Few people can say they have it good in North Korea, but at one point Son Jong Nam could. He was the son of a high-ranking officer in the all-powerful military. As a child he never had to worry about going hungry. As an adult he became part of Kim Jong Il's personal security detail—paid well, and trusted implicitly.
All of which makes him a potent symbol now. In 1997, Son's pregnant wife was hauled in for questioning after dropping a critical remark about Kim's handling of the famine. An interrogator kicked her in the stomach; she lost the baby. Distraught, Son fled to China with her and their young daughter—but the wife died soon after, according to Son's brother, who now lives in Seoul. Son turned to one of the missionaries operating clandestinely along the border, helping refugees escape. Like many others Son converted to Christianity. Unlike most, he returned to North Korea to spread the Gospel. Today he sits on death row in Pyongyang, accused of being a spy.
Evangelicals have taken up Son's cause, drawing rare attention to the North's underground church. In theory Christians are free to practice in the North; Pyongyang boasts one Roman Catholic, one Russian Orthodox and two Protestant churches. But Kim, who (like his father before him) is deified by a state-run personality cult, views any rival faith as a threat. "To be a Christian is not just to follow a different religion," says Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs, one of several U.S. and South Korean Christian groups urging Son's release. "It's really seen almost as treason against their whole political system."
It's hard to say how many covert Christians the North has; estimates range from the low tens of thousands to 100,000. Christianity came to the peninsula in the late 19th century. Pyongyang, in fact, was once known as the "Jerusalem of the East." (Billy Graham's late wife, Ruth, attended Christian boarding school in Pyongyang as a teen in the 1920s, and even the original Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, came from a devout Christian family.) In 1950, at the beginning of the Korean War, some 5 million of those believers fled to the South, where today 40 percent of the population professes some form of Christianity, making it Asia's most Christian nation after the Catholic Philippines.
Those who stayed in the North went into hiding. (The "worshipers" visitors see at the official churches tend to be Communist Party members chosen to play the role.) Missionaries say Christians often keep their Bibles buried in the backyard, wrapped in vinyl. Preachers based in China sometimes conduct services by mobile phone. In five to 10 minutes the pastor reads Bible passages and prays for the sick and needy. Services are kept short; the regime uses GPS trackers to locate the phones.
The Christian activists along the border are a dedicated bunch, but they have a vested interest in dramatizing the plight of their brethren in the North. The latest U.S. State Department human-rights report says that "members of underground churches have been beaten, arrested, detained in prison camps, tortured or killed" in the North, but emphasizes that such accounts are unconfirmed. Son hasn't been heard from in months. But his supporters remain convinced that they can help him to survive and, in so doing, win one small battle for a beleaguered faith.