From Kim to Christ: Why religion works for North Koreans

Ask a North Korean: Explaining the transition from Kim Il Sung-ism to Christianity
September 25th, 2013

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week, Paul B. from Budapest asks:

Why do so many North Korean defectors become Christians when they leave? Isn’t this like swapping one god for another?

The biggest shock I encountered on defecting from North Korea was seeing a world which endorses diversity and multiculturalism. I would never have imagined being in a world that allows one to believe or do whatever he or she wants as long it is within the law, as I grew up in a under a state that was suppressive, distorted and fake – religion was no exception.

Indeed, I was born and brought up in the only state in the world which enforces atheism nationwide and prohibits people from being aware of any other religious theory beyond the theory of evolution.

In North Korea, simply knowing or even wanting to know something other than what is taught by the state can be a serious crime. And while we do have religious organizations such as the ‘Chosun Christian association’ or ‘Buddhist association,’ these organizations are just a form of propaganda and merely a means of pretending that we do have freedom of religion in North Korea.

Living in Pyongyang I had never even known that there were other theories and studies and had never heard of the Biblical creation. To be frank, I didn’t know the meaning of Christianity, or that Buddha is another name for Shakyamuni, and I could not find any religious books other than those which said to worship the North Korean leader.

I lacked any imagination of what God would be like. The concept of ‘God’ just brought mixed feelings of curiosity and fear of a mysterious and unknown world. I’m sure other North Koreans felt the same.

“To be honest, I initially despised Christianity”

So how did I become a Christian when I left North Korea?

To be honest, I initially despised Christianity. The reason was simple. As I’ll explain, Christianity seemed very similar to North Korean propaganda. On top of that, I was more closed towards Christianity because I knew that our founding leader Kim Il Sung and his family had originally been believers.

Next, I just couldn’t accept that God was supposed to love and care for everyone equally. My past did not allow me to believe in such a God. How many people have died and are dying in North Korea at this very moment? How on earth could anyone say that a God exists who loves everyone equally when little children cannot even fill their tiny stomachs, are ridden with disease and thrown out in the streets?

For the sole reason that I was born 40 miles North of the border, I had to risk my life. Meanwhile a little puppy that is born 40 miles South of the border has all the advantages and benefits that most of us North Korean kids never had. Where is the evidence of God’s justice, when until the very last moment of their lives, North Korean dictators enjoy the power and pleasures of their dictatorship? If he is an almighty God, how can he just ignore the situation in North Korea and reject their people? I threw countless questions at the church and no-one was able to satisfactorily give me the answers I wanted.

Despite all the confusion I became a Christian, even though I still do not have all the answers. It is important to say though that Christianity can only be understood by experience and I am eventually feeling and understanding many things that I could not initially agree with. If the experience I felt through becoming a Christian had not been there, I wouldn’t have believed in any god or religion.

“Despite all the confusion I became a Christian, even though I still do not have all the answers”

In spite of my questions, I am now convinced of a God who existed before the world began – who is far greater than and cannot be fathomed by mere human knowledge or scientific explanation. And I believe that the one who created me and led me here was why I was given this opportunity to engage with all of you in this column.

But enough of my personal story – what about other North Koreans?

Once, Pyongyang used to be a city of rich Christianity often known as the ‘Jerusalem of the Orient’. There were hardly any shops open on a Sunday. However since the socialists (under the influence of the Soviet Union) took charge of administration at the start of the Korean War, religion in North Korea was utterly annihilated with extreme measures. Most Christians left for the South to save their religious freedom and those remaining in the north became underground Christians. But decades have since passed and the only religion existing now is Kim Il Sung-ism.

For this reason, although there are many Christian defectors, there are not many Christians in North Korea. In fact, it is impossible to live as a Christian in North Korea and at present almost every North Korean is officially ‘athiest’. They cannot utter a word about religion and if they do, the whole family and even friends are under threat of serious punishment.

So how is it then that so many defectors become religious?

Ever since the Christian movement arose, many pastors and missionaries went to China to reach Chinese and North Koreans, some actually helping North Koreans with basic subsistence matters. By sharing Christianity through Biblical teaching, they encouraged North Korean people to return to their country to be missionaries. In this way some North Koreans actually gave up defecting to a third country and returned to North Korea to give out Bibles.

Other Christian defectors who were caught and repatriated to North Korea secretly kept their faith and shared it with their own family there. These people however, are a minority and the government is searching madly to crack down on them. But this doesn’t mean there is absolutely no religion at all. Humans are inherently weak beings and life’s worries, anxieties and expectations increase when life gets tough.

“Why did they allow shamanism to exist, but not Christianity?”


Despite the fact that North Korea prohibits religion, I remember that many people in Pyongyang relied on horoscopes and fortune-tellers for comfort when the economic situation became dire. They sought answers related to their business, success, children and their marriage matters from a supernatural source. I suppose people have an inner instinct to believe in a supernatural being, despite having known nothing but materialistic atheism for several decades. People started believing these fortune tellers and would even re-schedule their wedding date if the fortune-teller told them to. Shamamism came to the forefront of North Korean religion.

People began to set up secret fortune telling businesses which soon became popular by word of mouth. It was not only ordinary people that went to visit these fortune tellers, but also the rich and powerful who were uncertain about their future. I’m not sure they believed in God though. In a state of economic adversity the government was gradually losing control over its citizens and was forced to accept this reality. However, they remained hostile to Christianity, persistently repressing it.

Those deported back from China can be punished by death if they have been influenced by Christianity in any way. If it is revealed that they are Christians, the whole family is mercilessly killed in inhumane ways [Editors Note: Ji-min left Pyongyang in 2005, but since then penalties for Christians have reduced, especially if those caught have money to pay bribes]. But this is not a country that has had religious conflicts with Christianity for hundreds of years, so why did they allow shamanism to exist (under the carpet) but not Christianity?

“You will notice Kim Il Sung took his political ideas from the Bible”

The answer is because of the similarities between Christianity and our government:

I guess most of you are unaware, but as  I mentioned before, Kim Il Sung was once a Christian. In fact, he was brought up in a very devout Christian family. His father was a graduate from the most renowned Christian school in the peninsula and his mother was deaconess. In addition, his grandfather and brothers were also priests in Pyongyang. It’s ironic that a man who came from such a religious family would erase his past once becoming a socialist. But he was no socialist – he was no more than the starter of Kim Il Sung-ism. He formed the ‘Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System’ which resembled Moses’ Ten Commandments – forcefully instilling it into us and compelling us to obey.

Here’s an example: ‘You shall have no other gods but me’ – this is a phrase from the Bible’s Ten Commandments. But it’s also seen in the Ten Principles – ‘You must be firm in your position which states there is not anyone or anything greater than the Great Leader Kim Il Sung.’

Once you look into the Ten Principles, you will notice Kim Il Sung took his political ideas from the Bible. Kim Il Sung also called himself ‘the sun’ and his son the ‘Shining Star of Paekdu Mountain’. They say if you commit your life to serving Kim Il Sung and his son, though your physical body may perish you will gain immortality in the political life. In purporting that he and his son were gods and therefore rightful leaders, Kim started creating a country of false religion that in no way adheres to socialist values. In North Korea, Marx’s and Lenin’s books are banned. I leave it to your assumptions as to why.

The core of Christianity is based around repentance, being forgiven and saved by God. Repentance is only confessed to God and forgiveness determined by him. And in North Korea? Every Saturday, North Koreans have to confess their wrongdoings and seek for forgiveness of the leader. It is as if North Korean’s political system has taken its stance somewhere between absolute monarchy and cultish fanaticism.

This is why Christianity is most oppressed and cannot coexist in harmony with Kim Il Sung’s regime, and why shamanism is less of a threat. Christians do not acknowledge any other God but their own – they cannot serve both Kim Il Sung and their God. Thus, Christianity is seen as a considerable threat to their power.

To conclude, I wish for all of you to experience the grace of God as I have and I pray that North Korea will soon become a country where there is true freedom of religion.

Got a question for Ji Min? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.

Editing and translation by NK News London.

Artwork by Catherine Salkeld

Click here to meet Mina, our other “Ask a North Korean” correspondent

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About the Author

Ji-Min Kang

Ji-min is an “Ask a North Korean” contributor. He is in his late 20s and left Pyongyang in 2005. He can be reached at [email protected]

Join the discussion

  • Xio Gen

    I’m glad you’ve had a positive experience with Christianity and I hope it helps you on your journey outside of DPRK. If it helps you to deal with your past and come to terms leaving your family behind, that’s good. But please understand that once you get used to the outside world, Christianity doesn’t seem that great. Enforced atheism is bad, think about enforced theocracy. The European Crusades were all about forcing Christianity on the populace. They killed Jews and Muslims. All the way up until the 1940s, Jews suffered persecution throughout Europe for the sole reason that they weren’t Christian. Even today, there is still some anti-Semitic sentiment. In America, there are places where you can’t hold public office unless you’re Christian. There is a whole movement here trying to get the Ten Commandments put up on the steps of court houses. They want to remove the separation of church and state. Outside of DPRK, it’s the atheists who are persecuted. Christian missionaries sending refugees back to North Korea is a terrible thing. It’s sending lambs to the slaughter. Some traffickers who help North Koreans escape will force you to convert if you can’t pay, which is bad.
    I like Buddhism because it encourages being a good person not out of punishment from a creator deity, but to just be a good person. I also like the native religions like Shinto and Mugyo because it keeps native traditions alive.

  • JayDee

    Like your viewpoint. Hatred for religion, non religion and bigotry are understandable. If a person choses not to believe, God has given them freedom of choice so be it. My concern is that people throughout this world be coerced into sacrificing their lives for religion. Yes know there is a God who loves! Know not to blame the Creator for what man does under the power of the wicked one who has the whole world under his control. If people chose they can permit religionists to tell them what to say think and do. They can permit blameless people being judged and ostracised by over zealous erroneous people calling themselves Christian if they so wish. The world that operates under the power of the wicked one can chose to relinquish their power according to his systematic and evil structure within their secret societies. But what will all these do when Yahuaweh God takes up His Power and installs His Firstborn to rule in power? I know this is imminent. It will happen soon. I would urge anyone who belongs to either religious or political chicanery not to freely sacrifice their life blood into the goblets of the anti-Christ Babylonian World Dominations. And I would ask people not to fall for the Great Maria Worship great signs and portents fulfilling the prophesies of Revelation chapter 13:13. Rev 16:2 unless they are sure they want to. Notice that religious leaders don’t end up being sacrificed for their religious teachings it is the sheep under their command who are led to the slaughter. There has been enough blood spilled in the name of religion. It is good to know there is a Loving God who for the reason people at large have turned from and denied, has not been partitioned therefore has not heard true prayers and pleas to right the wrongs wrought on this world by Lucifer worshiping rulers and those who adhere and participate within evil satanic structures. But Satan is soon to be no more in this world and what will His followers do when this comes about? Where will they receive power from? Especially the ones calling themselves Christian?

  • JayDee

    Dear Ji-min I am glad you escaped North Korea. I realise the suffering of your people. There is a song by Helen Djohn ‘you have to be there’ search the internet. This song is in my heart it is so beautiful but so sad and so true. I believe we should pray for the human rulers of this world. There hearts have been hardened by being born into a ruling dynasty controlled by Satanic power and influence. How would we behave if we were born into the power structure with the evil forces controlling?
    The western countries are much superior at present but there is the same evil spirit force over all this world. I pray for the people in Korea with all my heart. There are many countries where there is great suffering because of poverty under the evil Satanic powers. I would love if everyone would pick a day and sing ‘you have to be there’ a faith rendering plea for salvation from desperate desolation due to war and the injustices of war. All power structured countries have Weapons of Mass destruction and are being goaded by Satanic influence to rise up as in Matthew 24:7 Nation is rising against nation Revelation 11:18 But the nations became wrathful and your own wrath came and the appointed time for the dead to be judged. This is imminent! It is now! At that time my dear Ji-min you will have your family back again. Rev 20:4 and the tent of God will be with mankind, and death will be no more, mourning and outcry and pain will be no more. the former things will have passed away. This is bound to happen soon. You will see! It will all come true! It will all come true for you! These words were spoken to me by a messenger from heaven who told me of the coming of the Kingdom and Rulership of our Most High God and His Firstborn our King of kings to whom every knee will bend. Even Jon or Kim ll’s son whatever his name is will bend his knee in worship to the King of kings. And I pass this promise on to you. It will all come true for us. God Blessings be from God! in agape spiritual love.

  • JayDee

    I am beginning to think perhaps I am being taken in by propaganda lies. I am beginning to wonder if HALF the lies we are told might not be true! Are these stories constructed for some political agenda? If so there are plenty obnoxious true stories never told. No
    consideration given for the plight of desperate people. No
    empathy or justice for the suffering of people in many countries planned and officiated to serve diverse political ends.
    May I congratulate the world powers they have remarkably made great achievements in their goals to overpower the mind of simpletons like myself with amazing success. Many haughty, ignorant, arrogant simpletons I know are left thinking they are soooo.. intelligent therefore I am obviously I am a kook in their estimation but I question their wisdom. Our powers must be congratulated they have done a marvellous job in that respect.
    Please tell me what is happening in and to this world when you take a good hard look and contemplate on the forward thrust of destructive entities.

  • Xio Gen

    Buddhists, for one thing. Missionary work in North Korea isn’t brave. It’s stupid. Foolhardiness shouldn’t be mistaken for bravery. Kenneth Bae and that Australian missionary are perfect examples of that. North Koreans don’t need Bibles. They need food, water, shelter, and to reunite with their families. It’s sickening to see missionaries exploit refugees to convert and then send them back across the border to proselytize.

  • Guest

    “Despite all the confusion I became a Christian, even though I still do not have all the answers”.

    Ji-Min Kang, you asked why does a loving God allow the N.K. people to suffer under the regime, even children? I will answer you, but first there are five things to consider before answering this question.

    1. Free will is from God, and so humans can choose to treat others with love or with hatred. This even extends to powerful governmental bodies such as the N.K. regime, who choose to tyrannize over their people rather than protect them. God allows this.

    2. God places limits on people’s suffering. God does not allow injustice forever. At death, each person is held to account, and judged for their actions. God therefore limits unjust suffering to around 80 years or so, unless someone dies before, and people who suffer also tend to die earlier, which is also a mercy from God.

    3. After death, the suffering endured in hell by tyrants is far worse than the suffering of the people that lived under them; and the joy experienced by the innocent in heaven is far greater than anything they may have suffered on earth, and also eternal.

    4. Allowing people free will, even tyrants, provides
    evidence of the sin and selfishness of mankind, which can then be
    contrasted with the grace and mercy of God. If you had not suffered
    through North Korea, and seen firsthand just how evil people can be,
    perhaps you would have never become a Christian.

    5. Christ himself, who is God in the flesh, never spared himself from suffering. No matter how confused a Christian becomes over sufferings, this is perhaps the most important point to remember, as Christ was given, literally given up, as an example for the rest of us.

    So, keeping these five points in mind, why does God allow injustice in the meanwhile? Why not judge everyone straight away, or stop suffering from happening in the first place? The answer is that God wants to, but it is humanity that consistently keeps God from doing so! Think: every government is repressive to differing degrees, every government is lying and dishonest. This is because it is repressive, dishonest humans who form governments in the first place. Even if God were to kill Kim Jong Un tomorrow, someone else like him would take his place. If he destroyed the whole regime over one night, the new government wouldn’t be that much different. If God came down and commanded humanity to cease being selfish, he would have no choice but to send the majority of humanity to hell immediately for rebelling against him. In short God has tried everything to get humans to stop, even sacrificing his own son, but mankind always refuses. Even the comments section, in a country where people are supposedly free to believe what they want without prejudice, is full of people criticizing or questioning you for becoming a Christian. Humanity simply does not want to be saved from itself, and God allows it that free will. Because of that, “the devil is the ruler of this world”, as the Bible says. The majority of humanity is therefore against what God wants, simply by being selfish and putting themselves first, whether they realize it or not. It is true that the comparatively innocent individuals must suffer for it as a result, but sometimes God would rather they go through suffering as it will educate them about selfishness and sin, and besides when they go to heaven God has an excuse to fill them with so much more happiness, all the more *because* they suffered. So that are some (not all) of the reasons why a good God allows such terrible things to happen in the world. If you want more reasons they can be found in the Bible. However, as I said, God will by no means allow things to go on this way forever. He is working on it, in secret ways humans won’t spot, to be revealed on judgement day; and we also have the promise of the Second Coming and a happy afterlife.

  • Tian Dao

    Its amusing,I’ve read every single comment Mr “maozhuxi” had posted on the article and all I see is a bunch of ad hominem attacks and bad grammar,I am no Christian but,after listening to his rant,I feel ashamed to be part of the secular society.Christian organizations have been helping out,either with voluntary work (e.g.working as lecturers without pay,distributing food),or through monetary support and non-religious people have no right to criticize their actions whatsoever.

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  • Eldon Leroy Masangkay Cordrey

    God imposed himself on one. That is Jesus.

    • maozhuxi

      bleh pure garbage you are a slave to euro white slave driver ideals

  • rainbowlove

    What’s your problem man? If this guy has found his peace and it’s through Jesus let him be. It’s funny how it can be any other ‘religion’ in the world but the moment people mention Jesus and Christians, it’s like a bomb goes off. Stop and think. It’s probably because this Jesus is alive! ;)

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