North Korea has intensified its hounding of Christians, hunting for underground churches, executing believers and incarcerating their families in labour camps, aid groups have reported.
As Kim Jong-un seeks to tighten his grip on power through ideological indoctrination, Open Doors, a global mission organisation that supports persecuted Christians, said it had documented a “rise in reported incidents of violence” last year.
“In one horrifying incident that Open Doors heard about from reliable sources, several dozen North Korean believers from different underground churches were discovered and executed.
More than 100 members of their families were said to have been rounded up and sent to labour camps,” it said in its latest “World Watch List,” which tracks crackdowns on religious freedom.
Thomas Müller, the group’s Asia researcher, told the Telegraph there were nine known incidents where Christians had been sent to labour camps or executed between October 1 2021 and September 30 2022.
The information came from trusted North Korean sources, but exact numbers were difficult to ascertain as entire families were often carted away in the middle of the night, he said. The reports are impossible to independently verify due to North Korea’s information blackout.
There are estimated to be between 200,000 and 400,000 clandestine Christians in the country, mainly in the west where many are believed to have settled after an “explosion” of the religion in 1907.
The parents of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, are said to have been devout Christians, though their son developed his own cult of personality.
Mr Müller said Christians were now being caught in a wider push to flood the country with Kim family ideology, which has been reinforced by an “anti-reactionary thought law”, introduced in 2020 to punish behaviour such as possessing Bibles.
In recent weeks, Kim has promoted his own dynastic legacy by elevating his daughter Ju-ae’s status at high-profile state events, while ensuring other parents teach their children devotion to his rule.
On Friday, Radio Free Asia reported that parents have been threatened with prison for first-time offences of their children watching foreign media, dancing suggestively or talking like a South Korean.
“There are sessions where you need to learn the ideology and they are really fiercely active against everything that even smells like South Korean or Western culture. Christianity is a dangerous part of this,” said Mr Müller.
The regime feared Christians after studying the influence of the church in the collapse of the Iron Curtain in Europe in the 1980s, he said.
The North Korean regime has tried to stamp out Christianity for decades, with defectors revealing horrific details of Christians being brutally tortured, killed and incarcerated in gulags.
Timothy Cho – now a Christian convert –fled North Korea in his teens and has experienced the regime’s cruelty first-hand.
Abandoned by his parents, who defected when he was just nine, he realised he was destined for a harsh future because of his father’s “betrayal” of the state and escaped to China.
He was deported back to a North Korean jail that was so crowded inmates had to sleep sitting up. One morning, he discovered a man had died while leaning on his back. “I saw the blood was streaming through his shirt,” he said.
At that time, Mr Cho was disillusioned with the state but still believed anti-Christian propaganda that taught children the Bible was cursed. “I was brainwashed. They have so many anti-religious materials, texts, books, games,” he said.
He found faith in a dark moment in a Chinese jail when he feared he would be deported again and executed.
A South Korean gangster asked why he was so upset. “He was quite scary, with tattoos and big muscles, and he was showing me the Bible again. He said maybe you can read this book and it will give you comfort,” Mr Cho said.
“My first prayer was very simple – I don’t want to be killed, Amen. It was a real hope of survival.”
He was sent to the Philippines instead of North Korea and eventually found refuge in the UK.
‘I speak for those who cannot’
He now lives in Manchester, where he hopes to run in local elections for the Conservative Party in May. He also works for Open Doors and campaigns for more international action, including tougher sanctions, to ease the plight of North Korea’s religious minorities.
“Christianity is always the number one group to be eliminated … I speak for those who cannot speak, those persecuted in North Korea,” he said. “People who escape from those circumstances must tell their story.”
He is not the only one.
In a tiny art studio in an alleyway in central Seoul, Tim Peters, an activist with Helping Hands Korea, has found quiet, creative ways to support the Christian community across the border.
Every Tuesday, he and some volunteers prepare small packs of basic medicines and seeds including radishes, spinach and cabbage, to be smuggled into the country.
Like Open Doors, Mr Peters has reliable cross-border networks built up over decades.
Increased surveillance hampered church growth as Christian parents hid their faith to protect their children from prying teachers, he said. The scrutiny signalled a “paranoia-like fear that the Christians will multiply and have influence.”