsiders that freedom of religion exists in the country.

“There are about 800-3,000 ‘official’ Catholics in North Korea, but there is not a priest or a member of a religious institute recognized by the Holy See,” said Lee.

The cash-strapped regime has also turned a blind eye to the faith of outsiders if there’s money to be made. Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the country’s only privately funded university, was established with the backing of evangelicals in South Korea and the United States.

In Rason, a special economic zone in the north of the country established to attract foreign investment, the influence of Christian aid workers isn’t hard to spot.

“You often see buses with the Christian fish on them,” said Gareth Johnson, the founder of Young Pioneer Tours, which takes tourists into North Korea. “I believe they are run by a Christian charity. There are quite a few Christians that visit Rason as tourists.”

One businessman who regularly visits the country said authorities will leave foreign Christians with deep pockets alone so long as they are not ostentatious about their faith.

“In Rason it has always been a case of North Korea wanting the money, and as long as people don’t take [liberties] they are allowed to do their thing,” the businessman said on condition of anonymity.

But unlike such visitors, North Korean Christians aren’t free to come and go as they please. For them, the whole country is an effective prison.

 

Learning About Freedom

Hae Woo was one of the lucky few to escape.

“I still feel as if I’m in my honeymoon period,” she said. “Of course, there are lots of things wrong here and some people think that South Korea is too materialistic, but what do they know about freedom? For that matter, what does anyone know about freedom? I learned what freedom is in the camp.”

John Power writes from

Melbourne, Australia.

He previously was based in

South Korea from 2010 to 2016.