The Bible in the Bird’s Nest

Owning the Good Book in North Korea can have fatal consequences.

Wall Street Journal
November 14, 2013

by Melanie Kirkpatrick

The Bible is “the most dangerous book on Earth,” George Bernard Shaw famously warned a century ago. Today, Shaw’s words ring true—literally—for the 24 million people of North Korea. Possession of a Bible is a one-way ticket to the gulag or worse.

The worst came true this month for a handful of North Koreans who were caught with Bibles, which are outlawed by the communist regime. The Christians were among a group of 80 North Koreans who were executed by firing squad on Sunday, Nov. 3, according to a report in the South Korean daily, JoongAng Ilbo.

Those put to death also included North Koreans accused of watching South Korean DVDs that had been smuggled into the North, or of distributing pornography. The ruling Kim family regime controls every aspect of citizens’ lives, including what information reaches them from the world outside North Korea’s borders. Bibles, foreign DVDs, the Internet, cellphones that can make international calls—all are banned.

The executions were public and took place in seven cities across the country, according to the JoongAng Ilbo. In the port city of Wonsan, “eight people were tied to a stake at a local stadium, had their heads covered with white sacks and were shot with a machine gun.” Ten thousand spectators, including children, were forced to witness the executions.

The families of the victims were dispatched to political prison camps, the paper also reported—a move in keeping with the regime’s long-standing policy of punishing three generations of a family for one member’s transgression. Most inmates do not survive long in North Korea’s prison camps.

Persecuting Christians is a Kim family tradition. North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un, is the third generation of dictators to kill, torture and imprison Koreans of faith. Like his father, Kim Jong Il, and his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, he understands the threat that Christianity poses to his rule. With its message of individual freedom, Christianity offers a potent alternative to the Kim family cult of personality.

Kim Il Sung mostly eradicated Christianity from North Korea in the 1950s and 1960s through a brutal policy of murdering religious leaders, imprisoning believers who would not recant, and banishing others to remote regions. Yet now Christianity is on the rise. North Koreans are learning about the religion from countrymen who flee to China and receive help from Christians, or from Bibles smuggled into the country by foreign missionaries or dropped from balloons launched from the South.

The only worship permitted in North Korea is that of the Kim family dictators. Every North Korean wears a badge over his heart displaying a photograph of the smiling face of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder. Citizens are required to adhere to a national belief system called Juche. All citizens must attend meetings, listen to readings from the works of Kim Il Sung, sit through sermons on the meaning of Juche philosophy, and participate in self-criticism sessions. Even calendar dates are expressed in Juche years, with year 1 being 1912, the year of Kim Il Sung’s birth.

The regime considers any religion a competitor to the Kims’ pre-eminence. North Koreans who have fled the country tell gruesome stories of the regime’s cruel treatment of Christians, Buddhists and other believers.

In South Korea, the Korean Institute for National Unification publishes an annual book-length report on human rights in the North based on interviews with North Koreans who have escaped. In this year’s edition, numerous refugees describe the regime’s persecution of Christians. One spoke of a family that hid their Bible in a magpie’s nest perched in a tree near their home. The family had been Christians since before the founding of the communist regime and had worshiped in secret for more than half a century. When a neighbor cut a branch off the tree and their Bible was discovered, three generations of the family disappeared. In the refugee’s words, the Christians were sent to “a place of no return.”

Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, gullible outside observers have fooled themselves into believing that the Swiss-educated, basketball-loving dictator is a kinder, gentler Kim. But this month’s mass executions leave little doubt that Kim Jong Un “is playing by his father’s playbook,” says Grigore Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. “Within the bizarre world of the Kim family regime, the executions of Christians and others make perfect sense,” Mr. Scarlatoiu says. Kim Jong Un’s “top strategic objective is regime preservation.”

Seen that way, the executions signal that the regime is worried about the public’s growing awareness of alternative worldviews and fearful of the potential for grass-roots opposition to its rule. Christianity especially is a threat to the regime’s survival. If more North Koreans decide to transfer their allegiance from the Kims to a different God, the regime’s days may be numbered.

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