An international organization that lists North Korea as the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian runs an underground network that provides vital support to Christians fleeing the nation into neighboring China.
The organization, Open Doors, offers food and spiritual backing to more than 90,000 North Koreans who believe in Christianity, according to the support group, which supplies Bibles, trains church leaders and provides emergency relief to Christians in more than 60 countries around the world.
In early January, Open Doors released its annual report on the global persecution of Christians, spotlighting 50 countries where Christians are targeted for their faith. Since 2002, North Korea has headed the list of the top 10 countries where “extreme persecution” of Christians is rife. (Other countries include Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan.)
In a January 12 article on the Open Doors website, the organization reveals that it runs secret safe houses in China for North Korean Christians who manage to escape there.
Titled “How Do Open Doors Fieldworkers Support North Korean Christians?” the article quotes two “extremely courageous” workers in China who help escapees survive.
“My work is to meet North Koreans who’ve already heard of Jesus,” says one of the fieldworkers, identified by the pseudonym, Peter. “To help them survive the North Korean system if they go back, I provide them with spiritual and physical help.”
This support “helps the underground church to preserve her faith from within North Korea.”
A colleague of Peter, identified only as Matthew, says he has heard numerous stories about North Korean Christians who are killed, even after they manage to escape. “In China, North Korean secret agents often track down and murder Christian missionaries,” he says.
“Can you imagine that feeling—of never being quite safe?” he adds. “Only some of these incidents are reported in the news. … When I hear these things, I’m terrified” because “it can happen to me.”
It isn’t just the fear of being caught that makes the lives of Open Doors fieldworkers so dangerous. The conditions they work in are also often extremely severe.
“It’s sometimes below -30°C [-22°F] in winter,” says Peter. “And winter lasts for six months. I remember one night, it was one o’clock in the morning and the temperature was below -28°C. I was supposed to meet a local contact. But he didn’t answer my calls and he wasn’t where we’d arranged to meet. I tried to contact him for three hours. At about four o’clock, my phone rang. It was his number. When I answered, I heard a strange man asking, ‘Who are you?’”
It’s not hard to understand why the fieldworkers dread such calls. The man who answered Peter on the phone turned out to be a North Korean agent. Peter immediately smashed his cell phone and threw it in a drain hole. He later learned that the person he was trying to contact was under investigation.
In a Q&A with a fieldworker identified as Brother Simon, Open Doors recounted the extreme perils of fleeing North Korea. “You need to spend thousands of dollars on bribes, and even then you don’t have a guarantee,” he says. “Often, the soldiers have a quota: they need to arrest a certain number of border-crossers.”
“Once you’re in China, you’re illegal and can be arrested,” says Brother Simon. “Christians come to China so they can receive biblical teaching and fellowship, as well as food. Amazingly, many believers choose to return home to North Korea.”
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