By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent with BosNewsLife Asia Service
SEOUL/PYONGYANG (BosNewsLife)-- North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong Il has died at the age of 69, state media reported, adding to uncertainty about the plight of as many as one million prisoners, including many Christians, who rights activists say are held in the Communist country's notorious concentration camps.
A presenter, dressed in black, announced the news on North Korean television and people on the streets of capital Pyongyang broke into tears, reporters said.
The Korean Central News Agency said the "Dear Leader" died this weekend of a heart attack while on a train for one of his "field guidance" tours. The agency attributed his death to "physical and mental over-work."
Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Un, was believed to become the next leader. The young man, who is believed to be 28, was already promoted to the rank of four-star general, in what was seen as a bid to extend the world's only Communist family dynasty to a third generation.
Kim Jong Il came to power after his father, North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. Reliable biographical information about Kim is scarce as he rarely appeared in public and his voice was seldom broadcast.
Observers who visited North Korea and other analysts say he is remembered for defying the international community and boosting North Korea's nuclear program, while millions of his countrymen and women were starving, some documented in secret video recordings.
It was not immediately clear Monday, December 19, what impact the changeover would have on the many North Koreans who are imprisoned in concentration camps. "It is not inconceivable that the number of prisoners has passed the one million mark," said 'Brother Simon', an investigator of well-informed Open Doors, a group supporting reportedly persecuted Christians in North Korea.
"Many camps are so large that they are not recognized as camps on satellite photos. They consist of entire villages," said Simon, who uses one name due to security concerns.
Simon's networks claim to have contacts with tens of thousands of Christians in North Korea. Open Doors said there may be as many as half a million Christians in North Korea, many of whom are practicing their faith in secret.
At least up to 70,000 Christians are believed to be among those imprisoned for their faith in political prison camps, according to Open Doors and other rights activists. People rarely get out alive, the small number of survivors living in exile have said.
It was not immediately clear whether a new leader would change the current ideology in North Korea, which for the past nine years, held the top spot on the Open Doors World Watch List ranking 50 countries which are viewed as "the worst persecutors of Christians."
Christians often suffer as the country's "Stalinist system" is based on total devotion of the individual to an ideology promoted by the late leader Kim II-sung and his successor and son, Kim Jong II, said observers who visited the country.
The ideology, known as Juche, largely resembles a religion or cult, and refugees’ accounts say those who oppose it are dealt with severely, often ending up in prison camps.
"In North Korea, it is strictly forbidden to be a Christian," added Simon. "Anyone who has a Bible is sent to a camp, along with his or her whole family. Refugees who are detained in China or North Korea can be sentenced to a few years in a prison camp. But if the North Korean authorities discover that the refugees have been in touch with Christians, they are dealt with much more harshly. Torture and execution often occur."
Even Christmas trees are forbidden. This month North Korea made unspecified threats against plans by evangelical Christians in South Korea to illuminate giant steel Christmas “trees” near the world’s most heavily armed border, warning of “unexpected consequences” from what it views as a propaganda stunt.
The South Korean government gave permission for evangelical groups to light three of the structures for 15 days, beginning just before Christmas, in locations where they will potentially be seen by hundreds of thousands of North Koreans.
Simon said it was "very unlikely that there will be any policy changes," regarding religious and political freedoms under the late leader's son. "In fact, since Kim Jong-Un came closer to the helm, North Korea has stepped up its attempts to uncover any religious activities.
There have been more house raids, more spies trained to infiltrate religious and human rights networks and one South Korean Christian who was murdered in China because he helped refugees. Christians fear what Kim Jong-Un capable of doing. He will do anything to keep hold of power."
The funeral of Kim Jong Il will be December 28. It was not clear whether foreign observers would be allowed to attend the ceremonies.
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