At the time of writing, summer holidays are drawing close and many people will be planning to get away for rest and relaxation and perhaps to explore new places. But I suspect that not many people will be planning a trip to North Korea. Often referred to as a ‘rogue state’, North Korea has technically been at war with South Korea since the 1950s, but tensions have been rising since it tested a missile late last year. It is the world’s most militarised country but it is also a world-leader on another scale: the ‘Open Doors’ World Watch List. North Korea is the most difficult place on earth to be a Christian.
North Korea is vehemently opposed to religion of any kind, requiring instead that its people worship founder Kim Il-Sung. It's true that the whole population of North Korea is suffering, but Christians are definitely singled out. Despite performing many outward duties, they do not worship Kim Il-Sung – they worship Jesus Christ. Their mind is not filled with North Korea's ideology of self-reliance. They care for the sick, the orphans and the hungry when no one else does. These criminal acts of 'loving your neighbour' – of 'not fitting in' – make them political enemies. And so Christians are classified as hostile and face arrest, detention, torture, even public execution. Even the possession of a Bible is reason enough to be killed or locked up with your family for the remainder of your life. Tens of thousands live and (ultimately) die in concentration camps. But despite severe oppression, there is a growing underground church movement of an estimated 400,000 Christians.
The North Korean treatment of Christians is not historically unusual. The Christian church was born in the fires of persecution, and a whole series of Roman emperors – Nero, Domitian, Marcus Aurelius, Decius and Diocletian – tried hard to destroy the Christian faith. And the Christian church has continued to be persecuted ever since. Over 300,000 Christians every year are killed for their faith. For a Christian, the worldwide statistical chance of becoming a martyr in your lifetime is approximately one in 200. But still the church grows. The church may be in decline in parts of the West, but Christianity is growing fast elsewhere, with the greatest growth most often happening in places where persecution is the strongest.
But why would anyone take the risk? People throughout history and across the world come to faith in Jesus Christ because the heavenly reward far outweighs the earthly suffering. Like those hundreds of thousands of North Korean Christians, they entrust everything to God, because they are convinced that his love is stronger than anything else.
The Apostle Paul, no stranger to persecution himself, expressed it as follows: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Revd Dr Jonathan Mobey
Rector of Harwell with Chilton