Mission Impossible? Delivering Bibles to North Korea’s Growing Prison Population
According to recent reports, North Korea’s prison population has exploded in recent years, being filled with those caught fleeing the country under a crackdown on defections by young leader Kim Jong Un. Soon after the new president Kim Jong Un succeeded his father as North Korean leader, Kim is said to have tightened security on the country’s borders with China and used the nuclear dialogue to pressure China to repatriate anyone caught on the opposite side of the Tumen River.
According to interviews with the Associated Press and accounts collected by human rights groups, North Koreans who have managed to leave the country say those who are caught are sent to brutal facilities where they now number in the thousands.
They are tightening the noose around the necks of the defectors to set an example to other North Koreans who might try to leave.
“Forced repatriation from China is a pathway to pain, suffering, and violence,” says veteran human rights researcher and author David Hawk. “Detention, torture, and forced labor are inflicted upon many repatriated North Koreans.”
North Korea considers those who leave the country to be guilty of treason. Back to Jerusalem has worked with many refugees from North Korea who come to China to find money, food, and clothing to take back to North Korea. Many North Korean’s don’t have much of a choice. People are dying of starvation on a regular basis in North Korea and are forced to look for alternative ways to survive.
When North Koreans are captured in China and repatriated back to North Korea, they are often sent to one of five labor camps that have been modeled on the Soviet Gulag system. The labor camps are chosen for their natural barriers, such as mountains and rivers, their remoteness, and their access to natural resources like wood and coal. One camp, Yodok, has a special section for those repatriated from China.
Currently, the estimated number of people in prison camps is about 200,000; about five percent of those are repatriated North Koreans. 70,000 of the 200,000 are thought to be in prison camp because they have been accused of being Christians.
However, Insung Kim of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights cites a “five-fold rise” in the number of defectors over the last 10 years. When people are caught, a car comes to their house in the middle of the night and takes them away and they are never seen or heard from again.
Back to Jerusalem representatives were just in Tumen, a town on the border of North Korea in China. Tumen is a growing town. A new coffee shop and restaurant have been built on the river between China and North Korea where tourists can take boat trips and eat extravagant meals all within sight of the North Korean guards. There aren’t any fences or barriers other than the river. Chinese tourists are able to walk along the river or take leisure boat rides down the river while North Koreans can witness the economic growth from the other side. As a result, North Korea has had to increase their propaganda and the number of guards on patrol in these areas to prevent defection.
The northern border areas of North Korea have also started to use the Chinese currency, Renminbi, which is contributing to the ease of movement between North Korean and China.
Currently Back to Jerusalem missionaries are working together with Christians inside of North Korea and helping to provide food to the most needy people.
“We are seeing so many people inside of North Korea come to Christ. It is amazing,” said one Back to Jerusalem partner working in North Korea. “Things are getting tighter. We are not able to get as many Bibles as we were in the past, but this year we have designed a new audio Bible that has been an amazing tool. It is not as noticeable as the one before. This year we plan to take in about a thousand Bibles. That is more than we were able to last year.”
Peter (not his real name) has been working with Back to Jerusalem for years and helping Back to Jerusalem missionaries get in contact with North Koreans so that they can preach the Gospel to them. “We are getting young women from North Korea coming to us that have been forced to have abortions. They are damaged and wounded souls. We have been sharing with them, loving them, and introducing them to the Gospel. They are turning their lives around and it is exciting!”
Jung Gwang-il, who fled North Korea in 2004 after spending three years at Yodok prison camp, said prisoners were forced to grow corn, peppers, and barley, and those who didn’t work hard enough had their rations cut. Hunger was so intense that prisoners ate undigested seeds from the feces of other inmates, he reported. In April they would collect the corpses of those who died during the winter, because it was not possible to bury them when the ground was frozen.
Back to Jerusalem missionaries have mapped out the locations of the labor camps and have made it their goal to get food and Bibles into those prison camps. Currently this goal seems impossible, but there are ways that God is making available. Back to Jerusalem missionaries are dreaming the impossible. There is no way to do this without the prayers of the saints. Please continue to pray for Back to Jerusalem missionaries as they attempt to bring the light of the Gospel into these black holes where life doesn’t currently exist. Pray for both the prisoners and the guards. Pray that the freedom of Jesus Christ rings throughout the darkest corners of the prison camps.