This year Christmas again arrives in the middle of a religious storm. Islam has been pitted against Christianity, with flash points in Africa, Syria and other parts of the Middle East and even right here in the United States, but there is perhaps no country on earth where Christmas is more despised than North Korea.
“Just like on other days of the year, at Christmas time there will be Christians who perish in the death camps of North Korea,” said a spokesman for the non-profit group Open Doors USA, which serves persecuted Christians around the world. “Christians do reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ. Only they can’t just go along to church to sing or listen to a sermon. They can’t even visit one another to read the Bible together. Being a Christian in North Korea is very lonely.”
The statement, published by World Net Daily (WND), is from 2007, but given the scarcity of news coming out of North Korea it serves as an important account of what it is like for Christians in the country. According to an Open Doors member who coordinates work for the group from a secret location within North Korea, Christians have found a way to practice their religion, but it involves secrecy, and danger.
“For example,” says the Open Doors operative, “a Christian goes and sits on a bench in the park. Another Christian comes and sits next to him…If there is no one around, they may be able to share a Bible verse which they have learned by heart and briefly say something about it…Then they leave one another and go and look for Christians in some other part of their town.”
In 1971, neighboring South Korea constructed a steel tower topped with a cross and decked out with light bulbs near the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries. The tower was made to resemble a gigantic Christmas tree. “Batteries of loudspeakers sent Christmas carols drifting across the snow-covered border into the North,” the New York Times reported in 2014. North Korea has called the Christmas tower “psychological warfare” and threatened to bomb it. Last year, South Korea dismantled the tower, citing not religious reasons or bombing concerns but issues of safety, because the tower had become so rusty.
As much as it is shunned, there’s at least some information about Christmas in North Korea. For other customs, current knowledge is virtually nonexistent. Thanks to the enterprising reporting of NK News correspondent Mina Yoon, though, we do have a good idea about what a funeral is like in North Korea.
“There is really no concept of an ‘undertaker’ in North Korea,” Yoon reports. “You can find one or two in town if you ask around, but they are mostly elderly people who just so happen to have experience taking care of corpses, neither certified nor licensed.”
Yoon is in her early 20s and left North Korea in 2010. For her grandmother’s funeral Yoon’s uncle found one of the above-mentioned unlicensed undertakers. But, like most North Koreans, her family is poor—about half of the country’s 24 million people live in “extreme poverty,” according to a 2013 report by the Korea Institute for National Unification. There isn’t much money for funerals.
“We could not afford to buy new clothes to bury her in, so we dressed her in her old, thin summer blouse,” says Yoon. “My mother suffered from nightmares for a while after that; she said grandma appeared in her dreams saying it was too cold. Mother felt heavy guilt that she couldn’t get her a winter coat for the trip to heaven.”
Other details about North Korean funerals that might be surprising to Americans:
In North Korea, there’s an old custom that the body of a person who died in a foreign land cannot enter the house. So, if someone dies while they’re out of the country, the funeral is held in that person’s workplace, either in a hallway or an office.
The typical North Korean funeral lasts for three days. Still, given the countries antiquated transportation and communication systems, making it to the event on time is a big problem. Many homes in the countryside don’t even have telephones, and rely on telegrams for information.
Most burials seem to take place in the mountains, and authorities assign which mountains are to be used as cemeteries and by whom.
A friend of Yoon’s uncle was able to secure a gravesite for her grandmother in the mountains. Like virtually everyone in the country, her family doesn’t own a vehicle, so they, “went to the truck factory and begged to the manager.” He gave them a truck, though they had to pay for it, plus gas and a driver. “My aunt said it would take more than a year to pay back the debt she took on for the funeral,” writes Yoon. “My father offered to pay half, and I remember our family’s lives getting harder for a while after that.”
Some families are even worse off. “There are many people to whom even this simplest farewell is an unattainable luxury,” says Yoon. “They keep the ceremony to only family, set the table with a freshly cooked bowl of rice, then transport the coffin in a cart to the mountain, where they bury it with no one’s help.”
Compare that to the death of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, in 2011. His funeral procession was 25 miles long, one Lincoln Continental limousine carried his casket, another carried a giant portrait of him.
A candid remark toward the end of Yoon’s article sheds light on just how grim the situation is. “It’s not only the living in North Korea who are pitiful,” says Yoon, “the dead are, too.”
As for the fate of Christmas, about a year ago the International Business Times reported that the Christian Council of Korea had gained permission from the government to build a new Christmas tower on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone. But earlier this month NK News reported that nearby South Korean residents are opposed to the new tower.
“Whenever the tree is lit, residents should evacuate to a shelter, and soldiers in two military troops should sleep wearing shoes in case of an emergency situation,” Kim Dae-hoon, executive director of a local group opposing the tower told NK News, alluding to the idea that the tower could be bombed by the North Koreans.
“We call it a ‘war tree,’” said Dae-hoon, “not a Christmas tree.”