N. Korea enters 'dangerous time of transition'
WASHINGTON (BP) -- "This is a dangerous time of transition" in North Korea, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said after the death of dictator Kim Jong Il.
But, USCIRF's Leonard Leo said, "if one refugee is protected, one prisoner freed, one church or temple opened -- it is a happy day."
"The global community must be vigilant because the North Korean people remain at serious risk," Leo said. "Pyongyang [North Korea's capital] is not predictable just because Kim Jong Il is dead."
Kim, 69, died Dec. 17 after being in ill health in the last years of his 17-year rule, which was marked by a reign of terror against the North Korean people, especially Christians.
Kim Jong Eun, who is reportedly in his late 20s, will succeed his father, who has been grooming the youngest of his three sons to take over for little more than a year, according to reports. Observers say there may be a power struggle to see who actually controls the government.
For now, the younger Kim assumes power over a communist country considered the most closed in the world. What is known about North Korea has produced the assessment that it is likely the world's most repressive regime -- and the most vicious in its persecution of Christians.
The main contact in North Korea for Open Doors, which serves the persecuted church around the world, said it is "very unlikely that there will be any policy changes" in the wake of the dictator's death.
The Open Doors contact, named Simon, said North Korean Christians fear what the younger Kim is "capable of doing. He will do anything to keep hold of power."
"In fact, since [Kim Jong Eun] came closer to the helm, North Korea has stepped up its attempts to uncover any religious activities," Simon said in a Dec. 19 written release. "There have been more house raids, more spies trained to infiltrate religious and human rights networks and one South Korean Christian who was murdered in China because he helped refugees."
Carl Moeller, Open Doors' president, underscored the importance of prayer amid the uncertainty in North Korea.
"We simply do not know the future of North Korea, but God does," Moeller said.
"This is why it is vital that Christians around the world pray for North Korea during this transitional time," he said in a written release. "Pray especially for the brave Christians inside North Korea. They are fearful that they might face even more suffering. ... The people of North Korea are living a nightmare that never ends."
North Korea is not only communist, but it is dominated by a personality cult surrounding the Kim family. The late Kim Il Sung and his now-deceased son, Kim Jong Il, ruled over the country for a combined 63 years, and North Koreans are expected to worship them.
The Kim family, the military and an elite class have prospered while most North Koreans have suffered through a severe famine since the mid-1990s. It is estimated 2 million or more North Koreans have starved to death while the regime developed a rogue nuclear program and built up its military.
Open Doors has ranked North Korea No. 1 on its annual list of the world's worst persecutors of Christians for nine consecutive years. It is expected to place the Asian country at the top again when the next list is released in January. The State Department, meanwhile, ranks North Korea as one of only eight "countries of particular concern," a designation reserved for the world's most severe violators of religious freedom.
Of the reported 200,000 North Koreans in prison camps, Open Doors estimates 50,000 to 70,000 are Christians. Both Open Doors and the U.S. State Department report religious adherents are generally treated worse than other prisoners. Extreme forms of torture and execution, as well as forced abortion and infanticide, have been reported in the camps, according to USCIRF.
Yet, the church is growing in North Korea, with about 400,000 followers of Jesus among its 20 million people, according to Open Doors.
During 2011, Open Doors reported it trained more than 4,000 Christians in North Korea; distributed more than 30,000 Bibles, books and other materials in the country, and provided humanitarian assistance to 56,000 North Korean Christians.
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode.