By Mark Ellis –
Behind the historic meeting of President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and their momentous preliminary agreement to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, thousands of Christians languish in North Korean labor camps where they face horrible conditions.
Some feel betrayed by the failure of the two leaders to address human rights concerns in this agreement, although President Trump maintains the matter was discussed privately.
Historically, North Korea has a rich Christian heritage, and Pyongyang was once called “the Jerusalem of the East.” But after the current leader’s grandfather took power, Christianity was essentially banned, and surviving believers had to take their beliefs “underground”.
Officially atheistic, it has been the most dangerous place to be a Christian for the last several decades, according to Open Doors.
“Try as it might, North Korea’s government has never wiped out Christianity,” says Faith McDonnell, with International Religious Liberty (IRD). “Some experts say that there are as many as 400,000 secret believers, most of whom became Christians in China or through contact with Chinese or South Korean Christians. They live in constant threat of imprisonment or execution.”
More than 70,000 Christians may be living in prison labor camps due to their beliefs. In these labor camps they face “unimaginable torture, inhumane and degrading treatment purely because of their faith”, according to Zoe Smith, Head of Advocacy at Open Doors UK & Ireland.
If you “merged the Soviet Union under Stalin with an ancient Chinese Empire, mixed in The Truman Show and then made the whole thing Holocaust-esque, you have modern-day North Korea”, Tim Urban wrote in the Huffington Post after visiting the country in 2017.
In prison factories, guards poured molten steel on Christians to kill them because believing in God instead of their “great leader” was the biggest crime in the eyes of the officials, according to the IRD’s McDonnell.
A 2004 BBC documentary interviewed several defectors and former prison officials who revealed that North Korea conducts deadly experiments on Christians using chemicals.
Because Christians are considered “enemies of the state,” they are often selected for such experiments. The former prison camp official watched a Christian family die in the gas chamber, while parents tried to shield their children from the fumes to the very end.
When Christians die in the camps, their bodies are burned and their ashes used to make fertilizer, McDonnell alleges.
“Perhaps American Christians don’t know that the same regime that threatened to turn the United States into a pile of ash turns its own wretched citizens who die in political prison camps into piles of ash?
“It then uses them as fertilizer. In that appalling action, North Korea demonstrates one way in which it wipes out the very existence of Christians, as well as other political prisoners.
Yong Sook, whose husband died in a North Korean prison and who now lives in South Korea, told Open Doors she watched the meeting between the US president and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un “with very deep resentment”.
“Kim Jong-un should confess what he and his regime have done. He should open the doors of the political camps and kneel down to apologize to those who have suffered due to its regime. The lives of North Korean citizens are just as important as Kim Jong Un’s life.”
World Watch Monitor reports that leading up to the summit, North Korea released three American citizens who had been put in labor camps for “anti-state activities”. One former detainee, Kim Hak Song, said his captors told him he was imprisoned because of the “hostile act” of prayer.
“The systematic persecution of Christians is just one of many heinous human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean regime,” Smith said. “If true change is to come to that country – and we hope it will – any further negotiations must confront the desperate human rights situation.”
North Korea also seems to be refining its big brother-style-watch system, in which every citizen is asked to report on any criminal activity or political disobedience. Participants receive special rations in return, while in some places they have the authority to expel families who have engaged in illegal activities, according to the Daily NK.
Many members of Congress remain skeptical about trusting North Korea’s leader.
“I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that Kim Jong Un has been a butcher to his family and he is a butcher of his own people,” said Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican.
“Trying to reason with someone like that, is like trying to hand feed a shark. Doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but you’ve got to do it very, very carefully.”