North Korean authorities have arrested five Christians on charges of promoting an underground prayer service. A charge that in a nation where religions are banned, an ironclad communist dictatorship is in force and only the worship of the Kim family has been allowed for decades in power (and worshipped as deities), involves sending them to labour camps. The incident dates back to 30 April in the village of Tongam, on the outskirts of Sunchin, in Pyongan Province, in the centre of the country, but has only come to light in recent hours.
According to Radio Free Asia (Rfa) reports, the five members of a single family met on Sunday morning – as they used to do every weekend – in a farmhouse to pray and go over some Bible passages. However, waiting for them were some police officers who arrested them on the recommendation of an informant.
‘At the place where the worship service was being held,’ an anonymous source recounts, ‘the police seized dozens of Bible pamphlets and arrested everyone present. The five ‘were praying and reading the Bible among themselves’, the source continued, they had ‘gathered among relatives’ and were invoking Jesus, then ‘they were arrested’. In similar incidents in the past, those arrested were sent to re-education camps through labour, in reality harsh lagers.
Similar raids had already taken place in the past in the village of Tongam, notably in 2005 and before that in 1997 during the dictatorship of Kim Jong-il, father of the current leader Kim Jong-un and successor to the death of the founder, the ‘eternal president’ Kim Il-sung. The area, moreover, has always had deep ties with Christianity and was once the site of a large church building that also survived the Japanese invasion in the early years of the last century, with the introduction of Shintoism as the state religion.
North Korea is notorious for executing, torturing and physically abusing people for their faith or religious activities and is one of 17 countries involved in “systematic, continuous and gross” violations of religious practice according to the US Religious Freedom Commission’s 2023 report. Bibles or other religious materials are smuggled across the Chinese border and distributed to underground churches through a secret network. “The people detained, despite pressure, have refused to renounce their faith,” the source concludes.
Also from North Korea comes news of widespread use of the word ‘Judas’ to identify informers and traitors. In a nation that is on paper atheist and against religions, the reference to the disciple who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, handing him over to the high priests, arouses curiosity. Proof of this is the story of a girl who, in the darkest stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, had confided in a friend that she wanted to flee to China when the borders reopened. The young man betrayed her by telling the authorities about the plan, who stopped and punished the girl. Subsequently, neighbours and residents in the area took to calling the traitor the ‘modern-day Judas’.
A man from Pyongsong, Pyongan province, north of the capital, explains: “People who lack loyalty or stab their friends in the back are labelled ‘Judas’ and despised by others. Even those who report “movements or activities,” he concludes, “even swearing, are branded as ‘Judas’ by their comrades”.