Imagine facing execution for sharing the The Holy Bible, attending Mass, and making the sign of the cross. These are expressions of faith that are daily exercises for us in the United States, but in North Korea, they are possible death sentences for Catholics.
Religious expression in Korea wasn’t always such a risk. By 1945, Pyongyang was known as the Jerusalem of East Asia, where 50,000 Catholics lived in peace and Catholic missionaries were overseeing a wave of conversions.
The heartbreaking story of religious persecution in North Korea began during the Soviet occupation from 1945-1948 and continued with the new independent state in 1953. After a policy shift to use religious organizations for advantage from 1972-1987, the regime took over the facilitation of religious institutions. Since then, intense persecution has ensued and religious freedom is outlawed since religious people are defined as “hostiles” by the regime.
Today, there is only one state-controlled Catholic church in Pyongyang and there are no priests or members of a religious institute recognized by the Holy See. Francis Lee, a translator for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, estimates that there are about 800-3,000 ‘official’ Catholics left in North Korea.
In 2014 the group Aid to the Church in Need reported that “Since 1953, at least 200,000 Christians have gone missing. If caught by the regime, unauthorized Christians face arrest torture or in some cases public execution.” Aid also reports of testimonies of North Korean refugees who speak of elderly women in circles counting beans and murmuring as if they were reciting the rosary. Some say there is an underground church close to the border with China. Sadly, Open Doors estimates that today some 50,000-70,000 Christians may be residing in the country’s gulags.
During the Korean War, the North Korean army made Christian POWs walk to a prison camp in the frigid cold in what was called the March of Death. Many elderly priests and ill nuns were unable to survive the march due to the cold or hunger, and those who fell behind were executed.
Bishop Patrick James Byrne, an emissary for the Pope was one of those sacrificed. Instead of being evacuated by plane before Seoul fell, Bishop Byrne stayed behind and was arrested by the Communist Party and sentenced to death. It is said that his last words as he died of pneumonia were those of thanks to the Lord for the grace of dying as a martyr. Prior to his missions to Korea, Bishop Byrne supervised construction projects at Maryknoll and in Scranton, Pennsylvania and then served as the rector of both seminaries.
Now, with the current climate between the United States and North Korea heating up due to crazed threats from Kim Jong Un and President Trump’s defensive rhetoric, the world may finally be witnessing the breaking point of the Communist regime.
Ironically, Guam, the US territory being threatened by Kim Jong Un, is a small island where the “vast majority” of the population is Catholic. According to the New York Times, the Archdiocese of Agana (the capital of Guam) has advised residents to “look to God during these difficult times when world peace is threatened.”
Moreover, Guam Governor Eddie Calvo has stressed that there is no imminent threat to his residents and praised President Trump for his recent “fire and fury” remarks on Fox News.
So as we look to the future, it may be prudent to remember that what the Korean Communists feared most was the influence of the Vatican. The Communists feared martyrs like Bishop Byrne who were unrelenting in their faith.
Some day, the Christian prisoners of North Korea will know the beauty of the Kingdom of God on Earth instead of the brutality of the Hermit Kingdom.