A quick Google search of “Christmas in North Korea” brings up very little actual concrete information.
From US tabloids branding Kim Jong-un the “Grinch who stole Christmas” to a veritable plethora of Christmas jumpers which feature predictable puns that incorporate Christmas and nuclear weapons, it is hard to ascertain what the festive season in the world’s most secretive and isolated regime is actually like.
The short answer is that it is something of a non-event. Santa Claus may exist in the imaginations of millions of children in the West — but for those in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea he's not even a mythological figure. The North Korean government works hard to ensure information about religious holidays does not enter the so-called hermit kingdom, and its citizens subsequently remain unaware people are yanking crackers, gorging on mince pies and belting out Christmas hymns across the West.
This is because inside North Korea – a country widely deemed to be one of the most hostile and repressive towards organised religion – you can be imprisoned, tortured or ordered to death for simply celebrating Christmas.
Kang Jimin, who grew up on the ghostly grey concrete streets of the capital of Pyongyang, says he remained wholly oblivious to Christmas while living there.
“There is no Christmas in North Korea. I did not know what it was,” the 31-year-old tells The Independent. “Christmas is Jesus Christ’s birthday but North Korea is obviously a communist country so people do not know who Jesus Christ is. They do not know who God is. The Kim family is their god.”
Rather bizarrely, Christmas trees adorned with baubles and Christmas lights can be found in Pyongyang, but are there all year round and citizens are unlikely to be aware of the festive connotations they bear.
But this does not mean the North Korean government were happy with the Christmas tree-shaped tower the South Korean government constructed near the border with the North.
The tower – which was about two miles from the border and had in the past been lit up at Christmas – could be glimpsed by North Koreans living in nearby towns. Incensed by it, the North threatened to shoot it down back in 2014, saying it constituted “psychological warfare”.
But while Christmas is forbidden in North Korea, celebrating the birthday of Kim Jong-Suk – the deceased grandmother of Kim Jong-Un – is certainly not. People mark the revolutionary idol’s birthday, which falls on Christmas Eve, by making pilgrimages to a town in the north-east called Hoeryong (her birthplace).
“The birthday of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un – the men – is more important, but Kim Jong-Suk’s birthday was celebrated. People come together and have a drink and sometimes drink too much,” he says.
Kang says he did not know any Christians when he was living in North Korea, adding: “I did not know any Christians or anyone who believed in God. The North Korean government control all of the media and the Internet, and people I met did not know who Jesus was.”
But it has not always been like this. Pyongyang was something of a hotbed of Christianity prior to the Korean War, which divided the peninsula into a communist North and capitalist South, and many Christian preachers were in fact from the north of the country.
“About 60 years ago, it was a very Christian country, people called it the ‘Jerusalem of the east’,” reflects Kang.
He says the country has become increasingly religious since 1996 because increasing numbers of North Koreans escaped and came into contact with pastors in China, and then came back into North Korea to disseminate their faith.
But Kang says he remained unaware of those practising Christianity underground because he lived too far from the border with China to be informed of what was going on. “I believe that people were practising but I did not meet any Christians,” he says.
Nevertheless, he was aware of the stark punishments enforced on those who dared practice religion in the atheist state.
“You can’t say you are Christian. If you do, they will send you to a prison camp,” he says. “I heard about a family who believed in God and the secret police caught them. They are now all dead – even the children – a 10-year-old and a seven-year-old.”
“My friend was working in the secret police and he told me they caught a Christian family who were trying to get people to convert,” he continued. “They tried to get information out of them like where they learnt about God and how they got bibles.
“The only reason they were giving them food was to get information but the family did not say or eat anything, and instead just died.”
However, it is worth noting there are some state-sanctioned and state-controlled Christian churches in North Korea, but they take a highly different form to what we think of in the west. The Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) estimates there to be 121 religious facilities in the country, including 64 Buddhist temples, 52 Cheondoist temples, and five state-controlled Christian churches.
Kang was only aware of one state church, but says it was nigh on impossible to visit for most people. “Most of the time normal citizens can’t go there. It is very controlled and meant for visitors to the country. It’s so if someone asks, ‘Do you have churches?’, they can say: ‘Of course we have churches, we have everything because we are a free country’, and then take them on a tour.”
He says he met an American man who actually visited the church and remarked on how fake it appeared. “He said, ‘They were singing Christian songs but it was perfect, it was like they had the same people in the church everyday training and practising together,’” Kang recalls.
This echoes the findings of the South Korean government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU) 2015 white paper, which reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship and normal citizens deemed such places predominantly as “sightseeing spots for foreigners”.
Kang, now 31, managed to escape North Korea in 2007 at the age of 20. He and his sister were caught six times before they made it to China but paid someone off each time. Fortunately for him, he had saved up money from selling electrical goods on the black market – a fast-growing phenomenon which the North Korean government are failing to control.
After a number of failed missions, Kang at long last succeeded in tracking down a broker whom he paid $10,000 so he could cross into China. Once there he found another broker who got him to Britain on an illegal passport where he claimed asylum.
He now lives in North Malden, a sleepy south-west London suburb which is home to an estimated 700 North Koreans, and is the largest North Korean community in Europe. There he works in a Korean Travel agency and is in the process of trying to get his memoir published.
North Korea has of course changed since Kang succeeded in escaping the country. NK News, an online US publication which provides news and analysis about the country, predicts some citizens are aware of the holiday, despite not being allowed to celebrate it.
It also notes Christmas is celebrated in the state-controlled churches, with the North Korean media bragging that prayer services are “held across the country” on Christmas day. In other words, it appears that in North Korea Christmas exists for foreign visitors celebrating it in tightly controlled circumstances which are off-limits for ordinary citizens.
A 2016 report by the US state department on international religious freedom in North Korea found all-year-round state churches comprised of tour buses.
“Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years reported congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed the worshippers did not include any children,” reads the report.
“Some foreigners noted they were not permitted to have contact with worshippers, and others stated they had limited interaction with them. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups, but generally assumed the government monitored them closely.”
Michael Glendinning, who works as the director of London-based charity Connect North Korea which works to connect the world to North Korean exiles through educational and arts-based programming, echoed the findings of the report in his analysis.
“Any kind of public event acknowledging any religion will all be state sanctioned and state managed,” he tells The Independent.
Mr Glendinning says it is likely some Christians are celebrating Christmas in North Korea, but will be forced to do so in covert and underground ways.
“It is very probable there are small pockets of North Koreans who do know about Christmas and will be celebrating it behind closed doors and in small groups,” he says.
“But if people are celebrating Christmas you are talking handfuls of people, there will not be any gifts or Christmas trees; it will be prayer-led”.
He says it is impossible to discern the exact numbers of Christians currently living in North Korea because researchers obviously can’t simply go in and interview people in the country.
“Any kind of prayer or religious activity happens in their front rooms because people are not allowed to engage or read the Bible in public so everything is done on a clandestine basis,” he says.
There are estimated to be anywhere between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians living in North Korea but it is, of course, difficult to establish the exact number.
The US state department report on freedom in the country came to the conclusion it was hard to estimate the amount of secretly practising Christians in the country.
“While some NGOs and academics estimated there may be up to several hundred thousand Christians practising their faith underground, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers,” it read.
“Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. Some defector reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available and secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross border contact with individuals and groups in China,” it added.
“Some NGOs reported individual underground churches were connected to each other through well-established networks. The government did not allow outsiders access to confirm such claims.”
The report also explored the repression of Christians, saying religious and human rights groups outside the country provided numerous reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed simply because of practising their religious beliefs.
To put it simply, it is clear that celebrating Christmas outside of a state-sanctioned church has the potentiality to engender potentially fatal consequences, in what is undoubtedly one of the world's most repressive regimes.
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