North Korea: How will North Korean Succession affect Christians?

One of the world’s most secretive, isolated and authoritarian regimes, North Korea, is expected to have a change in the leadership. Does this mean anything for the persecuted Christians in the communist nation?

IIRF Research and Analysis Report

How will North Korean Succession affect Christians?
October 21, 2010

One of the world’s most secretive, isolated and authoritarian regimes, North Korea, is expected to have a change in the leadership. Does this mean anything for the persecuted Christians in the communist nation?

North Korea has never had democracy. Since its formation in 1948, the nation has been ruled by a one party, the Korea Worker’s Party, led by one family, the Kims. The current leader, 68-year-old Kim Jong-Il, is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008. He is also known to have other chronic health problems, including diabetes, kidney problems and hypertension. And he loves alcohol. His youngest son, 28-year-old Kim Jong-un, who was recently given key positions in the regime, is likely to be his successor.

The likely succession is significant because it concerns a nuclear-armed regime that has been one of the world’s worst violators of human rights and one of the greatest threats to the world peace.

On the recommendations of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the State Department has designated atheist North Korea as a Country of Particular Concern since 2001. Indoctrinated and intimidated by the regime, a majority of the 24 million people in the country are non-religious. While there are a few state-controlled Christian churches, such as in the capital city of Pyongyang, they are meant to showcase “religious freedom.” Contrary to its constitution, the regime represses activities of “unauthorized” religious groups. Most believers, estimated to be over 450,000 (as per the Center for the Study of Global Christianity), are part of the underground church.

Recently, a 50-year-old North Korean Christian, Son Jong Nam, was tortured to death in a prison as he was caught with 20 Bibles and 10 cassette tapes of hymns, reported Associated Press in July 2010.

According to the National Human Rights Commission of South Korea, “North Korea runs six large prison camps for political prisoners that together hold an estimated 200,000 inmates [one in every 100 people in the country is in jail, most likely facing death] and are used as a key tool to suppress potential dissidents and tame famine-hit people by spreading a sense of fear,” United Press International (UPI) reported in January 2010. It is believed that many of these inmates were imprisoned for their faith in or preaching Christianity. “The inmates are suffering starvation, torture, forced labor, rape and executions out of global attention,” added UPI.

It is also estimated that over two million people have died of starvation and malnutrition in the last two decades due to natural disasters and economic mismanagement in the country.

Anticipating Change
Will there be any change – for better or for worse – before or after the succession?

Above all, the North Korean regime wants to maintain its control over the country which requires it to balance the external threat and meet economic needs at home. The persecution of Christians can be understood in this context. For Christians are seen as a Western-influenced threat to the government. And the future of Christians depends on the compulsions the new regime will face to hold its grip on power.

Implications of the planned succession can be anticipated keeping in mind at least possible outcomes from the succession plan. There are at least three, according to a paper written by Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the US-based Heritage Foundation and former official from the US intelligence.

The succession may take place successfully, for there is no opposition to the leadership of the Kim family. Like a dictator of other isolated, authoritarian regimes – Burma for example – Kim Jong-Il deputes intelligence personnel to spy on government officials and creates a competition between the officials so that no one feels secure. He also delegates members of the elite to keep an eye on each other to pre-empt formation of any grouping against the regime.

Moreover, Kim Jong-Il has reshuffled important positions within the party and has consolidated all powers in the National Defense Commission (NDC), which he currently heads – and is likely to be headed by his son as part of the succession. In February 2010, he also sought to defuse public anger over the government’s move to revalue its currency – which adversely affected people’s savings – by sacking a top official. For people’s support will be crucial for the succession. If everything goes as planned in the succession, there will be little change in the regime’s policy and persecution and repression will carry on.

However, it cannot be said with certainty that the succession will not be challenged by some members of the elite from within the party. Founder of the nation Kim Il-sung virtually gave the charge of the country’s affairs to his son, Kim Jong-Il, the current leader, a few years before he was officially made the leader. But the inexperienced Kim Jong-un may not have that privilege. It is therefore possible that his leadership will be questioned, especially after his father’s death, if he fails to prove his skills in ruling the country and securing the interests of the regime.

A third possibility, i.e. the collapse of the regime, though unlikely, cannot be ruled out. If made the leader, Kim Jong-un will face many challenges as the country’s economy is in a state of decay and the international pressure is mounting. If he fails to deliver and command respect within the party, especially after the death of Kim Jong-Il, it can lead to a power struggle among the elite and may also lead to a civil war or a major internal unrest, making international intervention inevitable.

Most Worrisome
Irrespective of which of the possibilities comes true, the North Korean regime knows it is facing an unstable future. And that should be the biggest cause for concern.

Whenever this nation perceives any threat from within or from outside, it tends to become more aggressive in its foreign as well as domestic policy. North Korea has the tendency to show its strength to both its own people and external agencies or governments each time it faces or apprehends a crisis. So, at home, it is now likely to take some populist measures to avert public anger, but, at the same time, it will deal with any sign of dissent even more harshly.

“One troubling aspect of this change [succession] is that the new leader may feel the need to resort to brute force more frequently in order to suppress popular resistance,” said Yoon Young-kwan, former South Korean foreign minister, in an opinion article that appeared in The Daily Star on September 30, 2010.

Furthermore, during the transition to and after the succession, tensions are likely to mount in the Chinese border towns, an escape route for North Korean defectors. For one of China’s main concerns in North Korea is to maintain stability in the country lest there is an increased influx of refugees. So there could be stricter vigil in the border areas possibly as a joint-operation by Chinese and North Korean border security personnel.

However, there is hope. Due to its economic concerns, the new North Korean regime may not be able to isolate itself completely from the rest of the world. It will need to engage with the international community, which can encourage economic reforms in North Korea as a first step. Analysts believe that North Korea may eventually go the Chinese way by adopting state-controlled capitalism and opening up its borders for trade with other countries. Once it is out of isolation, it will be under greater obligation to improve its human rights record. All other pressures have worked little in this country.