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.”

As the nation is officially atheist, what’s the explanation for this puzzling order from the Communist Party that the entire nation will pray on Dec. 29 for the late Kim Jong-il?

“The North said it would place Kim’s body in the Kumsusan memorial palace in Pyongyang,” reported Time magazine, “and would hold a national mourning period until Dec. 29, when “all the people in the nation will spend three minutes in silent prayer.”

Who will they pray to?

The Times of India ran an Associated Press story citing the ordered three minutes of prayer, noting that all entertainment would be banned during the mourning period and that the country would accept no “foreign delegations hoping to express condolences.” 

London’s Daily Telegraph interpreted the order to pray for three minutes – and the day on which it will occur — differently: “There will be 12 days of mourning and, on December 28, a state funeral will see cannons fired across the country and three minutes of silence. ”

For outsiders to be baffled by North Korea is nothing new. The late dictator was a puzzle, noted the Telegraph:

Mocked in the West for his monochrome zipped suits, his bouffant plume and his short, portly stature, Kim Jong-il was described in his

own country as a uniquely brave soldier, the “Generalissimo” who succeeded in repelling American and South Korean aggression for decades.

Born “Yuri Irsenovich Kim” in Russia, where his father was organizing a guerrilla campaign against Korea, the younger Kim did not step foot into Korea until after the end of the Second World War.

But according to North Korean legend, he was born on the peak of Mount Baekdu, the sacred volcano which is central to Korea’s creation myth.

A double rainbow appeared at his birth, and a new star shone in the firmament.

Other myths suggest that Kim shot a 38-under-par round at the inauguration of Pyongyang’s first golf course in 1994, including eleven holes in one. He also invented the hamburger, or, as the North Koreans call it, the Gogigyeopbbang, or ‘double bread with meat.’ And he was able to skip going to the bathroom; one government website briefly claimed that he had no need to urinate or defecate.

The same propaganda machine is already molding Kim Jong-un, his 29-year-old successor, into a version of his grandfather, always showing him in a Mao suit, with his hair swept back and a grave expression on his face. While the myths about the Kim family appear ludicrous to the West, they sustain a population who many predicted

would have balked at their totalitarian rule decades ago.

The first official photo of heir-apparent Kim Jong-un

Little is known about the new leader.  “The young man tipped to be North Korea’s next leader and propel the Kim dynasty into a third generation is even more of an enigma than his mercurial father,” reported Agence France Presse:

Kim Jong-Un’s life is shrouded in mystery, but in recent years he has been pushed to the forefront as his father apparently speeded up plans for the nation’s second dynastic succession, after suffering a stroke in August 2008. In September 2010 the son was made a four-star general and given senior ruling party posts, despite his lack of any military experience.

It was only then that state media published his first-ever adult photograph — an image of a chubby young man dressed in a dark Mao-type suit sitting in a line-up of top communist party officials.

Since his elevation, Kim Jong-Un has been constantly at his father’s side, and is said to be actively involved in state affairs.

In a memoir, Kenji Fujimoto, a former Japanese sushi chef for Kim Jong-Il, described the Swiss-educated Jong-Un as a “chip off the old block, a spitting image of his father in terms of face, body shape and personality”.

Some analysts had seen second son Kim Jong-Chul as favorite to take over. But Fujimoto said in his memoir that Kim thought of Jong-Chul as effeminate and unfit for leadership.

Eldest son Jong-Nam apparently spoiled his prospects after being deported from Japan in 2001 for trying to enter with a forged passport while attempting a visit to Tokyo Disneyland.

Jong-Un was born to the leader’s third wife, Japan-born ethnic Korean dancer Ko Yong-Hi, who is believed to have died of breast cancer in 2004. He is believed to have studied at international school in Switzerland under a false name. Newspaper reports say he enjoyed

basketball and drawing cartoons in Switzerland, where school staff and friends reportedly remembered a shy boy who liked skiing.

Until 2010, this was one of the only known photos of Kim Jong-un

Meanwhile, a website that champions the cause of North Korean Christians indicates that three minutes of prayer at the end of the mourning period may, indeed, be the intent of the government. However, the prayers will not be directed to God.

North Koreans practice “Juche,” which began as idolization of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, according to the website NorthKoreanChristians:

Today, Juche is no longer just an ideology, but a full-fledged religion that worships Kim Il Sung as god, and his son, Kim Jong Il as the son of god. In 2005, David Hawke, the respected human rights investigator, interviewed 40 North Korean escapees about religion in North Korea. Here are some of their responses about North Korea’s religion:

“Juche is the only religion North Korean people can have.”

“We learned that there were two lives: one is the physical life and the other is the political life. We were taught that political life was forever along with the leaders and the Party. Therefore, I believed that my political life was more important than my physical life.”

“According to party covenant, Article 1, section 1, all North Koreans are required to worship Kim Il Sung with all our heart and might, even after his death. We have to venerate the pictures and status of Kim Il Sung.”

“We must hang Kim Il Sung’s pictures. The pictures indicate that Kim Il Sung is god, as we hang the pictures for the purpose of reminding ourselves that we depend on him.”

Other escapees from North Korea told Hawke:

“Hanging portraits of Kim’s family is compulsory for every household.

The portraits must be hung on the best wall of every home, and nothing else can be hung under the portraits. Families with high loyalty to the Party bow down under the portraits even when nobody is watching.”

“Religious freedom is not allowed in North Korea because it will ruin the deification of Kim Il Sung.”

“Having faith in God is an act of espionage. Only Kim Il Sung is a god in North Korea.”

“Juche itself is a religion, therefore they worry that people may forsake Juche for another religion.”

How is that worry expressed against underground Christians when they are discovered?

Hawke tells of two interviewees who told stories of persecution of  Christians. One told him:

“A young woman, in her twenties, was washing clothes in a tributary to the Tumen River (the border between China and North Korea). When packing up the clothes, she dropped what was believed to be a small Bible. The actual words used by the North Korean authorities were “Christianity book” (kiddokyo chaek).

“Another washer woman reported the girl to the police. According to Interviewee 4, the informer may not have known that the book was a Bible, but all suspicious activity had to be reported to the police.

“The young woman and her father, looking to be roughly sixty years old, were arrested and held by the local Gukgabowibu police for some three months. During that time, the woman and her father were presumably investigated and interrogated. Apparently, they were deemed guilty of a capital offense. On a summer morning in 1997, the two were taken to a market area near where the Seong Cheon River runs into the Tumen River.

“The two were accused of trafficking and condemned as traitors to the nation and Kim Jong Il.

“Teachers and students from elementary (4th grade and up), middle, and high school were assembled, along with persons who had been sent over from the nearby market. Seven police fired three shots each into the two victims, who had been tied to stakes a few meters from the “trial” area. The force of the rifle shots, fired from fifteen meters away, caused blood and brain matter to be blown out of their heads. Interviewee was in the fifth row.”

Hawke relates this account from a refugee he calls “Interviewee 17″:

“While Interviewee 17 was in the North Korean Army, his unit was dispatched to widen the highway between Pyongyang and the nearby port city of Nampo.

“They were demolishing a vacated house in Yongkang county, Yongkang district town, when in a basement between two bricks they found a Bible and a small notebook that contained 25 names, one identified as pastor, two as chon-do-sa (assistant pastors), two as elders, and 20 other names, apparently parishioners, identified by their occupations.

“The soldiers turned the Bible and notebook over to the local branch of Department 15 of the Korean Workers Party (KWP), but the Party officials said it was up to the military police unit, Bowisaryungbu gigwanwon, to investigate.

“Tracked down at their place of work through the listing of occupation in the notebook, the 25 persons were picked up without formal arrest by the military bowibu.

“In November 1996, the 25 were brought to the road construction site. Four concentric rectangular rows of spectators were assembled to watch the execution. Interviewee 17 was in the first row.

“The five leaders to be executed – the pastor, two assistant pastors, and two elders – were bound hand and foot and made to lie down in front of a steamroller. This steamroller was a large construction vehicle imported from Japan with a heavy, huge, and wide steel roller mounted on the front to crush and level the roadway prior to pouring concrete. The other twenty persons were held just to the side.

“ The condemned were accused of being Kiddokyo (Protestant Christian) spies and conspiring to engage in subversive activities. Nevertheless, they were told, ‘If you abandon religion and serve only

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, you will not be killed.’

“None of the five said a word. Some of the fellow parishioners assembled to watch the execution cried, screamed out, or fainted when the [leaders] were crushed beneath the steamroller.

“Interviewee 17 thought, at the time, that these church people were crazy. He thought then that religion was an ‘opiate,’ and it was stupid for them to give up their lives for religion. He heard from the soldiers who took away the other twenty prisoners that they were being sent to a prison camp. He sketched from memory a diagram of the execution scene.

The late Kim Jong-il with party officials

Open Doors is calling for prayer for the country and the suffering Christians who live there.

“Today marks a significant day in North Korean history,” said Open Doors USA President Dr. Carl Moeller. “Though this brutal dictator, who was responsible for so many atrocities, has died, the future is still unknown. Some speculate that his son Kim Jong-un will be just as cruel to all dissenters. Others suggest that he may be more lenient. We simply do not know the future of North Korea, but God does.

“This is why it is vital that Christians around the world pray for North Korea during this transitional time. Pray especially for the brave Christians inside North Korea. They are fearful that they might face even more suffering. People are starving to death. The people of North Korea are living a nightmare that never ends.

“In North Korea, any form of worship to anyone other than the Great Leader (Kim Il-Sung) and the Dear Leader (Kim Jong-Il) is seen as treason. North Korean Christians are often arrested, tortured or even killed for their faith in Jesus Christ.”

Moeller quoted an Open Doors source inside North Korea, who he only identified as “Simon.”

“It is very unlikely that there will be any policy changes,” says Simon. “In fact, since Kim Jong-un came closer to the helm, North Korea has stepped up its attempts to uncover any religious activities. There have been more house raids, more spies trained to infiltrate religious and human rights networks and one South Korean Christian who was murdered in China because he helped refugees.

“Christians fear what Kim Jong-Un is capable of doing.”

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