April 14, 2020
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continues to ramp up efforts to contain the coronavirus even as the regime claims the country has zero cases—a telltale sign that the virus has not left the world’s most secretive country untouched. Unfortunately, coronavirus in the so-called “hermit kingdom” may have particularly dangerous ramifications for the country’s Christians.
While many North Koreans are sure to suffer if coronavirus ravages the country, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback recently emphasized the unique threat posed to Christians. Brownback cited “individual reporting, the eyewitnesses of people that have gotten out and escaped North Korea” who testify to “the horrific conditions in those areas.”
Brownback called on the North Korean regime to release its prisoners of conscience—many of whom are Christians—in light of the risk that coronavirus poses to religious and other political prisoners held in filthy and densely populated prison camps.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also urged governments around the world to release prisoners wrongly detained for exercising their freedom of religion.
Christianity is illegal in North Korea, and even the smallest expression of faith will land believers in a brutal prison or forced labor camp. The worst of these camps are reserved for political prisoners, including Christians.
Open Doors estimates that at least 50,000 Christians are trapped in North Korea’s network of prison camps, and approximately 75 percent die in detention. Survivors detail horrific accounts of torture and brutality in the camps.
Last year, Family Research Council hosted an event that featured Ji Hyeon-a, a North Korean Christian who was beaten for her faith. When she was taken to a prison camp as punishment for attempting to escape North Korea, authorities forcibly aborted her preborn child in the cruelest way imaginable.
The living conditions of North Korean prisoners of conscience are deplorable. Detainees are reportedly locked in cages, routinely tortured, forced to perform hard labor, and endure starvation and unhygienic living situations. Should a highly contagious disease like the coronavirus make its way into the camps, the effects would be disastrous. Brownback is right to call for the release of North Korean political prisoners in light of COVID-19—as all Western countries should be calling for their release always.
Is Kim Jong-un, the stubborn and insecure dictator of the world’s most secretive country, likely to take the advice of a U.S. official to release prisoners of conscience? Almost certainly not.
However, North Korea is under heightened pressure, the likes of which it has never experienced before.
Like other parts of the world, the coronavirus will affect much more than North Korea’s shoddy health care system. The economic toll on this already cash-strapped country is likely to worsen. North Korean authorities closed its border with China, its main trading partner, putting a halt to legal and illegal trade. This alone has the potential to put pressure on the North Korean regime in ways Western sanctions failed to do.
The coronavirus crisis is putting an unexpected strain on countries around the world, and that has the potential to shift long-term regional dynamics and political structures—for good and ill.
As American Christians pray for our country and an end to the coronavirus, we can also be remembering persecuted believers in North Korea—that God would strengthen the faith of the persecuted, bring an end to the prison camps and tyrannical government of North Korea, and protect the hermit kingdom’s most vulnerable people.