Return to magazine page

More than conquerors

Survivors describe the courage of Christians tortured, starved and abused in North Korean prison camps

North Korean prison guards force water mixed with red pepper powder down the nostrils of inmates to extract false confessions from them [Image credit: Korea Future Initiative]

A Christian woman sat weeping in a prison cell, in agony after enduring a prolonged beating from a prison guard. “I am God’s daughter,” she whispered. “I am crying because I am worried that God will be in pain seeing his daughter being assaulted in prison.”

The anguish of this faithful and brave sister is repeated many times over in North Korea where tens of thousands of Christians have been starved, tortured and worked to death in political labour camps or “re-education” camps because of their faith. The harshest punishments are often reserved for Christians.

The closed country is under the despotic rule of President Kim Jong-un and strict communist control. His grandfather, Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung, established the state-propagated ideology of Juche, or human “self-reliance”, which is almost a religion, along with near-worship of Kim Il-sung and his successors.

Christians executed in front of large crowds as deterrent

North Korea is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian. Believers whose only “crime” is to possess pages of a Bible are executed, often in front of large crowds as a deterrent to others. A witness interviewed by the London-based campaign group, Korea Future Initiative1, described being among 1,000 people forced to watch a Christian being shot by a firing squad in a market place. Another described how their uncle was shot – “our whole school attended,” they said.

Some parents dare not even let their own children know they follow Christ, as pupils are encouraged at school to report their parents if they see them praying or reading Scriptures. The state indoctrinates children in kindergarten with the message that Christianity is “bad” and missionaries are “evil”.

Families prayed together silently in their cells

Entire Christian families are sent to prison camps. A witness described the courage of two families, whose members ranged in age from ten to almost 80, as they were arrested for worshipping at an underground church. A teenage child was admitted to a pre-trial detention centre as an adult, while the younger children were forcibly placed into care.

In another case, the child of a Christian was imprisoned in a North Korean political prison camp because their parent attended a church in China. The parent was later informed that their child had died at the camp.

Harrowing accounts of forced abortions

Christians recalled inhumane forms of torture. “Men were beaten like dogs,” added a Christian woman. “They screamed like crazy because they hurt so much. Even though women were beaten less, I was hit in the face … I wept a lot when they hit me again.”

In another instance, a Christian was forced to sit curled inside a tiny steel cage, measuring 120cm (4ft) long by 100cm (3ft) high, and its bars were heated with an electric current. “Usually prisoners lasted only 3-4 hours but I sat there for 12 hours and prayed,” he said. “I kept praying for God to save me.”

Harrowing accounts are given of pregnant women forced to undergo abortions. A witness described how babies who survived at birth were suffocated by guards and their mothers were forced to resume manual labour the following day, without medicine or rest.

“Usually prisoners lasted only 3-4 hours but I sat there for 12 hours and prayed”

Starving prisoners beaten with shovel for picking grass to eat

A prison camp inmate described being fed a soup made of water, salt and sand. When forced to labour in the camp’s agricultural fields, the inmate received a soup containing liquidised grass thickened with cornflour. Prisoners caught picking and eating grass from the field were beaten with a shovel.

A prisoner released after a three years in one of the camps weighed just 27kg (4 stone 3lb) and had lasting damage to a kidney.

Death rates are high among prisoners and corpses were burned every few days, said a survivor. “The cremated body ash was scattered on the field and the whole field was black when it rained in the summer because the body oils resurfaced,” said the former inmate. “When they planted spinach, it would grow thick and tall.”

Christian prisoner was “a light that warmed me”

Despite the torture and violence suffered by Christian prisoners, courageous believers helped support others, even though they knew that discovery would result in a severe beating. One recalled how a Christian prisoner told her, “God had sent me here for you.” The survivor said, “Eventually I listened to her … she was a light that came and warmed me when I was drowning in my sorrow … I would have killed myself if it were not for her.”

China enables North Korean regime’s persecution of Christians

Exiles have affirmed rumours that the Chinese government cooperates with its communist North Korean neighbour in the arrest, detention and abuse of North Korean Christians and their forcible repatriation.

In one instance a North Korean Christian was abducted in China by three Chinese men and a North Korean woman and driven to the Chinese border on the Amnok River (also known as Yalu River). The Christian was bundled into a boat by at least four waiting North Korean security agents and taken across the river to North Korea for interrogation.

Other Christians explained how their documents authorising their forced repatriation to North Korea had been marked by China’s Ministry of Public Security with a black stamp. The stamp indicated that the victim had practised Christianity in China.

Christians in North Korea since 1945

At the end of the Second World War, the Christian community accounted for 2-3% of the population of Korea2. The north of the Korean Peninsula, which became North Korea in 1948, was the powerhouse of Korean Christianity, with an estimated 300,000 Christians and many of the best of the church leaders.

In 1946, the pacifist Presbyterian leader of the interim northern government mysteriously disappeared and was never seen again.
A young communist, Kim Il-sung, seized power. Although Kim’s mother and maternal grandmother were staunch Presbyterians, Kim began a gradual suppression of Christianity.

In 1948, Korea was divided into two nations and Kim assumed leadership of the North. Two years later, in June 1950, he authorised a surprise attack on South Korea. Most Protestant missionaries fled the country. Church leaders were taken prisoner and carried back to the North when the communist army was forced to retreat. About 500 church leaders died in captivity.

By 1953, an estimated 100,000 Christians
had moved from North to South Korea, depleting the North of up to one third of its Christian population.

In South Korea, the Church has grown rapidly, and Christians now account for about 30% of the population.

By contrast, North Korea, ruled by Kim Il-sung and his descendants, is a place of terrible persecution and only God knows how
many faithful followers of Christ there are in that country.

1 Korea Future Initiative, 2020, Persecuting Faith: Documenting religious freedom violations in North Korea. https://www.koreafuture.org/projects/forb
(Accessed 21 January 2021)
2 Hated Without a Reason: The remarkable story of Christian persecution over the centuries, Patrick Sookhdeo, Isaac Publishing, 2019, p115

More stories