During the Soviet occupation, religious persecution in the northern half of the peninsula went from bad to worse. The Bolsheviks waged war on Christianity in the USSR and were no more friendly when occupying Korea. The Soviets chose Kim Il‐sung, an anti‐Japanese guerrilla leader, to rule the occupation zone. Once the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 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 Yeo‐sang Yoon and Sun‐young Han, of the North Korean Human Rights Archives and Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, respectively.
Kim brutally consolidated power, initiated war, and enforced uniformity. His government targeted faith in anything other than the Communist party. After the Korean War, according to Yoon and Han, “religious organizations were completely dismantled in the wake of relentless religious suppression, leaving no room for self‐regulating religious activities or collective resistance.” Over time, Kim’s personality cult became utterly suffocating, leaving no room for independent thought.
Kim Il‐sung, still considered the DPRK’s “eternal president,” once explained that “we came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad habit if they are killed.” While North Korean policy later relaxed — it could hardly grow stricter — religion remains under siege. Indeed, as border controls have loosened, Yoon and Han note, “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.”
Although the North’s constitution formally protects freedom of religion, it bans activities that allegedly harm the state or enlist foreign influences. Which in practice means everything religious. No wonder the DPRK long has occupied the No. 1 position on Open Doors’ “World Watch List.” Indeed, the group reported worsening conditions: “an increased number of arrests and abduction of South Korean and Chinese Korean Christians and missionaries in China, strengthened border control with harsher punishment for North Korean citizens who are repatriated from China, and increased efforts by the North Korean government to eliminate all channels for spreading the Christian faith.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has marked the North as a “country of particular concern” and noted that the DPRK “continued to carry out systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.” In its most recent report, USCIRF reports that North Korea “is one of the most isolated and repressed societies in the world.” Pyongyang “places unjust restrictions on its people’s inherent right to freedom of religion or belief.”
Perhaps 50,000 people have been jailed for religious offenses. In labor camps prisoners, “face dire living conditions and are likely forced to provide hard labor,” according to USCIRF. Five churches operate in Pyongyang, but “defectors interviewed after fleeing North Korea often question the legitimacy of these institutions,” which may have been established “in order to maintain the illusion of religious freedom for international audiences.”
The State Department in its latest religious‐liberty report paints an equally depressing portrait, citing the “almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and in many instances, violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity.” North Koreans typically “concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear their activities would be reported to the authorities.”
Refugees reported that religious liberty had declined over the past decade. Human‐rights and religious‐freedom groups reported that “members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs,” the State Department explains. Children were enlisted to inform on their parents and look for Bibles. Religious activities, including just reading the Bible, that occur outside of state‐sanctioned churches can “lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps.” Punishment was “very strict” for those in contact with missionaries. Moreover, “the government deported, detained, and sometimes released foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within its borders.”
Five churches — three Protestant, one Catholic, and one Orthodox — operate in Pyongyang, but multiple reports suggest that they are Potemkin affairs, with sham congregations. Indeed, one defector, reported State, “said authorities quickly realized [that] one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and allowing persons to attend church was that many of the attendees converted to Christianity, so authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome.” Further, State cited reports, from academics and non‐governmental organizations, that the DPRK’s “policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state.” This apparently is the role of the Buddhist Federation, the Korean Christian Federation, and the Korean Catholic Federation, groups that in practice do not promote their nominal faiths.
Still, Christianity survives. Yoon and Han interviewed North Korean defectors and refugees. They report 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.” Since then, increased cross‐border traffic has expanded opportunities for evangelism, leading the government of Kim Jong‐un to target returned refugees who converted or had contact with foreign missionaries.
Religious liberty is not just an abstract, theoretical right. Real people suffer as a result of persecution. “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,” Yoon and Han report. 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.”
Earlier this year the South China Morning Post published a detailed account of persecution in the DPRK. For instance: