Of course, we know almost nothing about religion in North Korea. Even a decade or so ago it was possible to believe the official line: that there was an 'opening' in the late 1980s, with two churches built in Pyongyang, hundreds of house churches, and representatives sent to the WCC. But the accounts given by the increasing numbers of refugees to make it out contradict that line too consistently and too profoundly to be ignored. Their testimony is that these are sham organisations created as magnets for foreign aid; and that public profession of Christianity (seen as an imperialist front), possession of a Bible, or any known contact with missionaries is lethally dangerous.
From the testimonies I've read, two elements stood out. First, Kim Yong's detailed account in Long Road Home: Testimonies of a North Korean Camp Survivor (Columbia University Press, 2009). This account left me with the sheer lawlessness of the North Korean gulag, which makes its Stalinist cousin look like a model of due process. There are no crimes, charges, trials or sentences, merely arrests. Kim was suddenly imprisoned midway through a successful career in the regime's bureaucracy because it was discovered that his birth family (he had been adopted at a young age) had been deemed to be traitors during the 1950-3 war. He spent much of the 1990s in Camp No. 14, mining coal for twelve or more hours per day, and only very occasionally saw daylight. Sixty workers shared a bare concrete room with insufficient space for them all to lie down at once. After a day’s mining came an hour’s ‘political struggle’, that is, written self-accusation and criticism of other prisoners’ conduct. ‘There was really nothing to confess, but we all had to come up with something in order to avoid severe punishment.’
Meanwhile all of them were slowly starving to death: their food rations were simply insufficient. It is unclear whether this camp and those like it were deliberately designed as death-by-labour institutions, or whether that is merely their effect. One sign of the extremity is that the camp was almost free of rats. Once, Kim was lucky enough to catch one, in the mine. He killed and ate it ‘head to tail, raw, without skinning it. The meat tasted like honey.’ He was eventually, and very unusually, transferred to a less severe camp: he is, in fact, the only prisoner ever known to have left Camp No. 14 alive. The more lenient regime of his new camp was marked by the prisoners' being given permission to gather grass to supplement their diet: and its lower security eventually allowed him to escape, in the bottom of a coal truck.
Second, the research in a report produced by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2008. As well as interviewing 'ordinary' refugees, they interviewed former members of the Northern security services who had escaped. Their stories largely confirm the extent to which religion in general, and Protestantism in particular, is seen by the Northern regime as an existential threat, and suppressed ferociously. This includes the deliberate creation of fake underground churches in order to trap would-be converts, and of course to foment distrust amongst believers. This much is perhaps predictable, and fits into the agenda which one might imagine USCIRF would be keen to hear (not that I doubt it). But there are some glimpses of something more complicated. One former security official described a remarkable visit to a high-ranking official’s house, at which the two of them and a third official ‘worshipped together in his house with the curtains drawn’. They read the Bible aloud and prayed for Kim Jong Il. The newcomer asked how they reconciled their faith with their official position:
They said that it was a heartbreaking job to catch Christians while they, too, were Christians, but they had to stay in their positions because their situation could turn even worse if an evil-minded person was in that position to ferret out believers. So they keep their positions and sometimes advise people to run away.
Not heroic: but there is a certain kind of plausible courage there. These are the sorts of perilous compromises which are made under those circumstances. In practical terms, there is virtually nothing outsiders can do about these horrors. But it would seem appropriate - and indeed, deeply subversive - to pray.