Freedom of religion in North Korea
In North Korea, the Constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief"; the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is an atheist state. The US and South Korean governments are the main sources of information of religion in North Korea and the two countries are technically still at war and it has been said that this is just anti-North Korean propaganda.
North Korea is officially an atheist state, and government policy continues to interfere with the individual's ability to choose and to manifest his or her religious belief. The regime continues to repress the religious activities of unauthorized religious groups. Recent refugee, defector, missionary, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reports indicate that religious persons engaging in proselytizing in the country, those who have ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border in the People's Republic of China, and specifically, those repatriated from China and found to have been in contact with foreigners or missionaries, have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties. Refugees and defectors continued to allege that they witnessed the arrests and execution of members of underground Christian churches by the regime in prior years. Due to the country's inaccessibility and the inability to gain timely information, the continuation of this activity remains difficult to verify.
Religion in North Korea
Traditionally, religion in North Korea primarily consists of Buddhism and Confucianism and to a lesser extent Korean shamanism and syncretic Chondogyo. Since the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century, there is also a Christian minority. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, since the rise of Stalinism, free religious activities no longer exist as the government sponsors religious groups only to create an illusion of religious freedom. North Korea sees organised religious activity as a potential challenge to the leadership.
Status of religious freedom
Legal and policy framework
The Constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief," but the Government did not respect this right. In practice the Government severely restricted religious freedom, including by discouraging organized religious activities except those controlled by officially recognized groups. Genuine religious freedom does not exist.
The cult of personality of Kim Jong-il and his father remained important ideological underpinnings of the regime, at times seeming to resemble tenets of a state religion. Faced with famine and the succession process in the mid-1990s, Kim Jong-il's regime increasingly emphasized a "military-first" policy to gradually replace juche (often translated as extreme self-reliance) as the de facto ruling logic. However, juche remained an important ideological concept. Indoctrination was intended to ensure loyalty to the system and the leadership, as well as conformity to the state's ideology and authority. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority, exemplifying the state and society's needs, was regarded as opposition to the national interest and sometimes resulted in severe punishment. NGOs reported that citizens are exhorted to glorify Kim Jong-il.
Since the late 1980s, as a part of the campaign highlighting Kim Il-sung's "benevolent politics," the regime allowed the formation of several government-sponsored religious organizations. Foreigners who have met with representatives of these organizations believe that some members are genuinely religious but note that others appear to know little about religious doctrine. According to NGOs, these religious organizations have been organized primarily as counterparts to foreign religious organizations or international aid agencies, rather than as instruments to guarantee and support free religious activities. Since 1992 the Constitution has authorized religious gatherings and provided for "the right to build buildings for religious use." However, this right is enjoyed only by officially recognized religious groups. The Constitution stipulates that religion "should not be used for purposes of dragging in foreign powers or endangering public security." Ownership of Bibles or other religious materials is reportedly illegal and may be punished by imprisonment or execution.
Restrictions on religious freedom
Government policy and practice severely restricted the practice of religion. The 2006 KINU White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea indicated that the regime utilizes authorized religious entities for external propaganda and political purposes and that citizens are strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens consider such sites to be primarily "sightseeing spots for foreigners." KINU also concluded that the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicates that ordinary citizens do not enjoy religious freedom.
Little is known about the day-to-day life of religious persons in the country. Members of government-controlled religious groups did not appear to suffer discrimination. In fact, some reports claimed, and circumstantial evidence suggested, that many, if not most of these groups, have been organized by the regime for propaganda and political purposes, including meeting with foreign religious visitors. There have also been reports that funds and goods that are donated to government-approved churches are channeled through the Korean Workers Party (the only party in the country). There are unconfirmed reports that nonreligious children of religious believers may be employed in mid-level positions in the Government. In the past, such individuals suffered broad discrimination with sometimes severe penalties or even imprisonment. Members of underground churches or those connected to border missionary activity were reportedly regarded as subversive elements.
The 2006 KINU White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea concluded, "North Korea utilizes religious activities only for political and economic goals; namely, to improve its international image, to secure humanitarian assistance from overseas, and to earn foreign currency."
Abuses against religious freedom
The Government deals harshly with all opponents, including those who engage in religious practices deemed unacceptable by the regime. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 persons were believed to be held in political prison camps (Kwalliso) in remote areas, many for religious and political reasons. Prison conditions were harsh, and refugees and defectors who had been in prison stated that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs generally were treated worse than other inmates. A refugee who arrived in South Korea in 2001 claimed that he was tortured for his Christian beliefs after a Bible was discovered in his belongings.
Over the years there have been unconfirmed reports from a few defectors alleging the testing on human subjects of a variety of chemical and biological agents up through the early 1990s. Some accounts have alleged that political or religious detainees were specifically selected for this testing. The Government effectively bars outside observers from investigating such reports.
NGOs, defectors, and refugees have reported that the Government executed opponents of the regime in recent years. Executed individuals reportedly included some targeted for religious activities such as proselytism and contact with foreigners or missionaries while in China.
Defector reports indicated that the regime has increased its repression and persecution of unauthorized religious groups in recent years, but access to information on current conditions was limited. Despite these restrictions, reports indicated that contacts with religious personnel both inside the country and across the border in China appeared to be increasing. Reports from NGOs, refugees, defectors, and missionaries indicated that many persons engaging in religious proselytizing, those who had ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border in China, and, specifically, those repatriated and found to have contacted foreigners, including Christian missionaries, outside the country have been arrested and subjected to harsh punishment.
South Korean media reports, including testimony from a 2003 defector, indicated that citizens who received help from churches inside China were considered political criminals and received harsher treatment. This included imprisonment, prolonged detention without charge, torture, or execution.
The Government reportedly was concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border of China had both humanitarian and political goals, including overthrow of the regime, and alleged that these groups were involved in intelligence gathering. The official Korean Workers Party newspaper criticized "imperialists and reactionaries" for trying to use ideological and cultural infiltration, including religion, to destroy socialism from within.
In March 2006 the Government reportedly sentenced Son Jong-nam to death for espionage. However, NGOs claimed that the sentence against Son was based on his contacts with Christian groups in China, his proselytizing activities, and alleged sharing of information with his brother in South Korea. Son's brother reported that information indicated that Son was alive as of spring 2007. Because the country effectively bars outside observers from investigating such reports, it was not possible to verify the Government's claims about Son Jong-nam's activities or determine whether he had been executed. A fellow inmate of the Pyongyang prison where Son was held states that he died there in December 2008.
The whereabouts of South Korean missionary Kim Dong-shik, who disappeared in 2000 near the country's border with China, remained unknown. He was allegedly kidnapped by North Korean agents while assisting North Korean refugees in China.
NGOs reported as recently as 2001 that the Government conducts "education sessions" to identify Christian leaders so that they can be apprehended in periodic crackdowns.
Unverified news reports in recent years indicated that the Government has increased the reward for information on any person doing missionary work in the Chinese border region.
- World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia. Marshall Cavendish. Retrieved 2011-03-05. "North Korea is officially an atheist state in which almost the entire population is nonreligious."
- The State of Religion Atlas. Simon & Schuster. Retrieved 2011-03-05. "Atheism continues to be the official position of the governments of China, North Korea and Cuba."
- CIA - The World Factbook - Korea, North
- "North Korea confirms US citizen is arrested". BBC. 14 April 2011. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
- "The Hidden Gulag – Exposing Crimes against Humanity in North Korea’s Vast Prison System". The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Retrieved September 21, 2012.
- "North Korea: Political Prison Camps". Amnesty International. May 4, 2011. Retrieved July 25, 2012.
- Kim, Hyung-jin (2010-07-05), "AP Exclusive: NKorean killed for spreading Gospel", Associated Press, retrieved 2010-07-08
- United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. North Korea: International Religious Freedom Report 2007. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.