Generally, the most straightforward questions about North Korea are the hardest ones to answer—not only for the general public, but even for North Korean analysts and intelligence agencies. For years, North Korea has been called “the failure of the intelligence community,” because even major events (like the death of Kim Il Sung) often go undetected until North Korea chooses to announce them. And often the information that intelligence agencies release about North Korea proves to be exactly wrong.
Even the question “How many people are there in North Korea?” is a carefully guarded state secret. The answer usually given is, “Somewhere between 20 and 25 million.” That’s a lot of variability!
So when it comes to determining with precision a subset of that population—especially a subset that by definition must remain deep underground—the question is notoriously difficult. Underground Christians must remain undetected not only by their own government but also by their own neighbors, their co-workers, and even their family members. (You can read more about this in my book, These are the Generations, which is the testimony of third generation underground North Korean Christians. Mr. Bae, the third generation Christian, marries Mrs. Bae, who is not only not a Christian when they marry but is actually an ethics teacher at a North Korean school, responsible for teaching the students the one hundred stories of Kim Il Sung’s life that every North Korean must memorize. In the book, the Baes share the surprising way Mrs. Bae came to know Christ.)
North Korean underground Christians do not even reveal their Christian identity to their own children until the children reach the age of fifteen. That is because North Korean school teachers are tasked with the responsibility of getting children to inadvertently reveal that their families are Christian. They ask questions like, “Do your parents have a special book they hide in your home? Do they sing different songs than the ones we sing in school? Do they ever bow their head or close their eyes and mumble?” In this way more than a few children have been the cause of their own families (including themselves) ending up in concentration camps.
The story that best illustrates this situation was told to Dr. Foley and me by a woman who came from an underground Christian family in North Korea. When she was about seven years old, she found a Bible in her home. Without hesitation, she knew she needed to inform the police. Her parents, underground Christian leaders, tied her up in a chair in order to prevent her from going out. They shared the gospel with her, and she became a Christian (and later a church leader) rather than a government informer.
So with all of this secrecy, is there any hope that we can estimate with any degree of accuracy the number of Christians in North Korea?
The answer is, fortunately, yes. And for several reasons.
First, underground Christians typically keep detailed oral records of church life. Many can trace their heritage back to the beginning of the gospel arriving into North Korea. They even know what denomination they are—despite the fact that almost no denominational distinctives are practiced or maintained by underground North Korean Christians. This oral history allows us to reconstruct data like the spread of Christianity in North Korea, the persecutions, and the current status of the church in the local area. (Typically, North Korean Christians know nothing about the status of the church outside of their own area. They are unable to travel from town to town without special permits, and the church in North Korea is highly diffuse, not centralized.)
Second, there are now more than 30,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea. According to studies (which our own research and experience continue to confirm), 80 percent of North Korean defectors in South Korea maintain regular monthly contact with their relatives in North Korea. Sadly, many Christian ministries and churches do not build close relationships of trust with North Korean defectors, and so defectors share very little with them about their families inside of North Korea. But for organizations like VOM Korea, building relationships of trust with North Korean defectors has been the foundation of our ministry for more than fifteen years. As a result, we sit amidst rich data resources about what is happening in local areas across North Korea. This has allowed us to make increasingly accurate observations and predictions over the years as relates to the current status of Christianity inside North Korea.
Third, there is more data available than ever before. The South Korean government Ministry of Unification conducts its own surveys about life inside of North Korea, including religious life, as do other organizations. Also, there are hundreds of thousands of North Koreans who are still North Korean citizens but who are either working overseas at the assignment of the North Korean government, or who are living in China illegally in order to make money for their families. This has created a veritable flood of data about North Korean life Taken collectively, these studies paint a very detailed and credible summary of the current state of religious life in North Korea, which allows analysts to, for example, estimate the number of Christians in North Korea.
Even given this volume of data, you will see widely varying estimates of the number of Christians in North Korea. Some Christian organizations claim that as many as ten percent of the North Korean population, or about two million people, are Christian. However, most organizations—from governmental agencies to human rights organizations to Christian ministries including VOM Korea—typically estimate that the actual number of Christians in North Korea is around one hundred thousand, of which thirty thousand are detained in concentration camps. In our view, based upon our own research, the research and analysis of other credible organizations and data gathering entities, and the collective experience of us and other groups, we are comfortable saying that the total number of Christians may be as low as sixty thousand and as high as one hundred twenty thousand.
But why do some groups say that there are two million Christians? There are three reasons why.
First, the organizations who make these claims typically do not attempt to integrate their own data with that of other organizations. As a result, they extrapolate from a very small slice of data (like the number of Christians along the border with North Korea and China, or the percentage of Christians in the areas where they work, which tend to be the areas most permeable to outside communication) and, in our view, overestimate significantly. It is like the story of the blind men feeling parts of an elephant and trying to figure out what it is. It takes many blind men cooperating together in order to figure out what they are feeling. In the same way, it takes many organizations and researchers working together and sharing data in order to come up with accurate estimates. When an organization makes an estimate based only on their own data, that estimate is far less likely to be accurate than when organizations work together, sharing information where possible, and humbly listening to one another’s insights. North Korea is a far more diverse country demographically than people realize. Some Christians are rich. Some Christians are poor. Some live on the border with China. Some live in Pyongyang. Some live on the sea. Some towns have a stronger Christian presence, while others have a weaker presence. All organizations have to cooperate together in order to develop as accurate a picture as possible. And that picture needs to be continually updated, literally month by month, as new data becomes available. Regrettably, some organizations do not cooperate well with others, and, as a result, their data and insights are not as accurate as others.
Second, some Christian organizations either are unable to tell the difference between real North Korean Christians and North Korean spies posing as Christians. Intelligence agencies report that more than ninety percent of North Koreans who encounter missionaries on the North Korea/China border are spies, specially trained and dispatched by the North Korean government to infiltrate missionary organizations in order to gather information and draw money and resources into North Korea. If an organization is unable to tell the difference between an actual North Korean Christian, a North Korean seeker, and a North Korean spy expertly trained to imitate a North Korean Christian or seeker, then they will estimate that there is a much greater number of Christians inside North Korea than there really are. If ninety percent of North Koreans visiting missionary bases are spies, it stands to reason that their estimates will be ninety percent higher than those of organizations that can and do tell the difference between spies and Christians. And that is indeed the case: Some organizations say two million Christians. We say one hundred thousand Christians—and an even greater number of spies.
Third, the number of Christians in North Korea is definitely not static. Given that about a third of North Korean Christians are in concentration camps according to best estimates, and that life in a concentration camp does not last long, imagine the number of new Christians required even to keep the number of Christians level. And yet all indications—regardless of who is estimating—is that Christianity is continuing to grow in North Korea. But even a phenomenal, exponential growth rate would be barely enough to keep the Christian population level.
Fourth, even the question of who counts as a Christian is a matter of some debate. I read a recent review of my book, These are the Generations, in which the reviewer liked the book but wondered whether the Baes were actually even Christian. The basis of his concern? In the book they do not use the same kind of language that Western evangelicals use to describe their faith, e.g., personal relationship with Christ, born again, accepting Christ as Lord and savior, etc., etc. In South Korea, some Christian leaders debate whether there are any North Korean Christians because North Korean Christianity does not look like South Korean Christianity, e.g., there are no pastors, no church buildings, no regular gatherings outside of family members, etc., etc. Our dear friend and ministry partner Pastor Tom Doyle, the author of Dreams and Visions and a number of other books, told me that he had a member of his church that doubted that Middle Eastern Christians were actually Christian, despite the fact that they were living and dying for Christ. One day that same church member didn’t show up at church, so Pastor Tom called to check up on him. “It was too windy for me to go,” the church member said. It is perhaps too easy for us to judge what counts as Christianity in other countries, and our own cultural lenses often prevent us from seeing the extreme devotion of believers in other countries and the tepid faith in ourselves. At VOM Korea, we extend the hand of Christian fellowship to all those who can subscribe to the Nicene Creed as the rule of faith and life. Other groups would find that an unsuitable definition of what counts as a Christian. We leave the matter to God and simply state our definitions openly so others know where we are coming from.
I would conclude by suggesting that however many Christians there are in North Korea, and however you might define Christianity, you can certainly pray with them, that God will find them faithful where they are, and that God will find you faithful where you are. If we are uncertain how many Christians there are in North Korea, it may be that we can not be too certain about the question in our own countries. What we know is in countries like the United States and Korea, the church is on the decline. We believe that the North Korean underground church, and underground churches around the world, are God’s plan for renewal for the church worldwide. However many Christians there are in North Korea, the United States, and South Korea, may there be more tomorrow, and may we who know Christ be even more committed tomorrow than we are today.