WASHINGTON (BP) -- North Korea's decades-long attempt to eliminate Christianity has practically erased any knowledge of Jesus for citizens, attendees were told Thursday at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The ERLC hosted the meeting on religious liberty under the dictatorial regime at a U.S. Senate office building as a side event on the third and final day of the State Department's second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. "Humanity Denied: Religious Freedom in North Korea" included a panel discussion, an interview with an escapee from North Korea and the premiere of a documentary film of the same name.
Kenneth Bae -- imprisoned by North Korea longer than any other American citizen -- told the audience he has met hundreds of people who have fled that country since he began his work with refugees in South Korea after his release in 2014. Never has he met a North Korean who heard the name "Jesus" in his or her home country, Bae said.
"The people who are about 50 and under never had a chance to hear about Jesus," he said.
North Korea is "a country [in which] Christianity has been eliminated," Bae said, though Christians still meet in underground churches. If the government learns a person is a Christian, it may not only kill that person but also his or her parents and children.
Government officials consider religious adherents, especially Christians, the "biggest threat to their existence," he said.
The event was the latest in the ERLC's efforts this year on behalf of religious freedom in the Asian country. ERLC staff advocated for religious liberty in North Korea and China in particular during the meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this year in Geneva, Switzerland.
Messengers at June's Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting passed a resolution condemning the North Korean and Chinese regimes for their "extreme religious persecution." They also pledged to pray for the end of persecution in China and North Korea and called on the United States and the international community to make religious freedom a top priority. In 2015, messengers approved a resolution calling for religious freedom and human rights in North Korea.
A one-family dictatorship has ruled North Korea since the country's establishment more than 70 years ago. Kim Il-sung reigned until his death in 1994, followed by his son, Kim-Jong-il, and now his grandson, Kim Jong-un. Totalitarianism, religious oppression -- especially of Christians -- and economic deprivation have marked their rule.
"The situation in North Korea is absolutely dire," said Olivia Enos, senior policy analyst in the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.
North Korea "consistently ranks as number one" in studies estimating "the worst places in the world to be a Christian," Enos told the audience. "[T]he Kim regime sees religion as potentially threatening to its leadership."
North Korea has prison camps as well as political prison camps "that people typically go to, and they never leave," she said. In political prison camps, a person can experience hard labor, torture and years of lacking necessary food and water for such offenses as reading the Bible and listening to South Korean music, she said.
Conservatively, 80,000 to 120,000 of the country's 25 million people are in political prison camps, Enos told participants. It is believed millions may already have died in the camps, she said.
Steven Harris, a policy director for the ERLC, traveled to South Korea in March to meet with church leaders, activists and escapees from North Korea. The deep awareness of the "lack of not just religious freedom but just freedom of thought and conviction" stood out to him, Harris told attendees.
An escapee from North Korea told Harris in an interview during the event that his was "one of those generations brainwashed" to believe North Korea was "one of the best countries" in the world. The escapee -- whose name is withheld for his safety -- said he saw people dying of starvation on the street and knew others were fleeing to China only to be returned to North Korea.
He successfully escaped North Korea on his second attempt 15 years ago as a teenager and now lives in a democracy. Of North Korea's future, he said, "We don't know what is going to happen. I am not going to ask you why you came here today. I am going to ask you here how you are going to support us."
Bae, a theological seminary graduate, had been taking Christian tourists into North Korea from China over a period of two years when he was arrested in 2012 for carrying a hard drive with western media material on it.
When it was learned Bae was a Christian missionary, the North Koreans told him he was trying to overthrow the government "through prayer and worship," he said. They told him they were not afraid of American nuclear weapons, but "we are afraid of someone like you bringing religion into our country and then using it against us, and everybody will turn to God, and this will become God's country, and we will fall," Bae said. He was told, "You are probably the most dangerous American criminal we have ever had since the Korean War," he said.
Since his release, Bae has started the Nehemiah Global Initiative to pray for North Korea, provide Bibles and rice to North Koreans and rescue refugees. From 1,000 to 1,300 North Koreans arrive in South Korea each year, he said.
God has reminded him, Bae said, "I still have not forgotten 25 million who never heard. I've seen their tears. I've heard their cries. I will restore them once again."
Harris encouraged those in attendance to pray for North Koreans, advocate for them locally and nationally, and serve any refugees from that country who might be nearby.
Also speaking on the panel was Jin Shin, who gave an overview of North Korea's history. He is a political science professor at Chungnam National University in Daejon, South Korea, and co-chair of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom and Belief in North Korea.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.