North Korea severely restricts Christians. There are reports of people being executed for carrying Bibles and stories of imprisoned Christians being forced take off their clothes and having molten metal poured on them but they refuse to renounce their fate no matter how much they are tortured. For many years, North Korea topped the list of the worst countries in the world for Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's World Watch List.

Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: “There is no doubt that the government in Pyongyang is tough on outsiders who get into the country and distribute bibles. They are invariably jailed and in some cases sentenced to hard labour in a prison regime which is brutal. I personally know a missionary who was imprisoned in North Korea and who remains psychologically badly damaged by his punishment - which he will not describe because it was so traumatic for him. [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, August 3, 2015]

“In September 2016, the Christian activist group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, published a report which said: "Among other basic human rights denied to the people of North Korea, freedom of religion or belief is largely non-existent. Denial of this right has occurred since the 1950s, and the current leader, Kim Jong-un, continues to violate citizens' religious freedom." The Christian group said that the regime claims there are about 500 unofficial churches in North Korea where people worship privately at home. The group is sceptical. What is indisputable is that those who try to take Christianity into North Korea find themselves behind bars doing hard labour, sometimes after being threatened with execution.” [Source: Stephen Evans BBC News, December 26, 2016]

According to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, individuals face persecution for propagating religion, possessing religious items, carrying out religious activities (including praying and singing hymns), and having contact with religious persons. However, the North Korean regime reviles Christianity the most and considers it the biggest threat; it associates that faith with the West, particularly the United States. Through robust surveillance, the regime actively tries to identify and search out Christians practicing their faith in secret and imprisons those it apprehends, often along with their family members even if they are not similarly religious. According to the State Department, the North Korean regime currently detains an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 individuals in political prison camps known as kwanliso. Reports indicate tens of thousands of these prisoners are Christians facing hard labor or execution. [Source: United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, International Religious Freedom Report North Korea 2017]

Christians as a Potential Political Force in North Korea

Doug Wallack wrote in the Huffington Post: “Though their numbers are small, Christians in North Korea are important for at least two key reasons. First, they are faithful in quiet opposition to an ideology of state propaganda that amounts to a religion of dictator worship. The modest ideological diversity they represent is anathema to authoritarianism and may constitute the seeds of a freer future North Korea. [Source: Doug Wallack, Huffington Post, October 22, 2014]

Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: “Astute outside observers think it is possible to be a Christian in North Korea but attempts to convert and turn Christianity into a movement are hammered. Isaac Stone Fish, the Asia editor of the respected Foreign Policy journal, told the BBC that Kim Jong-un's regime didn't so much have a problem with Christianity in itself - but they do have a problem with a movement which would be a threat to themselves... The regime seems to fear that Christianity could spread as it has in South Korea and become an alternative power source, certainly an alternative ideology. [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, August 3, 2015]

“James Pearson, who covers Korea for Reuters and is the author of North Korea Confidential, said the state formally "espouses freedom of religion, but effectively bans it". The services in the few churches in Pyongyang may or may not be fake stages to give a false impression of tolerance (as some of the outside militant Christian groups assert). It is also impossible to know how many Christians there are underground, hiding their faith from all but their trusted friends and family. It is certainly true that anybody who wants to prosper in authoritarian North Korea will not get very far if they espouse Christianity strongly. But there are Christians, some out in the open, affiliated to the state-approved Korean Christian Federation and some unseen and uncounted.”

Victims of the Persecution of Christians in North Korea

Christian Caryl wrote in Newsweek: “Few people can say they have it good in North Korea, but at one point Son Jong Nam could. He was the son of a high-ranking officer in the all-powerful military. As a child he never had to worry about going hungry. As an adult he became part of Kim Jong Il's personal security detail—paid well, and trusted implicitly.
All of which makes him a potent symbol now. In 1997, Son's pregnant wife was hauled in for questioning after dropping a critical remark about Kim's handling of the famine. An interrogator kicked her in the stomach; she lost the baby. Distraught, Son fled to China with her and their young daughter—but the wife died soon after, according to Son's brother, who now lives in Seoul. Son turned to one of the missionaries operating clandestinely along the border, helping refugees escape. Like many others Son converted to Christianity. Unlike most, he returned to North Korea to spread the Gospel. Today he sits on death row in Pyongyang, accused of being a spy. See Below[Source: Christian Caryl, Newsweek, September 15, 2007]

In 2017 “several reports surfaced about the death of Korean-Chinese Pastor Han Chung-ryeol, who led Changbai Church, located in China’s Jilin Province near the border with North Korea. After Pastor Han’s body was found in April 2016, rights activists accused North Korean agents of murdering him for his work assisting North Korean defectors in China. North Korean officials denied any involvement in Pastor Han’s death and instead accused South Korea of slander. [Source: United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, International Religious Freedom Report North Korea 2017]

In 2012, Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American protestant missionary, was arrested in North Korea. He is rumored to have had a Bible with him, was detained for unspecified acts against North Korea and was sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp, where he still was in 2014. [Source: Doug Wallack, Huffington Post, October 22, 2014]

Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: Han was found murdered after having been beaten and attacked with an axe. Christian activist groups strongly suspect North Korean agents operating on the Chinese side of the border. "Han Choong Yeol was active in helping North Korean refugees by giving them food, medicine, clothing and other goods they needed for survival back in North Korea", said Open Doors, an organisation which helps persecuted Christians around the world. [Source: Stephen Evans BBC News, December 26, 2016]

“In December 2015, a Toronto pastor, Hyeon Soo Lim, was detained in North Korea for what the authorities said was an attempt to overthrow the government.” He was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor for alleged subversive activities and insulting North Korea’s leadership.. “Canadian officials went to North Korea in December 2016 to plead for his release. A Canadian diplomat said afterwards: "The government of Canada is very concerned about the health, well-being and continued detention of Mr. Lim". Lim had travelled to North Korea for humanitarian work. He “has made numerous trips to North Korea over nearly two decades to distribute food and clothes, his network expanding to become an important conduit for funds donated to the country. He also helped run a nursing home, a nursery and an orphanage. The North Korean state news agency KCNA reported” in July 2015 “that Mr Lim had admitted to using humanitarian work as a guise for "subversive plots and activities in a sinister bid to build a religious state". [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, August 3, 2015; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, International Religious Freedom Report North Korea 2017]

Repression and Public Executions of Christians in the 1990s and 2000s

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Forty defectors were interviewed for the U.S. government’s “religious freedom group's report” in 2005, “many of whom told of ghastly public executions of religious devotees in the mid-1990s.” One defector said the “the starkest lesson about the risk of practicing religion was the execution she and her friends witnessed in 1998. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2005]

“Choi had seen other public killings before — they were frequent in Musan in those years, according to many accounts — but this one stayed with her. The accused, a woman in her 20s, and her father, about 60, apparently had had their legs broken and had to be dragged out like dolls before they were tied to poles and shot. Choi said the pair had been found out when the daughter accidentally dropped a Bible with laundry she was washing by the river.

The soft-spoken Choi, who wore dangling earrings inscribed with the word "love," said the executions stopped in 2000 because of scrutiny from the international community. "There were United Nations people who came in with fancy boots, clothing and cameras," Choi said, recalling that it was the first time she had seen a Caucasian. "The children were fascinated and followed them as they went around asking questions. All we knew is there were no more executions after that."

In the mid 2000s, there was “ample evidence that religious persecution remains widespread, particularly against people repatriated from China. The very first question that they ask you is, 'Have you been to a church?' " Stephen said. He said most defectors are savvy enough not to admit it — or if they do, to say they went only for food. In that case, said Stephen, the returnees may spend time in detention or be roughed up, but in most cases they are eventually set free.

“Human rights advocates suspect, however, that public execution is making a comeback. In March, a videotape was smuggled out of the North showing the execution of three people in the border town of Hoeryong. They had been accused of human trafficking. There are unconfirmed reports of 12 executions Oct. 25 in Onsong, another town just inside the border. Kim Sang Hun, a human rights investigator in Seoul, said it was difficult to tell which cases stemmed from religious practice because North Korean officials often charge believers with other crimes such as trafficking, spying or anti-state activities.”

North Korea Publicly Executes 80: Some for Bibles

In November 2013, reported: “As many as 80 people were publicly executed in North Korea, some for offenses as minor as watching South Korean movies or possessing a Bible. South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported that the so-called criminals were put to death in seven cities across North Korea on Nov. 3, in the first known large-scale public executions by the Kim Jong-un regime. A source, who is familiar with internal affairs in the North and who recently visited the country, told the paper that about 10 people were killed in each city. [Source:, November 12, 2013]

“Eight people — their heads covered with white bags — were tied to stakes at a local stadium in the city of Wonsan, before authorities shot them with a machine gun, according to the source. Wonsan authorities gathered a crowd of 10,000 people, including children, at Shinpoong Stadium and forced them to watch the killings. “I heard from the residents that they watched in terror as the corpses were (so) riddled by machine-gun fire that they were hard to identify afterward,” the JoongAng Ilbo source said.

“Most of the Wonsan victims were charged with watching or illegally trafficking South Korean videos, involvement in prostitution, or possessing a Bible. Relatives or accomplices of the execution victims implicated in their alleged crimes were sent to prison camps. There is no clear reason for the executions. One government official noted they occurred in cities that are centers of economic development. Wonsan is a port city that Kim is reportedly planning to make a tourist destination by building an airport, hotels and a ski resort on Mount Masik.

Simultaneous executions in seven cities could suggest an extreme measure by the North Korean government to quell public unrest or any capitalistic inclinations that may accompany its development projects. The common theme of the persecution was crimes related to South Korea — like watching South Korean films — or corruption of public morals, especially sexual misconduct. North Korean law permits executions for conspiring to overthrow the government, treason and terrorism. But the country has also been known to order public executions for minor infractions such as religious activism, cellphone use and stealing food, in an effort to intimidate the public.

North Korean Christians 'Crushed Under Steamrollers'

In the mid 2010s militant Christians in South Korea said: North Korean Christians “are pulverised with steamrollers, used to test biological weapons, shipped off to death camps or shot in front of children". Those hostile to North Korean regime have occasionally embellished tales of horror and reported rumour as fact. It is impossible to verify assertionss like the one above. Some in North Korea have said Christians "aren't simply killed for their faith in Christ.” [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, August 3, 2015]

A 15-page report titled “Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea” released in September 2016 by the British-based human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) disclosed horrific details on how the North Korean regime allegedly tortures, mutilates and kills Christians. [Source: Samuel Smith, Christian Post, September 27, 2016]

Believers who are caught worshiping, running non-sanctioned churches or carrying non-sanctioned religious material such as ordinary Bibles are often arrested and taken to political prison camps. According to the CSW report: "Crimes against them in these camps include extra-judicial killing, extermination, enslavement/forced labor, forcible transfer of population, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, persecution, enforced disappearance, rape and sexual violence, and other inhumane acts."

"Documented incidents against Christians include being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges, and trampled underfoot. A policy of guilt by association applies, meaning that the relatives of Christians are also detained regardless of whether they share the Christian belief. Even North Koreans who have escaped to China, and who are or become Christians, are often repatriated and subsequently imprisoned in a political prison camp."

This is not the first time that it has been reported that the North Korean government has used steamrollers to crush Christians. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: In 1996 “a tattered Bible and a notebook containing a list of names were discovered wedged between two bricks in the basement of a house that was about to be demolished to make way for a road expansion. Five middle-aged men who were accused of running an illegal church were brought to an army compound. They were forced to lie on the ground and were crushed by a steamroller, said a 30-year-old North Korean defector, who added that he witnessed the incident while he was in the army. "At the time, I thought they got what they deserved," said the defector, who related his story to The Times. Now a theology student in South Korea, he asked to be identified only by his English first name, Stephen. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2005]

Suzanne Scholte, the chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition and vice co-chair of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, told The Christian Post that CSW's report is an "accurate representation of how Christians are especially persecuted. I have personally interviewed defectors who experienced torture and abuse simply because it had been rumored that they had become Christians.We also know that when refugees are repatriated from China to North Korea, if it is discovered that they have been exposed to Christians, this can lead to death."

Son Jong Nam: a North Korean Killed for Proselytizing

Hyung Jin Kim of Associated Press wrote: “Like most North Koreans, Son Jong Nam knew next to nothing about Christianity when he fled to neighboring China in 1998. Eleven years later, he died back in North Korea in prison, reportedly tortured to death for trying to spread the Gospel in his native land, armed with 20 bibles and 10 cassette tapes of hymns. He was 50. His story” has been pieced together by his younger brother, a defector who lives in South Korea. [Source: Hyung Jin Kim, Associated Press, July 10, 2010]

“Son Jong Nam was born on March 11, 1958. He served in the presidential security service for 10 years until his discharge as a master sergeant in 1983. In those years, he was ready to dedicate his life to fighting the "American imperialists," his brother says. Son worked at an army-run performing arts center after his discharge. The first twist in his life came in 1997. His wife, eight months pregnant at the time, was arrested for allegedly saying Kim Jong Il had ruined the economy and caused a mass famine. Interrogators seeking a confession kicked her in the stomach, forcing her to discharge blood and have a miscarriage, Son's brother says. Terrified and disillusioned, Son, then 39, fled in January 1998 with his wife and their 6-year-old daughter to the Chinese border town of Yanji. His younger brother had already arrived the previous year, fleeing what he says was a false charge of being involved in the illegal export of strategic items.

“Son's wife died of leukemia seven months later. That's when the next twist came. Son grew closer to a South Korean missionary, who had talked to him about Christianity and North Korea, while sheltering and feeding him and his family after their arrival in China. Their meeting was not unusual. The South Korean missionary who converted Son disguised himself as head of a timber mill. Son's brother never met the missionary; he says his brother wouldn't let him or even reveal his name, because of concerns about the missionary's safety. After becoming a Christian, Son began helping the missionary try to convert other North Koreans hiding in China. "My brother said he realized the Kim Jong Il regime is hypocritical, and living in accordance with what the Bible says is what we have to do," the younger Son says. "Christianity can come upon innocent people like my brother so fast."

In January 2001, Son was arrested by Chinese police for allegedly trying to convert North Korean defectors in China, which bans foreigners from proselytizing. He was deported home in April, where he was detained and tortured, leaving him with a limp, his brother said. He lost about 70 pounds (32 kilograms) in captivity. "He was beaten in the head with clubs and given electric shocks," his brother says, his eyes welling up with tears. Son was released in 2004 and sneaked across the border to Yanji to see his daughter, who had been left in the care of a Chinese missionary. He soon decided to return to North Korea to proselytize. "I repeatedly urged him to change his mind, but he told me he has something to do in North Korea," says his brother, who was living in Seoul by then but returned to China briefly to see his brother.

“Son headed back with the bibles and tapes. Little is known about how he evangelized, though his brother says Son worked at a state-run defense institute and was allowed to travel freely. Son was arrested again in January 2006 after police found bibles at his home in the northeastern city of Hoeryong. He was also charged with spying for the United States and South Korea and sentenced to public execution by firing squad. His brother launched an international campaign to save him. That apparently led his captors to switch to a less public method: torture. "There are many ways to kill people in North Korea," says his brother. He died in a prison in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in December 2008. "He told me his dream is to build a church at a good Pyongyang location and work as a pastor there," his brother says. "I thought the religious faith completely changed his fate." His death went unannounced, at least outside North Korea. It was not until nearly a year later - when a fellow inmate who had been released managed to call in November 2009 - that the younger Son learned his brother had died.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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