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The incident, which occurred in 2009 but surfaced in a recent report on worldwide religious freedom from the State Department, is one of several harrowing punitive measures levied against Christians and other minority groups in North Korea. The communist hereditary dictatorship sent the two-year-old child and the rest of the family to political prison camps, where inmates routinely experience harsh physical mistreatment and dire conditions.
There are estimated to be between 50,000 and 70,000 citizens in prison camps for their Christian faith, according to a report from nonprofit ministry Open Doors referenced by the State Department. North Korean officials prompt all citizens to “report anyone engaged in unauthorized religious activity or in possession of religious material,” while those deemed to be guilty of maintaining Christian beliefs undergo secret prosecutions and can face life sentences “imposed on up to three generations of the immediate family of the person found guilty.”
Korea Future, another nonprofit organization, has shared credible reports of Christians who received the death penalty for their faith: one woman and her grandchild were allegedly executed via firing squad in 2011, while a group of six were executed four years later.
North Korea, while famous across the world for the dire poverty and the restrictions on religious freedom which followed the founding of the Kim regime, was once a bulwark of the Christian faith in Asia. Pyongyang, the nation’s capital city, was once called the “Jerusalem of the East” and was home to a number of Christian schools, as well as a Presbyterian seminary.
“Pyongyang once stood as a symbol of faith, evangelical fervor, and theological fidelity,” Joel Kim, the president of Westminster Seminary California, wrote in an article five years ago. “Perhaps naïve, but I join many around the world in praying for Pyongyang that it will once again become the shining light on a hill where Christ is known and proclaimed.”
Pyongyang has five state-sanctioned churches, three of which are Protestant, one of which is Roman Catholic, and one of which is Russian Orthodox. “One defector said that when he lived in Pyongyang, authorities arrested individuals whom they believed lingered too long outside these churches to listen to the music or consistently drove past them each week when services were being held, on suspicion of being secret Christians,” the report from the State Department noted. “This defector also said authorities quickly realized one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and permitting persons to attend church was that many attendees converted to Christianity, and therefore authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome.”
North Korea is still estimated to have between 100,000 and 400,000 adherents to the Christian faith, even as spiritual practices like consulting fortune-tellers or participating in shamanistic rituals are “reportedly widespread but difficult to quantify.” Practitioners of the superstitions also face crackdowns from North Korean authorities but are subjected to a separate legal process.