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Are There Any Catholics in North Korea?

Although it’s difficult to know if any Catholics are living in North Korea today, a Korean priest says that even after a long period of persecution in the world’s most oppressive regime, there are still about 10,000 people in North Korea “who will remember in their hearts their Catholic faith.”

Some of the most recent first-hand information we have on the status of the Catholic Church in North Korea comes from a report given several years ago by Father Lee Eun-hyung, the general secretary of the Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People.

Even though he believes there are Catholics still living in North Korea, “I find it difficult to believe that there is an organized underground Church in North Korea” even though some say one exists near the border with China, he said.

The last time Father Lee was in Pyongyang was in 2011.

“On each visit I celebrated Mass in the Catholic church of Changchung, named for the district where it is located. North Korean faithful attended. Nevertheless the North Korean authorities told me it was strictly forbidden for me and those working with me to contact the country’s citizens personally.”

Parishioners are led by a layperson who celebrates the liturgy of the word every Sunday.

“This must be true,” he said, “because as far as I know there are no Catholic priests living in North Korea at present.”

According to North Korean authorities, there are about 3,000 Catholics in the country but there is no way of knowing if that figure is accurate, he said.

In fact, the last time any accurate figures were available was in 1945 when the demilitarized zone was drawn and divided Korea into two countries.

“There are old documents which show that there were about 50,000 Catholics living in the north before the division of the country. Lively missionary work went out from there,” Father Lee said.

Almost all of the churches that were around at the time of the demarcation of the two countries are gone now, except for five Christian churches that are still standing in Pyongyang, one of which is Changchung Cathedral. This is supposedly the official cathedral of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Pyongyang; however, it operates under the Korean Catholic Association which is not recognized by the Vatican.

There are crosses in the cathedral, but no crucifixes. Weekly services feature hymns and prayers but no sacraments and only state-appointed laymen can officiate at the services.

Sadly, since 1953, at least 200,000 Christians have gone missing in North Korea. The Cato Institute reports that if caught by the regime, unauthorized Christians face arrest, torture, or public execution.

Christianity suffers the most grievously under the regime mostly because it is a religion associated with the United States and because Christians believe political rules are subject to God’s judgment.

As a result, Christians are forced to worship secretly. If discovered, they are “taken to political camps (kwanliso); crimes against them in these camps include extra-judicial killing, extermination, enslavement/forced labor, forcible transfer of population, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, persecution, enforced disappearance, rape and sexual violence and other inhuman acts,” reports Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) to the Cato Institute.

CSW has documented cases of believers being “hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges, and trampled underfoot.”

An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians are currently languishing in North Korean gulags.

In spite of these conditions, it is miraculous that any faith exists at all, but there is evidence that Catholicism is indeed alive and well in North Korea today. According to the testimonies of a number of North Korean refugees who have fled the country, they report seeing elderly women sitting in circles “counting beans and murmuring” as if reciting the Rosary.

As Father Lee said, “The way out of this nightmarish situation for South and North Korea is dialogue and agreements, collaboration and exchange.”

We can only hope – and pray – that peace will come soon to the people of this embattled nation.

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