North Koreans who converted to Christianity or received money from a South Korean missionary apparently face execution. A source said Sunday 33 North Koreans will be executed in a secret cell at the State Security Department on charges of attempting to overthrow the regime by receiving money to set up 500 underground churches.
Baptist missionary Kim Jung-wook was arrested in the North last year for allegedly trying to establish underground churches.
Experts believe the North Koreans to be punished more harshly than usual since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered stepped up efforts to prevent the influx of capitalist practices and beliefs and held mass rallies to reinforce the North's "juche" or self-reliance doctrine.
In a press conference on Feb. 27, North Korean authorities aired interviews with five North Koreans who claimed to have met the missionary and received money from him. They said Kim Jung-wook told them that when the regime collapses, a church must be built on the spot in Pyongyang where a statue of nation founder Kim Il-sung stands.
They also said that they received money from South Korean agents.
But many believe the regime orchestrated all this on purpose as part of its campaign to ferret out underground churches. A source in China said Kim Jung-wook "did not enter North Korea voluntarily but was kidnapped by North Korean agents in Dandong."
North Korea paraded Kim at the press conference to publicize its claim that underground churches are sedition cells funded by South Korea's National Intelligence Service.
One member of a missionary group said, "There are hundreds of underground churches across North Korea. North Koreans who have lost hope in their future are attracted to religion and superstitious practices" looking for an alternative to the "juche" ideology.
The Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University surveyed 200 North Korean defectors in 2013 and found that a growing number of North Koreans are disillusioned with the "juche" doctrine.
Pyongyang is bolstering propaganda efforts. It recently raised the number of reporters for the official Rodong Sinmun daily from 100 to 300 and started construction of a new building for the daily.
A widening gap between the rich and poor since Kim Jong-un came to power has exacerbated the sense of hopelessness felt by many North Koreans. Kim and high-ranking members of the Workers Party live in high-rise apartments in Pyongyang that have a steady supply of electricity and hot water, enjoy their weekends at newly-built amusement parks, equestrian grounds in the capital and a ski resort in Masikryong in Wonsan. But the vast majority of North Koreans have apparently sunk into absolute poverty due to the prolonged economic slump, breakdown in state supplies of rations and rampant corruption.
Many North Koreans have side jobs to supplement their meager incomes, but most of them have to bribe officials and barely eke out a living. Some find work as maids and construction workers, but others have become homeless.
The regime was unable to dole out customary rations of meat and other food on former leader Kim Jong-il's birthday on Feb. 16, which is a national holiday, while even soldiers do not have enough rice to make rice cakes.
"This was the first time that food rations were not provided on Kim Jong-il's birthday, which is the biggest holiday and this shows how serious the food shortage is," a source said.
The situation was exacerbated by international food aid falling to the lowest level ever last year. Some soldiers have apparently resorted to plundering warehouses at collective farms.