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North Korea Announces Death of Kim Jong-Il

Experts cautious about impact on nation's 480,000 Christians.

Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean dictator who helped the country become a nuclear power after he took over in 1994, died of a heart attack on Saturday, state-run media announced on Monday. He was 69.

For nine years, North Korea has held the top spot on the Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks the world's worst persecutors of Christians. It is expected that the 2012 list, which will be revealed on January 4, will continue the tradition. At least 480,000 Christians live in North Korea as of 2010, according to recent Pew research.

Of the more than 150,000 people that the U.S. State Department estimates are currently in North Korean labor camps, an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 are Christians imprisoned because of their faith, said Paul Estabrooks, senior communications specialist for Open Doors International. Any form of worship to anyone other than Jong-Il or his father, Kim Il-Sung, is regarded as treason. Jong-Il's death could mark a new opportunity for Christians in the country, Estabrooks ...

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