If North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is reviewing his brutal regime's to-do list for 2010, he could put check marks beside at least five high-profile events:
- Sink a South Korean ship in March, killing 46 sailors.
- Celebrate 65 years of communist rule that has deeply impoverished the average citizen, ensnared unknown masses of political prisoners, and left the beleaguered population cut off from the outside world.
- Begin transition of rule to youngest son, Kim Jong Un-a figure so shrouded in mystery, media reports can only estimate his age at 27.
- Reveal a previously undetected uranium enrichment facility and report that it has "thousands" of centrifuges. (Note: Claim this plant is for nuclear power and don't give a visiting U.S. scientist enough access to confirm if it's operational.)
- Cap off the year with an unprovoked artillery attack on a South Korean island-killing two civilians and two South Korean marines-in the first attack on South Korean soil since 1953. (Note: When South Korea prepares for routine military exercises on the island in mid-December, threaten an even harsher attack.)
But for all that North Korea has brazenly shown the world this year, an even more chilling reality lies beneath: What horrors are unfolding in the unseen corners of the world's most reclusive regime?
Amnesty International offered a glimpse earlier this year, reporting on North Korea's collapsed healthcare system. Witnesses described grim conditions, including doctors sometimes performing amputations without anesthesia and working by candlelight in hospitals lacking electricity.
Other humanitarian groups reported that a collapsed monetary system could be inducing the kind of famine that killed massive numbers in the 1990s. A North Korean Christian-part of one of the most endangered groups of citizens in the anti-Christian nation-told Open Doors International that basic conditions were dire: "It's downright chaos and utter panic."
But some of the North Koreans walking in darkness have seen a great light: Open Doors reports that despite the regime's severe persecution of Christians-including imprisonment of as many as 70,000 believers and reports of executions for offensives as simple as owning a Bible-brave men and women continue to practice their faith. Whispered prayers and family worship are common-being overheard praying or caught meeting in groups could prove deeply dangerous or deadly.
The 2010 edition of Operation World explains: "The only acceptable religion [in North Korea] is Cheondogyo, or 'Kim Il-Sungism,' the cult of the deceased leader. . . . All other religions are harshly repressed." The 900-page book-full of statistics and prayer requests about Christians in nearly every nation in the world-adds this about the secretive nation: "Very little is known about today's underground Church, only that is has survived and is growing amid great suffering and danger."
Open Doors reports that it supports North Korean Christians by clandestinely providing Bibles, books, education, and relief aid. At the year's end, one North Korean Christian asked the group and its supporters to continue to pray for believers in the oppressive regime-and give thanks for the continued growth of the church. "I am very proud to see our believers' faithful lives becoming more and more stabilized," he said. "Their lives are in danger everyday, and they still follow the Lord."