It is not widely known, but a significant part of the first generation of Korean communist leaders – people born between 1900 and 1920 – came from devote Christian families.
Kim Il Sung himself (grandfather of present leader Kim Jong Un) was no exception: Both his parents came from families of early converts to Christianity.
Until the Korean War, Pyongyang was a major stronghold of Korean Christianity. In the colonial days, it was not known as the “Jerusalem of the East” for nothing: in the 1930s Christians constituted some 30 percent of the population of the city (at the same time, only 1 percent of all Koreans were Christians).
However, communist ideologues were very hostile to religion, which they saw as the “opium of the masses.” In the Soviet Union under Stalin, the church was not officially outlawed, but it was subjected to systematic harassment. In the late 1940s the North Korean government co-opted the small number of church ministers willing to collaborate – these people were called “progressive churchmen.” Kang Ryang Uk, a Protestant missionary and distant relative of Kim Il Sung, was the most prominent of these collaborators. The vast majority of believers, however, were subjected to discrimination. The result was a massive exodus of Christians to South Korea.
From around 1956-57, North Korean authorities began to close down all the few surviving churches and religious associations in the country. From then on, the North Korean media claimed that North Korea was the only country free of “religious superstition.”
Christianity became the object of near constant and virulent attacks in the North Korean media. While all communist states sponsored anti-religious activities and propaganda, in few countries of the Communist Bloc was this propaganda as vicious as in North Korea.
In propaganda publications churchmen were not merely reactionary, but national traitors. As every reader of North Korean magazines and books knew well, churches were all controlled by foreign missionaries, who were mercenary spies of the foreign imperialists, or sometimes sadistic killers who fantasized about butchering the Korean nation. One recurrent topic of North Korean propaganda was missionary involvement in “organ snatching.” Missionary doctors were alleged to steal kidneys, eyes and bone marrow (among other things) from those innocent Koreans who were stupid enough to come to a missionary hospital. Alternatively, naive Korean patients were subject to diabolical experiments, conducted by the same missionary doctors.
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