North Korea (MNN) — The leader of one of the most repressive nations is dead. North Korea is listed#1 on Open Doors World Watch list of countries supporting persecution of Christians. North Korea's "great leader" died over the weekend, ending the second-generation dictator Kim Jong Il's 17-year terror-filled reign over the nation. A government statement say the 70-year-old leader's death was brought on by mental and physical strain while on a domestic train trip. What will this mean for Christians?
Paul Estabrooks with Open Doors has traveled to North Korea. He says he's not surprised by Kim Jong Il's death: "We've known Kim Jong Il has been ill for some time. But, the fact that it happened suddenly is always a surprise. And now, the big question is: what's going to happen next?"
A government statement called on North Koreans to "loyally follow" his son, Kim Jong Un. However, Estabrooks isn't sure his son will actually lead the country. "He is the pick of his father. It's very likely that he will be at least be a figurehead leader, but how much real power he has is the political issue that's in question."
Many are concerned that Kim Jong Un will create a crisis to show how tough he is. "This is always the fear with Korea, because they still believe the United States still wants to wipe them off the map. And, part of that is because there never was a peace agreement after the Korean War ended in 1953."
For Christians in Korea, pray for change. "There are still 50,000 to 70,000 [Christians] in labor camps. We know over all there are over 200,000 political prisoners in labor camps in North Korea. They're treated very poorly. They're basically starved."
However, there are Christians in North Korea, who aren't in labor camps. Estabrooks says they, "have to be extremely secretive. They meet in small groups, usually just the family, and they're under tremendous duress when they do anything that might reveal the fact that they are followers of Jesus."
There's a reason Christians are attacked. "Those who are Christians are not true to the state because everyone must worship the Great Leader. When I was there a year and a half ago with a group from Canada, we were taken to every statue they made of him–which are many–and the demand is to bow. And, of course, we would stand there silently, but none of us would bow, and it irritated them."
A North Korean Christian refugee in Seoul, South Korea, told Open Doors that she had mixed feelings when she heard the news of the death of Kim Jong-Il.
"I always thought I'd be happy when he was dead. I hated him but God taught me to love my enemies. My North Korean friends react in different ways. One is angry and says: 'He should have died like Moammar Gadhafi (former Libyan dictator killed several months ago).' Another is relieved: 'Congratulations! Now the Koreas will become one nation soon.' To be honest, I don't see that happening very quickly. Even if the 'absolute power' has died, the generals and other rulers will do their very best to keep control."
According to Open Doors sources, North Korea has closed the borders and sealed off the usually tolerated black markets. Security agents and police officers are seen on every street and alley. The sound of wailing people is being heard throughout the country.
Brother Simon concludes: "We hope 2012 will see real change politically and economically, but especially in freedom to believe. We pray for freedom for all citizens so that they may be free to live how they want and allowed to believe what they want. We want those prison camps to open up so we can embrace our brothers and sisters in Christ who have suffered there under terrible circumstances."
Open Doors secretly trained over 4,000 Christians and gave emergency aid (food, clothing and other goods), to 56,000 North Korean Christians in 2011. Open Doors distributed more than 30,000 Bibles, books and other materials in North Korea. Additionally, Open Doors formed a network to help train North Korean defectors and believers living along China's border areas.