Christmas is banned. Religious worship is prohibited. And now even caroling and a little spiked eggnog are geumji doen – forbidden – in North Korea.
In a further effort to limit the influence of foreigners, leader Kim Jong-un this year barred gatherings that involve singing and alcohol, according to the intelligence service in neighboring South Korea (USA Today).
The ongoing crisis between North Korea and the U.S. over Kim’s nuclear ambitions, and a year-long series of missile test launches that seemingly puts a warhead in reach of the U.S. mainland – and stricter sanctions in the pipeline – are clearly a deep concern to Pyongyang, according to the information from South Korea.
The latest ban is designed to control the spread of information coming outside of official government sources and limit opportunities for dissent that may follow tightening sanctions of the country already described as a “hermit kingdom,” South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported on the details in a briefing to the country’s parliament last month (Newsweek).
Pyongyang “has devised a system whereby party organs report people’s economic hardships on a daily basis, and it has banned any gatherings related to drinking, singing and other entertainment and is strengthening control of outside information,” the NIS, as reported by South Korean news agency Yonhap.
Kim quashed Christmas last year and instead urged the country to celebrate the December 24 birthday of his grandmother, Kim Jong-suk, the first wife of Kim Il-sung, who died in 1949 at the age of 29, and is remembered as an activist, a guerilla fighter and the “Sacred Mother of the Revolution.”
Still, vestiges of the holiday persist, as does Christianity, despite a decades long move to push the country’s remaining Christians underground. In Pyongyang, if not outside of the capital, according to a 2016 Associated Press report, there are some decorated trees, lights, baubles, the occasional anthem to the holiday and other trappings of the season.
But public religious displays are suppressed, worshippers meet in private and defectors have reported witnessing the arrests and execution of members of underground Christian churches. These organizations have helped an estimated 20,000 North Koreans to defect to China, according to Time.
The war against Christians – and Christmas – started with the advent of the Kim regime in 1945. Before that, missionaries were prolific, Pyongyang had more Christians than any other city in Korea and the Catholic Church posted a bishop to the capital, according to The Associated Press. And even today, evangelical Christians teach the children of many of the country’s elite, according to the New York Times.
But by the 1950s, repression was the norm and despite freedom of religion being enshrined in the country’s constitution, Christianity is typically practiced in secret.
A 2014 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report estimates the number of Christians in North Korea at between 200,000 to 400,000, and reports on persecution, imprisonment and torture for those caught practicing the religion. The same inquiry into the found the proportion of religious adherents among the population had dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002.
In 2016, a UN human rights special rapporteur and OHCHR released reports stating concerns on North Korea’s use of executions, political prison camps and torture amounting to crimes against humanity.
And yet, like the Grinch found in How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the popular children’s story about the meaning of Christmas, by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, for Christians, the lack of caroling and religious services, won’t stop Christmas at all.
“Incredibly many Christians risk everything to gather on Christmas day and remember the hope that the first Nativity brought to the world,” said Tania Corbett, a spokeswoman for Open Doors, a non-governmental organization that supports persecuted Christians around the world, including North Korea. “For some, it is too dangerous to even speak, so they simply gather together for a few minutes of encouragement. But the knowledge that they are both Christians is then enough.”