AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Late last month, news that North Korean officials had sentenced a two-year-old to life in prison after his parents were caught with a Bible shocked the world. But this incident was only the latest example of the authoritarian country’s crackdown on Christians.
In total, there are an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Christians in North Korea, although exact numbers are difficult to ascertain. Several accounts from within the country suggest that the number of conversions has grown since 2010.
According to a new report from the U.S. State Department, up to 70,000 Christians are currently imprisoned for their faith under Kim Jong-Un.
Many Christians are held in “re-education camps,” where they endure torture and regular beatings. In addition to being forced to perform dangerous and back-breaking labor, many endure sleep deprivation, and others have simply been executed by firing squad.
This is all despite the fact that North Korea’s Constitution nominally allows the free exercise of religion. The regime has also constructed churches in the capital of Pyongyang as a charade to convince foreigners that they are actually very tolerant of Christianity.
But in reality the North Korean regime views Christianity and any other “Western” concepts as a fundamental threat to their power. Open Doors, a global mission organization that assists persecuted Christians, has long called North Korea a “brutally hostile place,” and has emphasized that “Christians do not have the slightest space in society.” Possession of a Bible is almost always punished by death.
Former President Trump made this issue a top concern during his meetings with Kim Jong-Un, but any progress he made has seemingly been undone thus far into Biden’s presidency. The White House has been noticeably silent on the persecution of Christians globally.
The plight of Christians in North Korea is particularly tragic given the rich history of the religion in the country. During the late 1800s, American protestant missionaries helped spread Christianity throughout the Korean peninsula, so much so that Pyongyang became known as the “Jerusalem of the East.”
Christianity even played an important role in the life of Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un and North Korea’s second leader after its founder, Kim Il Sung. In his writings, Kim Jong Il references how Judeo-Christian principles impacted his upbringing and education. He mentions specifically going to a Christian church and his father’s friendship with a Korean Methodist pastor.
South Korean scholars have since concluded that Kim Jong Il led Bible studies and taught Sunday School classes, but concealed his formative Christian beliefs, fearing that his regime could not survive such revelations.
Kim Jong Il’s positive view of Christianity changed several years into his rule when Christians strongly opposed atheistic Marxist-Leninist ideology, which dictated war against American imperialism.
In place of Christianity, Kim Jong Il and his henchmen substituted a cult of personality around Jong Il himself.
Images of Koreans emotionally overwhelmed in the presence of their leader and bowing down in front of his photos often baffle Westerners. But the authors of the personality cult twisted familiar Biblical scenarios to win people’s hearts and minds.
One such manipulation, a state-sponsored publication called the “Eternal Life” book, portrayed Il Sung as Moses, a devoted public servant, and the foolish bureaucrats as the stubborn Israelites who failed to lighten the leader’s burden.
The book goes on to describe Kim Il Sung’s actions during the war against Japanese occupation as hard labor to atone for the sins of the North Korean people – elevating him to the position of a Messiah, who then anointed his son, Kim Jong Il to lead the North Korean people.
Kim Jong Un grew up in the atmosphere of this religious cult, becoming its highest priest who inherited his father’s vocation and mission. The documented collective impact of Christianity, with its coherent and powerful vision of God and man, and Judeo-Christian principles contributing to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Evil Empire, intensifies the fear of all dictators like Kim Jong Un since they know that even nuclear weapons cannot stop the power of truth and conscience.
It was belief in this power that made American leaders like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump so successful in facing down the threat from communist nations like the Soviet Union and North Korea. They understood that their true advantage over their adversaries was not just a military one, but also a moral one.
American leaders should remember these lessons now as they face renewed aggression from the Hermit Kingdom. While protecting against the threat from North Korean missiles, they should also understand that they are locked in a battle of ideologies.
Kim Jong Un understands this, which is why he tortures and imprisons Christians. Western leaders – primarily Joe Biden – must recognize that speaking up for and protecting these believers is a vital part of any effective foreign policy strategy.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.
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