Despite the constant threats of violence, many brave Korean Christians are willing to practice their faith all the way to martyrdom.
The answer is North Korea.
With his preposterous haircut and his penchant for coerced adulation, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is often portrayed by the Western Press as a comic figure; as an incorrigible bad boy of the Pacific Rim perhaps, but one who constitutes a wanna-be bad guy rather than an actual villain. In some Western media, he is dismissed as a blowhard who is all talk and very little action. The actions of Kim Jong-un, however, are those of a Marxist tyrant, cast in the bloody mold of Lenin, Stalin and Pol Pot. And like those communist leaders before him, the brutal persecution of Christians has been a hallmark of his despotism.
Open Doors USA, an organization that monitors the worldwide government oppression of Christians, considers North Korea to be “the most oppressive place in the world for Christians.” Worse than Sudan, worse than Syria, worse than Iraq, worse than anywhere. Considering the anti-Christian violence of our age, that’s quite an indictment.
There is not even a pretense of religious freedom in North Korea. Ultimately, there is one being who is permitted to be worshiped in the communist nation: Kim Jong-un himself. But more than permitted, that worship is mandated. As Open Doors USA reports: “Worship of the ruling Kim family is mandated for all citizens, and those who don’t comply (including Christians) are arrested, imprisoned, tortured or killed.” Practicing Christianity is punished as a capital crime, and those who own or transport Bibles are often sent to reeducation camps, or worse. The government of North Korea has not only executed people for owning Bibles, but forced thousands of its citizens to view those executions.
Open Doors USA is not alone in its assessment of North Korea. In 2014, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations issued a report detailing vast human rights violations in North Korea. At about 400 pages in length, the chilling tome provides a snapshot of a nation in which forced starvation, forced labor, and forced abortion are commonplace—with particular malice extended toward Christians. The report finds that Christianity is viewed as “a particularly serious threat” by North Korea’s government. North Korean labor camps are commonly estimated to contain between 120,000 and 200,000 political prisoners, and as Amnesty International observes: “Many of those held in these camps had not been convicted of any internationally recognized criminal offence but were detained for ‘guilt-by-association’…” The guilt-by-association charge is often applied to Christians or those who are thought to have interacted with Christians.
Tim Marshall, author of Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World, sums up the situation in North Korea well, writing that the government of North Korea “checks off every box in the dictatorship test: arbitrary arrest, torture, show trials, internment camps, censorship, rule of fear, corruption, and a litany of horrors on a scale without parallel in the twenty-first century.… North Korea is a stain on the world’s conscience, and yet few people know the full scale of the horrors taking place there.”
Despite the constant threats of violence, many brave Korean Christians are willing to practice their faith all the way to martyrdom. In fact, by some accounts, Christianity is growing despite the watchful eye of the communist government that insists there is no God. As Catholics, we have the duty to pray for peace. But we cannot act as though there can be peace when millions of people are subjected to a brutal dictatorship. Instead, we must pray that these brave Christians of North Korea are delivered from evil. It also wouldn’t hurt to remember them and their predicament as we debate the finer points of the faith that we freely practice. Such awareness should inspire gratitude for our faith and freedoms, and help us keep perspective on what really matters.