08/22/2014 05:57 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

North Korea's Christians

SEOUL, South Korea

Pope Francis's arrival in the South Korean capital last Thursday coincided with the test-firing of three short-range rockets by North Korea. In the state-run Korean Central News Agency, North Korean rocket scientist Kim In Yong insisted that the Pope was at fault for planning his visit on the predetermined day of the test firing "though there are lots of days in the year." This, then, marked the latest in a series of North Korean rocket launches that have "coincidentally" lined up with holidays and political occasions for which the so-called hermit kingdom spares little affection - among them America's Independence Day in 2006, and the eve of the 2003 inauguration of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun.

North Korea's cryptic response to the Pope's arrival in Seoul is emblematic of the nation's complicated relationship with religion in general. Its constitution formally grants citizens religious freedom, but in reality, religious practice is punishable by public execution or banishment to the nation's kwan-li-so prison camps. The few churches in Pyongyang are maintained by the state in order to give the appearance of religious practice; congregants are actors bussed in to services for the benefit of tourists. In a gesture of good will, South Korea invited North Korea to send a delegation to the Pope's visit, but the North declined.

Though Pyongyang is largely reserved regarding matters of religion, its actions can speak volumes. The state's hostility toward religion was brought to the fore in the 2012 arrest of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American protestant missionary. Bae, who is rumored to have had a Bible with him, was detained for unspecified acts against North Korea and was sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp, where he remains.

It hasn't always been this way. North Korea actually has a long history with Christianity. Catholic missionaries first arrived on the Korean Peninsula in 1784. There, prominent Korean Studies historian Andrei Lankov reports, the Church took root with such success that by the 1920s, Pyongyang was known among missionaries as "the Jerusalem of the East." Kim Il-sung himself grew up in a Christian household, and was reportedly a church organist as a teenager.

In her book Escape from North Korea, journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick writes of North Korea's underground church. Figures reporting on the size of such organizations are inherently subject to inaccuracy, but her estimate puts their number at 200,000 to 400,000 adherents, somewhere around 1% of North Korea's population.

Though their numbers are small, Christians in North Korea are important for at least two key reasons. First, they are faithful in quiet opposition to an ideology of state propaganda that amounts to a religion of dictator worship. The modest ideological diversity they represent is anathema to authoritarianism and may constitute the seeds of a freer future North Korea. Second, Christians are key actors in what Kirkpatrick calls Asia's underground railroad - a network of safe houses that help North Korean defectors escape to China and beyond. Defectors' testimonies bring to light the heinous human rights abuses of the Kim regime, which will eventually oblige the international community to respond. The defectors also reach out to their family and friends in North Korea with reports of the outside world, exposing what the state propaganda calls "paradise on earth" for the hellish prison it really is.

On Saturday in Seoul, hundreds of thousands turned up as Pope Francis conducted the beatification of 124 Koreans killed for their faith by the Joseon Dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries. With the conclusion of the Pope's visit on Monday, we would do well to remember those in North Korea who to this day suffer religious persecution in silence.