Three decades after charity Open Doors began monitoring Christian persecution around the world, North Korea is more dangerous than ever for followers of Jesus. Timothy Cho, who escaped the regime, explains why that is, and why we should still be hopeful for change


Source: Reuters

South Korean Christians pray for North Korea during a service at a church in Icheon

Since Kim Il-sung came to power in 1948, Christians have always been on the front line of attack for the North Korean regime. The country itself is a prison state, with 25 million people living under surveillance and blocked from any information from inside or outside of the country. In North Korea, people don’t even know what a passport is. How do we really have this kind of situation in 2023?

North Korea has been almost consistently at the top of the Open Doors’ World Watch List since it’s inception in 2002. Last year, it temporarily relinquished the top spot to Afghanistan but, this year, it is once more the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian, receiving the highest persecution score for any nation in 30 years. 

It makes me sad to see that my home country remains at the top of the list.

Total devotion

But why is it so dangerous to be a Christian in North Korea?

The simple answer is that North Korean people must show complete loyalty to the ruling Kim family. To achieve this, a comprehensive process of indoctrination starts from nursery age. At home, children must learn to bow to the Kim family picture which hangs, framed, in every house. Outside, there are around 50,000 monuments to honour the country’s leaders. People must think, speak and act with total reverence to the Kim dynasty. In this framework, there is no space for any religious faith. There can only be one god, and that is the Kim family.

Viewed through this lens, it’s possible to see how North Korean leaders regard Christianity as a national security risk. Any Christians who are discovered face imprisonment, torture and even death. The regime’s aim is to wipe out every Christian in the country. No good or true news must enter the hermit kingdom of North Korea; keeping citizens in the dark and under his corrupted power is the only way for Kim Jong-un’s regime to survive.

Acts of treason

In this nationwide prison, things have worsened considerably in the past two years. The complete lockdown that occurred during the height of the coronavirus pandemic gave the regime an opportunity to focus on domestic issues and its means of control. The recent legislation on ‘Anti-Reactionary Thought’ is incredibly vague, allowing it to define a wide range of acts as treason.

There can only be one god, and that is the Kim family

In December 2022, three teenagers were executed simply because they watched and distributed foreign goods – including the viral Netflix series Squid Game. Watching TV shows online, considered normal daily downtime in the West, is a heinous crime in Pyongyang. And every new piece of legislation targets Christians as the first to be eliminated. All Bibles, Christian resources and online materials are illegal under these new laws. The punishment for being found with them is extreme.


I escaped North Korea 18 years ago, hoping simply for survival. Without even knowing where I was going, I crossed the border to China. What I hadn’t expected was that I would be sent to four prisons in both China and North Korea. So many horrific things happened in these prison cells. The memories of them will remain forever.

Now I’m a free man. I live in Britain. I go to church. I worship God freely, listen to hymns and pray. I must have imagined the possibility of North Korean Christians freely attending church and worshipping God hundreds of times. I can’t wait to see that moment.

But right now, there is no sign of any improvement. Now, in 2023, it’s almost impossible to escape. The impact of Covid-19 border restrictions have prevented people from leaving. This is certainly an opportunity for the regime. They will be upping their efforts to trace down any remaining secret smuggling routes for foreign-published literature, media and banned religious materials.

In North Korea, people don’t even know what a passport is

According to Daily NK, an online newspaper which reports from inside and outside North Korea via a network of informants, over 10.1m people - or 40 per cent of the total population - are in urgent need of food. Meanwhile the regime spends huge resources on nuclear development, launching over 40 missiles in 2022. There is a complete absence of primary responsibility in the North Korean leadership. Such a dire humanitarian crisis cannot be overlooked.

Signs of hope

So is there any sign of hope? Not at this moment. But if anyone asks if North Korea could ever become a free nation and be removed from the World Watch List, this answer is: “Yes!” God makes impossible things become possible. We must trust and keep faith in God.

There is power in the name of Jesus and he teaches us the truth: faith, love, freedom and hope. At least 2,000 years of human history have witnessed his miracles at work. And 75 years of darkness in North Korea won’t be an exception.

Do not be discouraged. But please pray. Pray for our persecuted church family in North Korea and beyond. Your prayers and support help to strengthen their faith. That faith will lead to their confidence, because faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).