Inside the Dungeon of Atheism

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Alex Buchan

In North Korea, brave Christians are willing to give their lives to share Christ with just one person.
In August, a 38-year-old soldier named Cho Bung-il went back to North Korea from China to spread the gospel. By the time you read this, he probably will be dead.

Cho has returned to a land so repressive that thousands of Christians are being worked to death in Nazi-style death camps. It is a land so secretive that we know the names of only a few dozen of these believers.

“As soon as I return to North Korea,” Cho told Charisma, “I will be accused of blaspheming the name of Kim Il Sung for fleeing the worker’s paradise that he constructed.” Cho gave himself a “1 percent chance of survival,” smiled, and began the walk back to his homeland.

This man is walking back to the world’s most atheistic–and most religious–country. For it is here in North Korea that communism is an unabashed religion.

Kim Il Sung is not just a leader. He twisted the idea of a Christian Trinity and imposed an ungodly trinity on his subjects. According to scholar Bahn-Suk Lee, Kim Il Sung became the almighty father, Kim Jong Il was “the active word,” the son; and Juche ideology was the very spirit of the revolution. The dictator became a god.

I remember first arriving in North Korea back in 1988 and being fascinated by an opera that praised the great exploits of Kim Il Sung. The words of the chorus were projected at the side of the stage: “Kim Il Sung gives eternal life to the Korean people for 1,000 years.”

I stayed in the country for a few weeks. In subsequent visits, I learned that Kim Il Sung claimed he was born in a stable, began his rule at age 33, called his communist regime “The Three in One,” claimed to have appeared at more than one place at one time and is called “The Immortal One.”

In North Korea, everyone has to worship this leader. It is considered a crime to sit on a newspaper containing his photograph. Since his death in 1994, Kim Il Sung’s physical remains lie in state, well guarded for all to pay homage to. According to the ideology, he has now left his work to his son, Kim Jong Il, who has taken his god-mantle.

Life Inside a Prison State

“Mr. Cho, why are you going back to die?” I asked him. “Can you not work for the gospel from China?”

“But they can’t hear from China” he told me. “In North Korea it is virtually impossible to hear about Jesus Christ. We are utterly cocooned. I only recently discovered that my father and mother were Christians, but they knew I would be tricked into betraying them, so they never told me.”

Tears began to run down his cheeks. What kind of society is so monstrous that even Christian parents dare not share Christ with their own children? I wondered.

Cho was raised to worship Kim Il Sung. At school he studied the dictator’s thoughts. At mealtimes he thanked him for his food. In the evenings he would march home in military formation to the sounds of Kim’s speeches blaring from loudspeakers.

And whenever anything good happened in his life, he would go to the huge golden statue of Kim that formed the center of every town, and give thanks to the “Great Leader.” He was taught religion was a drug and that Christians were traitors who wanted only to harm others.

There were no churches to make Cho think twice. There were no foreign broadcasts to give him another perspective (the radios had only an on-off switch preset to the official channel). And there certainly were no Christians to talk with.

“It never occurred to me that North Korea was not the best of all possible worlds,” he explained. “Kim Il Sung was god, his son Kim Jong Il was his rightful heir, and I dedicated my life to serving them, as did everyone else.”

Cho married and joined North Korea’s army. He served 10 years, receiving home-leave only twice. Stationed most of that time in the sterile capital of Pyongyang, he was posted near his hometown in the north in 2000. He was shocked to see the effects of a famine that had begun five years earlier.

“Everywhere people were laying by the road, sick or dead,” he said. “No smoke came out of any chimney. Blackouts were common. There were confirmed cases of parents eating their grandparents to stay alive.”

The famine still continues. Some say the death toll has reached 3 million. It is the world’s quietest humanitarian disaster of the last decade, and it may have reduced the size of the total population to less than 19 million.

Escape from Hell

Cho was ordered to shoot civilians who clambered onto trains after nightfall in their desperation to move to another area in search of food. He shot three people.

“I felt nothing. I was just obeying orders,” he said. “One of them was a young, pregnant woman. She looked like she was 50. She was probably 20.”

Soon Cho would feel real fear. After he was allowed home-leave to attend his mother’s funeral, he discovered that his wife and child had starved to death two years before. He was never told because of an administrative oversight.

As he was reeling from this news, he heard his father say some words at the funeral. He could hardly believe his ears. His father whispered, “May she rest in the bosom of Jesus.” Cho worried that others may have overheard these taboo words.

Two weeks later he was called in by his superior officer. “What did your father say that day?” the man demanded. “He is under investigation, you know!”

Cho secretly packed a knapsack and slipped away into the night. “I knew it would not be long before I was arrested as the son of an anti-communist revolutionary. My father was sure to be in a labor camp already,” he told me.

Cho was not far from the border, so he used his uniform to pose as a guard pursuing refugees across the frozen Yalu River into China. Two million Koreans live in the Chinese provinces that border North Korea. He thought if he could just find a family they would feed him.

But they turned him in to the police, and he was soon sitting in the back of a truck bound for North Korea. He escaped by hurling himself out of the vehicle and down a cliff.

Suffering from his injuries, he fended for himself for a few days before desperation led him to knock on the door of a house. There was a red cross painted on the lintel, and he assumed it was a Chinese medical station. Hands grabbed him as he fell forward and lost consciousness.

Cho awoke to the sound of music. He was not in a hospital, but a living room. A dozen people were there, singing and clapping their hands.

“I assumed they were singing songs to Chairman Mao,” Cho said. “So I said, ‘You must love Mao very much to sing the way you do.'” There was a silence, then they burst out laughing. “Oh, we are not singing to Mao,” they said. “We are singing to Jesus!”

Cho fainted on the spot. When he awoke he was afraid. “I thought they would kill me. That’s what I was told Christians did.”

But he was nursed back to health, and he told his new friends that he wanted to know this Jesus they sang about. He found Christ as a result of their witness and began to learn about the faith.

He was given a training course in an underground house church. He also received a Bible, and in two months he memorized the four Gospels and the book of Romans. In July he announced his intention to return to North Korea.

“Mr. Cho, why are you going back to die?” I asked him again. He pointed to the Bible. “We need to hear these words. My prayer is that I do not get executed on the spot, but sent to a concentration camp. At least I can witness there. But even if I can speak to one person before I die, this Word is worth it!”

Despite the most intense persecution, there is still a church in North Korea. Estimates range from a credible 10,000 to a wishful 500,000 believers. The true church is too deep underground to count.

Churches were strong before Kim Il Sung took power in 1946. In fact Korea had 400,000 believers–with 50,000 in Pyongyang alone, earning it the nickname, “Asia’s Jerusalem.” But most of these old believers have died, or they are too scared to share their faith.

But the exodus of refugees fleeing famine has meant new opportunities for evangelism. Between 200,000 and 300,000 North Koreans have fled the famine and moved to China. So many of them are becoming believers that it prompted an elderly evangelist to coin a remarkable formula: “persecution + famine = growth.”

“I think the seeds that will bring revival are being scattered now at last,” the old man said. “The refugees cannot find Christ in the country–the propaganda is too all-pervasive. They cannot stay in the society–the famine is too extensive. So they come out [to China] and encounter Christians for the first time, and often experience real love for the first time. After they find this, many feel they have to go back and share the good news, even if it means life and probably death in a labor camp, like Mr. Cho.”

The labor camps are hellish places. A camp survivor, Soon Ok Lee, who became a Christian after reaching South Korea, told of the conditions in the camps in her harrowing memoir, Eyes of the Tailless Animals.

She says Christians were kept separate from other prisoners and were forbidden to look up at the sky. They were given the most dangerous jobs in the camp. Guards received automatic promotion if they forced Christians to recant their faith.

Once or twice a month, guards would pick on Christians for “re-education.” One day a Christian was hung upside down. When he failed to renounce his faith the enraged guard thrashed him, cut him and trampled him to death, and then forced all 6,000 prisoners to walk over his body. He then warned everyone: “This is going to happen to you if you ever believe in heaven.”

“Mr. Cho, why are you going back to die?” I asked a third time.

“Because I might be the uncut rock,” he says mysteriously, referring to his favorite Bible passage in Daniel 2:34-35. It describes how God will take a small rock and destroy a huge statue with feet of iron and clay.

“The idolatrous kingdom of North Korea will fall,” Cho says. “God will send a rock to smash its feet, and I will play my part. Who knows? Perhaps the time of smashing has already come!”

North Korea may be a fortress of cruel atheism, but brave Christians like Cho are not intimidated by it. They know that their message of love will soon penetrate this dark prison they call home.

Alex Buchan was from 1996-2002 the Asia Bureau Chief of Compass Direct, a news agency reporting on the persecuted church. He is now writer-at-large for Open Doors International, a ministry that serves the suffering church worldwide.


Adherents worldwide: 240 million

Largest concentrations: China and Russia in the East; Europe in the West

History: The term was originally used in Greece to refer to those who did not believe in the official state gods. Eventually it came to be used to identify all those who deny the existence of a divine being.

Core beliefs:

There is no God.

Life can be explained naturally rather than supernaturally.

Atheism’s Midwest Headquarters

In Madison, Wisconsin, atheists lack big numbers–but they have missionary zeal.

Atheism is not the religion of choice in the United States by any means. According to statistics gathered since the September 11 attacks, at least 71 percent of Americans say they never doubt the existence of God–even if they don’t attend church or list any religious preference.

But unbelief has taken hold in certain regions of the country, including Madison, Wisconsin. In this leafy Midwest city, people who dislike religion have found a comfortable home.

That’s what Dan Barker found when he arrived in Madison back in the 1980s to visit the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a group that publishes Freethought Today, a journal for people who oppose belief in a personal God. Based in an old sandstone building in downtown Madison that was once a church and later a rectory, FFRF has only 5,000 members. But from its headquarters it lobbies for a strict separation of church and state and has engaged in legal action against religious groups.

“Madison is a pocket of atheism,” says Barker, a former Assemblies of God minister who turned away from his faith 20 years ago. “Even the Christians here are open to us,” he says of Madison, noting that a Methodist church recently invited him to speak to a Sunday school class.

Barker, who admits he is now “an evangelist for atheism,” says his group differs slightly from American Atheists, the larger atheist organization founded by the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair. That’s because FFRF also welcomes agnostics, “freethinkers” and other skeptics, while American Atheists has always stood for a stricter interpretation of unbelief.

O’Hair, whose high-profile murder in the 1990s was never solved, often debated pastors and philosophers to try to prove that God does not exist, and she even wrote an essay against agnosticism–the theory that God exists but is uninvolved in human affairs.

O’Hair’s crusade against God began in the early 1960s when she successfully convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that prayer in schools is unconstitutional. A California atheist was not as successful in 2002 when he went to court to have the Pledge of Allegiance pulled from schools because it contains the phrase “under God.” Although a federal appeals court ruled in his favor, the decision was overturned. But the flap over the pledge gave atheists a higher profile.

“We are coming out of the closet,” says Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, which sponsored a “Godless March on Washington” on November 2. It drew only 2,400 people. Joining in that event were members of 70 groups including Atheists Anonymous, Teens Without God and the Maine Atheists Union–whose slogan is “Nobody has all the answers and nobody ever will.”
J. Lee Grady

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