North Korea’s cryptic response to the Pope’s visit to Seoul is emblematic of the nation’s complicated relationship with religion in general. Its constitution formally grants citizens religious freedom, but in reality, religious practice is punishable by public execution or banishment to the nation’s kwan-li-so prison camps.
The few churches in Pyongyang are maintained by the state in order to give the appearance of religious practice; congregants are actors bussed in to services for the benefit of tourists.
It hasn’t always been this way. North Korea actually has a long history with Christianity. Catholic missionaries first arrived on the Korean Peninsula in 1784. There, prominent Korean Studies historian Andrei Lankov reports, the Church took root with such success that by the 1920s, Pyongyang was known among missionaries as “the Jerusalem of the East.” Kim Il-sung himself grew up in a Christian household, and was reportedly a church organist as a teenager.
In her book Escape from North Korea, journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick writes of North Korea’s underground church. Figures reporting on the size of such organizations are inherently subject to inaccuracy, but her estimate puts their number at 200,000 to 400,000 adherents, somewhere around 1% of North Korea’s population.
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.
Second, Christians are key actors in what Kirkpatrick calls Asia’s underground railroad – a network of safe houses that help North Korean defectors escape to China and beyond. Defectors’ testimonies bring to light the heinous human rights abuses of the Kim regime, which will eventually oblige the international community to respond. The defectors also reach out to their family and friends in North Korea with reports of the outside world, exposing what the state propaganda calls “paradise on earth” for the hellish prison it really is.