North Korea orders deaths of 33 for contact with missionary

Thirty-three North Koreans have been sentenced to death for their alleged connection with a South Korean missionary, according to a March 5 report from Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea’s largest news sources.

On Feb. 27, five of the 33 confessed in a press conference in North Korea, saying they had received money to start 500 underground churches from a Baptist missionary, Kim Jung-wook, and a group of people connected with him. They also reported that they were told by Kim Jung-wook to build a church at the location in Pyongyang where a statue of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, currently stands.

The North Korean State Security Department is holding the 33 North Koreans in a secret cell until execution. Though they were all arrested for their partnership with Kim Jung-wook, it has not been confirmed that all 33 are Christians.

In a Feb. 27 press conference, Kim Jung-wook said he was arrested and jailed in October for entering North Korea from China with Bibles and other Christian materials. He said he was trying to set up underground churches in North Korea.

“I was thinking of turning North Korea into a religious country, and destroying its present government and political system,” Kim Jung-wook said.

However, the Chosun Ilbo suspects that the entire situation was created on purpose by Kim Jong-un’s regime in North Korea as part of a campaign against underground churches. They base the suspicion on reports from China saying that Kim Jung-wook did not go to North Korea by his own will but was kidnapped by North Korean agents. Kim Jung-wook may have been forced to make this public confession by the Pyongyang regime.

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Eric Foley, CEO and founder of the U.S.-based mission outreach Seoul USA, said that even though North Korea claims religious freedom, they often will find other accusations to make against Christians in order to arrest them.

“It should not be possible to claim both — that there is freedom of religion in North Korea and that these men did something deceitful,” Foley said. “What they did is something very basic and that’s the sharing of their faith.”

Open Doors USA, an organization serving persecuted Christians worldwide, lists North Korea as the most dangerous country for Christians. Based on accounts from a few Christians who have escaped North Korean prisons, anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 Christians are currently being tortured for their faith in North Korea.

Despite the persecution, Christianity appears to be growing in North Korea. Open Doors USA estimates anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 believers live in North Korea.

“There are hundreds of underground churches across North Korea. North Koreans who have lost hope in their future are attracted to religion and superstitious practices,” said a member of a South Korean missionary group, as quoted in the Chosun Ilbo report.

Recently, two Christians, in addition to Kim Jung-wook, have been held in North Korea against their will.

One is John Short, a missionary from Australia, who was released after being arrested on Feb. 16 for leaving Christian materials in a Buddhist temple. He made it safely to Beijing from North Korea only one day before the 33 North Koreans were sentenced to death. Short was released only after apologizing to the country.

“…For what I have done by spreading my Bible tracts on Feb. 16, the birthday of his Excellency Kim Jong-il,” Short said. “I realize that the mass media of the U.S. and the western countries who say that the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] is the closed country and has no religious freedoms is inaccurate and wrong.”

The second recent prisoner is Kenneth Bae, an American missionary who has been held in North Korea since November 2012. North Korea has sentenced Bae to 15 years in prison or hard labor.

Foley explained that the recent imprisonment of Christians is part of a history of persecution of Christians in North Korea.

“This is not a new war on Christians,” he said. “This is simply the West being able to see what North Korean underground Christians have always known, which is that the Christian faith is not welcome in any form in North Korea.”

“They have demonstrated once again that there is no back door for the gospel into North Korea,” he continued. “The only way the gospel can advance is at great personal cost. So let’s pray that God finds them faithful at this point in their imprisonment.”