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 said.
"Any kind of change is an opportunity for hope," he told CT. "We are hopeful that the changes may bring a new season of opportunity for worship and witness in North Korea. Those who are long-time observers of the country are not so optimistic, but we are asking people to pray that this may be the point in which we see God answer our prayers for these people."
Jong-Il chose his youngest son, Kim Jong-Eun, to be his successor last year after naming Jong-Eun a four-star general. Reports currently indicate the country is accepting Jong-Eun as a leader, but his youth and inexperience could lead to a struggle for power.
When Jong-Eun was named Jong-Il's successor last year, Sam Kim, executive director of the Korean Church Coalition for North Korea Freedom, told CT that Christians in North Korea would likely not see a decrease in persecution.
"Kim Jong-Eun has not earned the true respect from North Korea's communist party leaders to effectively govern North Korea. As such, he will be nothing more than a figurehead and his uncle, Chan Sung Taek, will be the person who is really in control," Kim said. "Unfortunately, Chan Sung Taek is just as ruthless as Kim Jong-Il. As such, Christians can expect to face the same level of persecution."