This week the State Department hosted its second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
As part of the session, 27 victims of religious persecution met Wednesday with President Trump at the White House.
The ministerial convenes foreign diplomats, experts and civil society leaders to address the most pressing issues affecting religious freedom around the world. Certainly among these most urgent concerns is the lack of religious freedom in North Korea.
Over the past two years, the world has watched as America has attempted to reach a nuclear deal with North Korea, sometimes going to unprecedented lengths. Last year’s Singapore summit marked the first meeting between the leaders of North Korea and the U.S. On June 30, President Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot onto North Korean soil.
While a deal has yet to be made, many are hoping this visit means the possibility of a nuclear agreement might not be dead after all.
But even as we hope negotiations continue successfully, we need to keep this in mind: deal or no deal, we must work toward ensuring religious liberty for the people of North Korea.
North Korea is the top persecutor of Christians in the world, according to many assessments. The country has occupied the top spot for 18 consecutive years.
I have traveled to North Korea and written before about the regime’s treatment of Christians. Tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of Christians are believed to be held in political prison camps. The regime subjects them to forced labor, torture and sexual abuse. Simply owning a Bible can land a Christian in one of these camps.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his father before him, Kim Jong Il, have mercilessly attacked Christianity, treating it as a cancerous threat to North Korean national identity. But their animosity toward Christianity is woefully misguided.
Despite receiving constant opposition since its arrival in the peninsula, Christianity has played a key role in modern Korean national life. Nowhere is this more evident than in Korea’s struggle for independence from Japan.
Recounting the involvement of Christians in Korea’s independence, a former U.S. diplomat writes: “The first generation of Korean Christians became the main leaders of the independence movement, and they established a connection between Korean national identity and Christianity that has continued into the 21st century.”
Such was the influence of Christianity that in the early 20th century Pyongyang was called the “Jerusalem of the East.” Even the Kim family was touched by it — Kim Jong Il’s father was a Christian and his father-in-law a Presbyterian minister.
While the Kim regime might see religious freedom as a threat to North Korea, the Korean Peninsula’s history says otherwise. In fact, historians have found that after the Korean War that split the peninsula in two, South Korea’s economy grew at a staggering pace at the same time its Christian population grew.
Seeing the plight of Christians in North Korea, our organization, World Help, launched a campaign to provide Bibles for them. Why Bibles instead of food, clothes or other humanitarian aid? Bibles are the top request from Christians in this closed-off country. Whenever we speak with defectors, they make sure we understand that Christians in North Korea want more than anything our prayers and access to Scripture.
Over the past two years, through help from generous donors, our organization has raised the funds to provide tens of thousands of Bibles for Christians in North Korea. We estimate a single Bible can impact up to five people, so our efforts are touching hundreds of thousands of lives.
But this doesn’t mean we are stopping — we are still working to provide Bibles, and others can join us in our efforts. Because if North Korean Christians are willing to risk being sent to prison just to hold a Bible, we are willing to do everything we can to help them get their hands on one.
My hope this week is that we will remember the North Korean people and their suffering. We must continue working and praying toward the day they will be able to practice their faith without fear of repression or violence.