The percentage of North Korean citizens who are exposed to the Bible is steadily increasing every year despite extreme persecution, according to a new report that investigates and analyzes the conditions of religious freedom in the Hermit Kingdom.
The annual White Paper on Religious Freedom in North Korea from The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights found that the number of North Koreans who responded that “they have an experience of seeing the Bible” increased by 4% each year since 2000.
Before 2000, only 16 people claimed to have seen a Bible. After 2000, up to 559 North Korean defectors said they had “seen a Bible,” even though religious literature is banned in the isolated country.
Despite limited data, NKDB began its survey on religious persecution in 2007. For this year’s survey, the group collected information from 1,234 people and 1,411 cases of religious persecution. The latest report found that the number of respondents who testified on the ban of religious activities remained the same between 2007 and 2020.
When asked about the level of punishment for religious activities in the country, 46.7% of the respondents answered they have to go to prison camps. About 38.6% of respondents said that they did not know about punishments since they knew nothing about religion.
According to the Center, religious persecution has increased after leader Kim Jong Un issued an order in April 2014 to “arrest people who had contacts with Christianity.” Since then, security forces have actively searched for religious adherents — even in inner China. Employees of the National Security Department, Reconnaissance General Bureau, and the Embassy in China are mobilized to arrest people who have contacted Christianity, the report says.
The report also shared testimonies of several North Korean defectors. One defector who lives in South Korea recounted the story of an unidentified acquaintance who was killed for her Christian faith.
“When we were living [in North Korea], we did not know she was practicing religion. However, when I came back home, I heard she was killed,” the defector recounted.
“When I asked why she died, I was told she was arrested alone whereas the whole family left the town as they were practicing religion. I heard she was suffering and prayed until the point she died. She believed in Christianity. I heard she believed in God. She was investigated in the provincial political security department, and I heard they hit her until she shed excrement. I heard they dried her out to death as not giving her a drop of water. I heard she died after suffering like a dog.”
The NKDB report corroborates previous accounts of the religious freedom restrictions in North Korea, which is ranked as the worst persecutor of Christians in the world on Open Door USA’s World Watch List.
A recent report from the London-based Korea Future Initiative identified more than 200 Christians punished for crimes, including religious practice, religious activities in China, possessing religious items, contact with religious persons, attending a place of worship, and sharing religious beliefs. In several cases, prisoners found with a Bible or religious pamphlets were executed by a firing squad, while others were locked in electrified cages and fed watery soup. Others were executed for smuggling Bible pages into the country from China for North Koreans to make prayer books. In one instance, a victim found in possession of a Bible was publicly executed in front of over 1,000 people. The victim was tied to a wooden stake and executed by an MPS firing squad. One witness told KFI, “I saw the flesh fall off. That is how close I was.”
Another man, who had converted to Christianity, was allegedly forced into a metal cage that was just 3 feet high and 4 feet wide.
“There were steel bars on all four-sides that were heated with electricity,” he told KFI. “Usually prisoners lasted only three or four hours in the cage, but I sat there for 12 hours and prayed. I kept praying to God to save me.”
The man eventually soiled himself and passed out before being beaten by guards, leaving him with severe injuries.
Pastor Eric Foley of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, who is awaiting charges for launching Bible balloons into North Korea, said that despite the crackdown on religion, “God is finding ways to get Bibles into North Korea.”
“We’re amazed at the avenues He’s opening,” he said. “Please pray that continues. Pray that God is glorified.”
Pastor Eric Foley of Voice of the Martyrs Korea has asked the international community of believers to pray as he awaits charges for launching Bible balloons into North Korea. Last week, South Korean police recommended that prosecutors charge Foley, who has launched balloons carrying Bibles into North Korea for the last 15 years, on three counts, Mission Network News reports.
“One [count] is related to the violation of an inter-Korean exchange law. [This] is a law that regulates commerce between North and South Korea; anything you might be trying to sell from South Korea to North Korea would need to be pre-approved by the government,” Foley explained.
The second charge relates to national security. “These are laws designed for natural disaster management,” Foley said, “but now they’re being related to balloon launching with a charge that our activity created a national threat to Korea.”
Finally, “the third charge that will come out is one related to the use of high-pressure gas,” Foley added.
In June, South Korean police began cracking down on balloon launches following threats from North Korea. The announcement came after Kim Yo Jong — sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — said balloon senders were “human scum” and threatened to scrap a no-hostility military pact and shut down the North-South liaison office, among other threats.
Since then, Foley, who has been sending the Gospel to North Korea as part of a promise he made to underground North Korean Christians in 2003, has faced increasing harassment for his work. World Magazine reports that in addition to investigating Foley for his work, they have blocked the pastor’s car from reaching the launch site and placed the Voice of the Martyrs Korea leaders’ homes and office under surveillance.
This summer, the Ministry of Unification began investigating 89 groups that address North Korean human rights issues or provide aid to defectors. Three groups, VOM Korea included, have received most of the authorities’ attention.
In July, the Ministry of Unification revoked the nongovernmental organization’s status of the other two groups — Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuen Saem — claiming they are “seriously hindering the unification policy of the government.”
“We are the only ones that do Bibles,” Foley told MNN. “The other two launchers do flyers that are primarily focused on news events, and too often can be a political commentary on the situation in North Korea because North Korean defectors run both those organizations.”
While two of the groups mentioned above face additional charges related to embezzlement and mismanagement of donations, “we’re not charged with anything related to donations or fraud,” Foley said.
“We’re making a testimony that Christian organizations are different than political organizations. We act differently. We show respect for authority; we follow a higher standard in our current accounting practices.”
Foley explained that police recommending the charges “guarantees” that he will be charged, adding: “it’s just a question of when. Could be tomorrow, could be next week, could be next month; we don’t know.”
“Our case asks, ‘[Should] launching Bible balloons, which has been legal up until this point in time, be considered illegal not just going forward, but related to past launches?” Foley said.
“For 15 years, we’ve had a good relationship with the authorities. We’ve had police, military, even the intelligence services present at all of our launches. This year in a couple of launches, I asked the police, ‘is this illegal?’ And the police responded, ‘well, no, you just can’t do it here in this location,’” he continued.
VOM Korea has so far sent 600,000 Bibles into North Korea by balloon and other methods. World Magazine notes that the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights found that in 2000, nearly 0% of North Koreans said they’d seen a Bible. However, just 16 years later, the number had risen to 8%.
As he awaits charges, Foley has asked Christians to pray that despite the crackdown, the Gospel will continue to reach those in the hermit kingdom, which is ranked as the worst persecutor of Christians in the world on Open Doors USA’s World Watch List.
“The prayer that God will bring glory to His name is already being met; people see that there’s something different about Christians,” he said. “The other prayer is that God would use each of the Bibles that we have for His purpose.’
“God is finding ways to get Bibles into North Korea. We’re amazed at the avenues He’s opening. Please pray that continues. Pray that God is glorified.”