For the church in North Korea lockdown is nothing new. The church has been driven underground and out of public life for four generations. But for this hermit nation, the coronavirus has presented new opportunities for the gospel.

Release International
Release International

North Korea regularly tops the list of the harshest persecutors of Christians in the world. Christianity is forbidden and thousands of believers have been sent to camps likened to concentration camps.

The country has its own religion, called Juche, which is a form of emperor worship.

Release International, which serves the persecuted church worldwide, partners with Voice of the Martyrs Korea. They broadcast the gospel into North Korea and fly in scriptures on balloons. And since the pandemic, distribution by their ministry has doubled.

Andrew Boyd of Release International spoke to Dr Eric Foley in South Korea.

Andrew: Dr Eric Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, thank you so much for joining us for a special look at church in lockdown, and we will look at North Korea today. Nobody seems today to know really what's going on in North Korea. I would say all of the people I know, you know that country best. What's happening there with the coronavirus right now?

Dr Foley: Well, what I would say is that unequivocally, North Korean Christians regard this coronavirus as another in a long series of challenges or obstacles that are presented in the world, that are overcome by the sufficiency of Christ. The gospel is especially remarkable and conspicuous, because it represents hope in a way that a facemask cannot.

Andrew: You're describing a world in which it's very hard for us to imagine what it's like to be a Christian in North Korea. Can you paint a picture for us please, for those who have seen year in year out, North Korea top of the list of one of the harshest places in the world to be a Christian. What actually is it like there?

Dr Foley: You know, the question of not being at a meeting or church building has been going on for four generations for North Koreans, so this is hardly novel for them.

But they were saying that in areas where lockdown is enforced, it's really a blessing, because four times a night we're broadcasting our radio broadcast but, for North Koreans working 14 to 15 hours a day in factories, often they're too tired to stay up overnight and listen to the broadcast. But now, in this enforced lockdown, they have the opportunity to be able listen to the broadcast, stay up overnight and not have the security concerns they normally do.

And so, far from being a time when they feel cooped up in the home, that thought was, 'Wow! What a great opportunity for the radio broadcast!' So, they always have a sense that God is simply working in different ways and they are more than content to place themselves in his hands.

They're the ones who are used to taking risks, and so, for them, things like the distribution of the audio Bibles and print Bibles, we've done twice as many in the first quarter of the year as we did last year.

Andrew: You've described the sheer risk of being a Christian in North Korea. Why is it risky? What is the scale of that, and what do the North Korean Christians who practice their faith face?

Dr Foley: Yes, I think the reason why North Korea was number one on everyone's list of for the harshest persecution: the government understands that the Christian message in every sense exposes Kim Il Sungism or the Juche theology as a fraud.

Kim Il Sung grew up as a Christian and paid attention in church. And many aspects of Kim Il Sungism, what North Koreans would call the Juche ideology, are drawn from the Christian faith. So the Juche theology has some striking parallels to Christianity. Many of the songs, Christians would sing the same tunes to; they have sacred writings, including the 10 Principles which mimic the Ten Commandments.