It’s hard to know exactly how many Christians there are in North Korea, because they must keep their faith so well hidden, but Open Doors estimates it is 400,000 – some 1.5 per cent of the population. About 50-70,000 of these Christians are in horrendous prisons and labour camps.
Being discovered as a Christian is a death sentence. You will be taken to a labour camp if you aren’t killed instantly. Few believers get out of these inhumane prisons alive. Even more dreadful, your family will share the same punishment.
Christians are unable to meet with other believers, and have to keep their faith entirely hidden. There are stories of husbands and wives not knowing, for many years, that their spouse was also a Christian. Children are encouraged to tell their teachers about any sign of faith in their parents’ home. A Christian is never safe.
Hee-Yol (name changed) escaped North Korea during the Great Famine of the 1990s. While in China, she heard about Jesus and became a Christian . “One day the Chinese police came to my workplace and demanded to see my ID card. When I couldn’t show them one, I was sent back to North Korea,” says Hee-Yol.
Back in North Korea, she was kept in a horrendous prison, with conditions that are almost too unbearable to imagine: “The small prison cell had nine prisoners. We could not lie comfortably. We had to lay down on our side. If the cameras caught us talking to prisoners next to us, the punishment was called pompu, where we put our hands behind us and had to crouch and stand up hundreds of times.
“It was so hard to endure. One whole winter, I had to spend at the detention centre. The room was underground without any sunlight. It was a harsh winter. I needed to endure the temperature well below minus 20 to 30 degrees Celsius, the hunger, and the cold.” Thankfully, Hee-Yol was released. Most Christians are not.
Is it getting harder to be a Christian? “It really couldn’t get any harder”, she says.