Commentary

Religious Persecution in North Korea

North Korea again has demonstrated its recklessness to the world. Pyongyang recently unveiled its uranium enrichment program and bombarded a South Korean island. For a time war clouds circled the Korean peninsula.

But the Kim dynasty in the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is more than confrontational. The regime is brutally repressive. The North’s prison camps are full of political dissidents, would-be refugees, and religious believers.

The DPRK routinely rates among the world’s worst religious persecutors. Formally atheistic, the regime has turned politics into a quasi-religion. The communist system is holy like a church, the ruling Kims, both father and son, are secular saints, the self-reliance philosophy of Juche amounts to theology, recorded in books of Kim sayings, and heretics are severely punished.

But North Korean repression is largely invisible to the world. We see through a glass darkly wrote the Apostle Paul, and no where was that more true than in the DPRK. The regime is uniquely opaque, with only a minimal foreign presence in Pyongyang.

In late 2009, 29-year-old Robert Park illegally crossed from China to the North in order to increase attention to persecution in North Korea. He was held for 43 days and tortured before being released. He recently has been speaking about his experience.

Unfortunately, conditions have not improved. The State Department designates the communist state as a Country of Particular Concern. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also recently cited the North as one of its 13 Countries of Particular Concern. The group Open Doors put the DPRK at the top of its latest World Watch List. International Christian Concern cites North Korea as one of the world’s 10 Worst Persecutors.

Yet foreign religious delegations sometimes are taken in by the North’s Potemkin Village of faith. Last October, Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy wrote about such a trip organized by the World Council of Churches, which in years past had promoted violent Marxist “liberation” groups. Alas, clerics often are the most credulous of observers, seemingly determined to see the Kim regime as an international victim.

The reality is very different. In the DPRK, explains the State Department, “the government severely restricted religious activity, except that which was supervised tightly by officially recognized groups linked to the government. Genuine religious freedom does not exist.” Those who seek to gather and worship independently face severe repression.

The Commission’s judgment is similar: “Severe religious freedom abuses occur regularly, including: surveillance, discrimination, and harassment of both authorized and unauthorized religious activity; the arrest, torture, and possible execution of those conducting clandestine religious activity; and the mistreatment and imprisonment of asylum-seekers repatriated from China, particularly those suspected of engaging in religious activities or having religious affiliations.”

In fact, repression has been getting worse, since Pyongyang feels threatened by increased cross-border activity. Reports State: “Recent refugee, defector, missionary, and nongovernment organization (NGO) reports indicated religious persons engaging in proselytizing in the country, and those who have been in contact with foreigners or missionaries have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties.”

International Christian Concern offers a similar judgment: “In 2009, the North Korean government took new steps to combat religious activity, and halted cross-border support from Chinese Christians. The government set up false prayer meetings and infiltrated underground churches as new tactics to entrap Christian converts.”

Yeo-sang Yoon and Sun-young Han of the North Korean Human Rights Archives and Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, respectively, interviewed North Korean defectors and refugees. They released their latest white paper on religious liberty in the North last year. The report still makes for depressing reading.

Yoon and Han estimate that roughly five percent of human rights violations involve religious persecution. Unfortunately, the authors conclude, “Religious oppression is ongoing with no signs of any improvement.” Nevertheless, there is a small but important bright spot: “The number of unofficial, behind-the-scenes and clandestine religious activities has increased little by little despite the North’s anti-religious policies.”

The Kim dynasty does not recognize individual liberty of any sort. People in the DPRK are expected to be dutiful automatons. They should share the official “religion” of deification of the Kim-led state. Everything people do is expected to glorify the “Great” and “Dear” Leaders. The regime considers real “religion as something to overcome,” write Yoon and Han.

Pyongyang obviously understands the threat posed by belief in God. As Adolf Hitler’s notorious “People’s Court” judge Roland Freisler declared, Nazism and Christianity had only one thing in common — they claimed the whole person. Similarly, Christianity (and other faiths) and Communism (especially in North Korea) have only one thing in common — they claim the whole person.

Thus, the North Korean constitution notwithstanding, the Kim government does not recognize freedom of conscience, worship, or expression. Explain Yoon and Han: “even this restricted and nominal freedom cannot be enjoyed by all people, but only when the regime deems it necessary to use it as a policy tool for those among the supporters and participants of the socialist revolution.”

Although Pyongyang’s treatment of religion has been unremittingly hostile, North Korean policy has evolved over time. Restrictions first appeared on religious freedom in 1945 after the Soviet Union occupied the northern half of the peninsula, until then a Japanese colony.

Once the DPRK was established in 1948, “the regime suppressed religious freedom by arousing the sense of struggle against anti-revolutionary elements and spreading anti-religious sentiments far and wide to strengthen the socialist revolutionary force,” write Yoon and Han. After the Korean War, the North attempted to eradicate religion: “religious organizations were completely dismantled in the wake of relentless religious suppression, leaving no room for self-regulating religious activities or collective resistance.”

Pyongyang shifted policy again in the 1970s, attempting to improve its international image by publicly guaranteeing religious freedom. Explain Yoon and Han: “The policy reached its climax in 1988, bringing perfunctory and even qualitative changes to various religions.” Since then increased cross-border traffic has expanded opportunities for evangelism, leading the Kim government to target returned refugees who converted or had contact with foreign missionaries.

While hostile to religion, the DPRK does understand the value of using and manipulating foreign believers. For instance, note Yoon and Han, “the regime has realized that a claim about the nonexistence of religion in the North could never be a matter of pride, but would only make it a laughingstock or a target of criticism in the international community.” Moreover, religious groups have been in the forefront of providing humanitarian aid.

In response, Yoon and Han explain: “North Korea has adopted a so-called ‘parallel policy’ toward religion, whereby it takes advantage of religion politically, but in fact suppresses it. The ‘parallel policy’ is a dual policy through which the regime tries to appear in the international community as if it is tolerating religion and guaranteeing religious freedom, while implementing a policy of suppressing religion internally. It is evident that the regime is only taking advantage of religion politically to seek practical gains, whilst in reality it is destroying the very basis of religion in the North by getting rid of religious people and banning activities by religious organizations.”

The authors’ conclusion reflects the result of interviews with nearly 2000 defectors and refugees. The most important question: Can North Koreans freely conduct religious activities? No, said 99.7 percent of those who responded.

Add Yoon and Han: “This shows that it is nearly impossible to carry out ordinary religious activities there, although very limited clandestine religious activities are done and perfunctory religious activities are performed at North Korean religious facilities for special purposes. It is worthwhile to note that defectors, who fled the North before 1997, and those, who had escaped from 1997 until 2008, gave nearly identical answers. This also proves that the North has never tolerated religious activities.”

Only .6 percent of respondents actually had visited a legal worship facility. Three churches operate under government control in Pyongyang — I attended one when I visited the DPRK in 1992. The regime also claims that legal house churches exist in the provinces.

However, 98.6 percent of those polled said they knew of no legal facilities and none of the 1.4 percent who said yes “had either seen such home churches with their own eyes or participated in religious activities at such places,” say Yoon and Han. Still, since everyone who believed such churches to exist had fled the North after 1997, the authors believe further research is necessary to determine if some legal house churches are open.

Only 1.1 percent of respondents had participated in illegal activities. The percentages of those who had witnessed clandestine meetings and seen a Bible were 4.5 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively. All of these numbers are generally, but irregularly, up over the last decade.

Unfortunately, 99.1 percent of respondents — and 100 percent of those who defected in 2008 — said that participants in the underground church risk punishment. Report Yoon and Han: “According to the outcome of an intensive survey on the level of punishment against those involved in religious activities, only 2.9 percent of those arrested are sent to labor training camps. By contrast, 14.9 percent are sent to prisons and an astonishing 81.4 percent to political prisons camps, the harshest level of punishment in North Korean society. This testifies how severely the regime punishes those involved in religious activities.”

Claims of executions are harder to confirm. The State Department reported: “Refugees and defectors continued to say they witnessed the arrest and possible execution of underground Christian church members by the government in prior years. Due to the country’s inaccessibility and the inability to gain timely information, the continuation of this activity during the reporting period remained difficult to verify.”

However, many believers have died while imprisoned. In fact, it is nearly impossible to overestimate the harshness of punishments inflicted on North Koreans who believe in any deity other than the Kims.

Explain Yoon and Han: “Those arrested for their involvement in religious activities faced a very harsh punishment or serious consequences, including detention, death, disappearance, restriction on movement, or deportation. Nonetheless, such punishment or consequences only reflect the situation which witnesses or testifiers saw with their own eyes. So the actual punishment or consequences could have been much harsher.”

The percentages reported by Yoon and Han are dry statistics. The authors also include stories of North Koreans punished for living out their faith. In fact, one of the purposes of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights is to catalog such cases.

The late Kim Il-sung, still the DPRK’s “eternal president,” once explained his government’s repressive policy: “we came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad habit if they are killed.” While North Korean policy has relaxed since he made that statement, his son, Kim Jong-il, runs a system under siege. As a result, conclude Yoon and Han, “the North Korean regime has tightened its watch on the refugees and defectors who are deported from China because of the fear that they have been exposed to religion.”

And Kim is right to worry. The greatest threat to his rule, legacy, and son’s accession to the North Korean “throne,” as well as to the entire Communist system, is the spread of belief in a different God. A God of love who created individuals in his image, values the life and dignity of every person, and will hold accountable every political leader, even those who style themselves “Great” and “Dear.”

The DPRK is a political problem for America and its allies. Pyongyang also is one of the world’s great humanitarian tragedies. While Western governments cannot force regime change, at least at acceptable cost and risk, Western peoples can work and pray for such a transformation. Now, more than ever, the North Korean people need help and support from people of good will around the world.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).