With thousands of Christians in North Korean labor camps for refusing to deny their faith, it is nothing short of puzzling that the officially atheist nation has ordered its 24 million citizens to spend three minutes on Dec. 29, 2011 praying for late dictator Kim Jong-il.

An official portrait of the late Kim Jong-il

Kim, 69, died of an apparent heart attack over the weekend. His was a brutal reign with reports of entire families being executed for the possession of a Bible in their home.

So, why would his successors call for three minutes of prayer at the end of his official mourning period?

According to Human Rights Watch, no freedom of religion exists in North Korea and  the government keeps four church buildings open only to create an illusion of religious freedom for official visitors.

The capital, Pyongyang, was a center of Christian activity between  1910 and 1945. However when the Communist Party took over, every church building in North Korea was destroyed. At least 166 Roman Catholic priests were executed or just disappeared, including Francis Hong Yong-ho, the Bishop of Pyongyang.

On the southern half of the Korean peninsula in the democratic Republic of Korea, Christianity is thriving. The capital, Seoul, is home to some of the largest megachurches in the world.

But in the Communist north’s capital, religion advocates say the four remaining church buildings are purely window-dressing. According to the September 21, 2004 Annual Report of the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “there is little evidence that the Catholic and Protestant churches meet for Sunday services when there are not foreigners in the city requesting to attend.

The late Kim Jong-il

“Evidence suggests that underground churches operate in secret under the extremely repressive conditions in North Korea.”

Indeed, North Korea has the most severe persecution of Christians in the world, according to the Christian advocacy group, Open Doors, which says 50,000 to 70,000 Christians are imprisoned in labor camps

because they refuse to deny their faith.

The rest of North Korea’s population has fared little better.

“Kim Jong-il, like his father before him, left millions of North Koreans mired in poverty, without access to adequate food and healthcare, and with hundreds of thousands of people detained in brutal prison camps,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.

“Amnesty International has documented North Korea’s abysmal human rights record for years. Freedom of expression and association are almost non-existent. Hundreds of thousands of people deemed to oppose the state are held in detention camps such as the notorious Yodok facility, which detain family members up to three generations. Inmates are forced into hard labor for up to 12 hours a day.”

An official Korean Communist party photo of Kim Jong-Il

Entire families are imprisoned for the offense of a relative. However, conditions are harsh for those not in prison.

“Nearly a million people have died in North Korea because of acute food shortages since the mid-1990s.

Millions more, especially children and the elderly, continue to suffer from chronic malnutrition,” says Amnesty International. ”This is in large part due to failed or counterproductive government policies implemented under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung and then under Kim Jong-il.”