During the first part of his life in North Korea, Son Jong Nam had it good. As the son of a high-ranking officer in the all-powerful military, Son never had to worry about getting enough food, and after he joined the Army himself, his background helped him land a spot in an elite unit that guarded North Korea's leaders.
But then things began to change. In the mid-1990s, plagued by natural catastrophes and stripped of support from its erstwhile Soviet sponsor, the North saw its economy plunge into a tailspin. One day Son's pregnant wife made a carelessly critical remark about the country's mismanagement. The next thing they knew, she'd been taken in for questioning. One of her interrogators kicked her in the stomach, triggering a miscarriage. Disillusioned, the Sons decided to defect to the South. In 1998 they took their young daughter and slipped over the border into China. But Son's wife died after the crossing, and Son, bereft, soon met a South Korean missionary who was there to help North Korean refugees find their way to freedom. Through him, Son discovered Christianity and decided to convert, joining the growing legions of desperate North Koreans who are turning toward God. This led to Son's next step, which may yet prove fatal: he resolved to head back to the North in 2004 in order to bring the Gospel to others.
Today Son finds himself on death row in Pyongyang, awaiting execution for the crime of spreading his faith. North Korea theoretically allows religious freedom; it even maintains Potemkin cathedrals, where worshipers are supposedly welcome and ersatz services, staffed by loyal communist party cadres, are held each Sunday. In reality, however, the government of Kim Jong Il has a history of persecuting believers in the most savage of ways, including public execution. Religion, say activists, is viewed as a particular threat by Kim, who, like his father, Kim Il Sung, stands at the center of a bizarre personality cult with numerous religious overtones. "To be a Christian [in North Korea] is not just to follow a different religion," says Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs, an American Christian organization. "It's really seen almost as treason against their whole political system—a system built to deify the leader." Nettleton and his allies in the United States and South Korea are now trying to save Son's life by bringing international pressure to bear on Pyongyang. In the process, they're also drawing attention to a phenomenon little noticed in the outside world: North Korea's growing underground churches, and new legions of Koreans willing to defy their government in the name of God.
Given the secretive nature of Kim's regime, it's hard to say for sure just how many Christians now live inside the country. Estimates range from the low tens of thousands to 100,000, most of whom are Protestants (the country also has at least 10,000 Buddhists, according to government sources). Many of the Christians find religion in the same way as Son. Cross-border travelers come into contact with evangelical Protestant missionary groups from South Korea, who play a prominent role in helping Northerners escape from China—where, if caught, they will be sent back to North Korea and an uncertain fate. Says a South Korean pastor named Song (who withheld his first name to ensure the confidentiality of his work), Christianity is "spreading like wildfire" in the North. Ryu Seong Min, a professor of religion at Hanshin University, says that the North Korean government has been fairly successful in tamping down organized churches. Still, he notes, "people are increasingly turning to religion [there] as their suffering grows."
What many outsiders don't realize is that Christianity has long played an outsize role in Korea. The religion was brought to the peninsula in the late 19th century, primarily by American missionaries. This timing coincided with Korea's colonization by the Japanese, and the new faith soon became linked in the popular mind with anti-Japanese activism. Pyongyang, in particular, soon became known as the "Jerusalem of the East" for its status as a hub of Christian education and evangelizing. (Ruth Graham, the late wife of American evangelist Billy Graham, actually attended Christian boarding school in Pyongyang as a teen in the 1920s.) In 1950, at the beginning of the Korean War, some 3 million believers fled to the South. Today 40 percent of South Korea's population professes some form of Christian belief; most are Presbyterian or Methodist. Their numbers make South Korea the most Christian nation in Asia after the Roman Catholic Philippines. South Korea's megachurches have started to produce a worldwide army of Korean missionaries; with 16,000 of them stationed overseas, they are second only to the Americans in size, and recently made headlines when some were kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The North, meanwhile, has done all it can to crush faith; even neighboring China permits far more religious freedom. It's worth noting, however, that Pyongyang's leaders themselves have clearly learned a lot from Christianity. Kim Il Sung came from a devout Presbyterian family, and even played the organ in church as a child. North Korean converts to Christianity remark that they are struck by how much Kim obviously borrowed from the church for his peculiar brand of communism. Party members are taught 10 commandments of proper political behavior, for example, and often have to meet at Saturday-morning self-criticism sessions, where they confess their sins against the people.
Yet Kim Jong Il clearly cannot tolerate the worship of any gods other than himself. As a result, many believers in the North must live in hiding. "Like the catacombs of Rome, North Korean churches went underground to survive," says one South Korean pastor who teaches the Gospel to Northerners in areas of China close to the border. "Christianity was passed on from parents to children and to grandchildren, creating family churches." Those who cling to the faith are known as gruteogi, or "stumps." Choi Joo Young, 69, spent half a century in the North until she managed to escape to South Korea in 1998. She and her family never gave a sign of their belief in public, but at home they'd lie down on the bed together and quietly sing hymns under a blanket. Sometimes they'd listen to covert broadcasts of sermons from the South on a radio: "We were deeply touched by the great sermons of the Southern pastors," she says, now living in a spartan apartment in Seoul. "We were really hungry for holy words."
Reports of the faithful doggedly clinging to survival continue to trickle out of the homeland. Those who have stayed behind, as well as the new converts, are forced to play a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities. North Korean believers wrap their Bibles in vinyl and keep them buried in the backyard when they aren't needed. Preachers based in China sometimes conduct services for the faithful in the North via illicit cell-phone calls. In five to 10 minutes, the pastor reads from the Bible and prays for the sick and needy. Worshipers have to keep the services short because North Korean authorities hunt the phones down using GPS trackers. Those caught worshiping or smuggling in Bibles from the outside world can be sent to concentration camps—or simply shot in front of press-ganged audiences in town squares. In 2004, the executed even included a North Korean general who, according to the U.K.-based Forum 18, an independent religious-rights watchdog, had converted to Christianity and begun to evangelize among the ranks. Meanwhile, Pyongyang continues to show off its four official churches to gullible foreign visitors, who often don't realize that the only "worshipers" on view are actually communist party members chosen to play the role temporarily.
Given that level of repression, it's hard to imagine that organized religion could, despite Kim's paranoia, become a real threat to his rule any time soon. Nonetheless, underground churches can do serious damage to authoritarian regimes. Pope John Paul II's visits to his native Poland in the 1970s and 1980s struck a blow against the communist dictatorship there. In 1986, it was a Catholic cardinal in Manila who led protesters in the People Power uprising against the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos. And Christianity has a powerful anti-authoritarian record in Korea, where the religion played a role in the underground struggle against Japanese colonialism. And the growing appeal of Christianity signals that more and more North Koreans may be searching for spiritual alternatives to the communist personality cult—a transformation exemplified by Son Jong Nam's own journey from communist functionary to Christian. That unrest could eventually prove dangerous to Kim. In the meantime, Son remains in jail. The last indication that he remained alive came in March of this year. His supporters outside the North have continued to soldier on, in the hope that they can prevent his final metamorphosis: into a martyr for the faith.