Correction: This article originally incorrectly identified Bruce Klingner. He is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. We regret the error.

The United States removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in October, but observers say Christians still have much to fear from its government.

"As long as the Kim Jong Il regime and its successors remain in control, [North Korea] is going to be a brutally repressive country," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation and former North Korea analyst for the CIA. "It's going to continue to be a dismal future for Christians."

The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates that there are 467,894 Christians in North Korea and 10,592 Christian martyrs each year. Open Doors ministry lists the country as the world's worst religious persecutor.

Observers say that even the death of Kim Jong Il, rumored to be in poor health, may not improve conditions.

"Our contacts are telling us that in the short term, it doesn't matter," said Todd Nettleton, spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs. "The people who brought Kim Jong Il to the throne are not going to suddenly decide, 'Hey, let's let Christians worship freely.'"

However, Franklin Graham says he preached the gospel at Pyongyang's Bongsu Protestant Church in August with no restriction from authorities. Graham also visited the country in 2000. He and his father, evangelist Billy Graham, are the only two Americans who have been permitted to preach at Bongsu.

"Some say [the churches] are a sham, this isn't real, but I think that is a call the Lord wouldn't have us make," said Mel Cheatham, special assistant to Franklin Graham and a board member of Samaritan's Purse, which provides aid to North Korea. "God knows what is real and what is a sham. The service is like what you would experience in a church here in the U.S. or in South Korea."

Billy Graham's visits to Communist countries were controversial throughout his career. His 1977 visit to Hungary drew criticism from exiles worried that he would lend credibility and propaganda opportunities to the country's regime. Franklin's visits to North Korea have been similarly controversial.

On the other hand, Graham's visits may have played a role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, said David Aikman, author of Billy Graham: his Life and Influence.

"One of the effects he had was to boost the sense of self-confidence of Protestants in Eastern Europe to the extent that they were willing to take part in the generalized revolt against Communist rule," he said.

But Aikman isn't sure that the North Korea trips are having the same effect. "Franklin is a talented person and a good speaker; he's just not in the same league as his father as an international statesman," Aikman said.

Likewise, Open Doors president Carl Moeller said it is unclear if the political and diplomatic developments will empower North Korean Christians or just the regime.

"We can hope there will be more openings to bring in Christian teachers, Christian hospitals, and those kinds of things to the people of North Korea," he said. "Time will tell if that is the benefit of pulling them off the [terrorism] list. We have a feeling … this regime will feel emboldened, more accepted, and … will go further in its abuse of Christians and other dissidents."

Suzanne Scholte, chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, is unambivalent. "If you do anything to help Kim Jong Il or give him higher stature, I think that you're basically partnering with the Devil," she said. "This isn't just a misguided, misinformed regime that needs to be introduced to the salvation of Jesus Christ. This is a regime that is totally against Jesus Christ."

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today stories on North Korea can be found here.

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