April 28, 2008
Refugees describe criminalization of faith; execution possible for owning Bible.
BANGKOK – Refugee testimonies in a report released this month by a U.S. government body confirm severe persecution of Christians throughout North Korea.
In the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) report, refugees said that Christianity remained a key factor in the interrogation of people repatriated from China to North Korea. Border guards reserved the harshest punishment for those who admitted having any contact with Chinese or South Korean Christians.
The report, released April 15, found that consequences are harsh for those found violating state policies on religion.
“For example, recently many North Korean refugees have Bibles with them when they are repatriated,” one refugee said. “In North Korea you can get away with murder if you have good connections. However, if you get caught carrying a Bible, there is no way to save your life.”
Most of the refugees interviewed said they had little exposure to religious activity before seeking asylum in China, although a few told stories of grandparents hiding a Bible or other religious literature – adding that punishment for owning a Bible could include execution and the imprisonment of “three generations” of the owner’s family.
“Worshiping God or [contact with foreign religious groups or leaders] would make one a political criminal,” another refugee confirmed. “The government believes that the Christian church is an anti-national organization.”
Yet another stated categorically, “There is no freedom of belief or religion … [We are taught] that if one is involved in religion, one cannot survive.”
Former security agents interviewed for the report said authorities told them that U.S. or South Korean intelligence agencies distributed Bibles as part of a master plan to destabilize North Korea.
Based on interviews with North Korean refugees who have sought asylum in South Korea, the report confirms that some religious practices – of Christianity, Buddhism and traditional folk religion – have survived the repression of both Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il.
“The report provides evidence that the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong Il and his family remains strong, and that Kim Jong Il’s regime perceives any new religious activity as a security threat to be combated at all costs,” according to a USCIRF statement. “As a result, stringent security measures have been enacted to stop the spread of religion, mostly Protestantism, through cross-border contacts with China.”
Refugees interviewed for the report also confirmed that the few official churches in Pyongyang were “sham” churches, and that articles in the North Korean constitution guaranteeing religious freedom were included solely for the benefit of an international audience.
Former North Korean security agents interviewed for the report said police had stepped up efforts to halt religious activity at the border. The North Korean government even provided basic theological training for border security guards, enabling them to identify and entrap North Korean converts.
“New believers” who have come to faith through contact with Christians in China are considered a greater threat than “old believers” who came to faith as a result of family tradition.
The Church – Alive and Well?
The report offers a rare perspective on the health of the North Korean church. Interviewees testified to secret church meetings and missionary activity; officials perceived both as threats to North Korean security.
The North Korean government has claimed there are a total of 512 house churches throughout the country, but one former police agent quoted in the report said while there were certainly “underground believers” in North Korea, it was far too dangerous for “underground churches” – gatherings of more than a handful of believers – to operate.
Refugees interviewed who had been to Pyongyang knew about the few official religious venues in the capital but said they were “showplaces” for foreigners, and not “real churches like those in China and South Korea.” These same refugees knew of religious rights provisions in North Korean law but believed these were included for “show” and did not reflect reality.
“We … learned in college about [legal] statutes regarding freedom of religion,” one refugee stated, “but the professors told us that it was only to show outsiders and that we should not believe in any religions.”
The constitution of North Korea “mentions freedom of belief or freedom of religion a lot,” another stated. “It’s quite different in reality. If you say the word ‘religion’ you could face consequences.”
Another refugee said the government did not allow independent religious organizations for fear that the regime would be endangered, because “religion erodes society.”
Cross-border contact with China has definitely contributed to the growth of the North Korean church in recent years. While it is impossible to measure this growth, some refugees interviewed for the report had attended prayer meetings, while former border guards had been instructed to set up false underground churches to attract Christian converts repatriated from China.
Refugees confirmed both religious activity and religious repression, consistently reporting that practitioners can be arrested, sent to political prison camps or executed.
“In 2003, an underground church called ‘Yuseon’ was uncovered,” one said. “In around 1999 or 2000, one lady went to China to earn some money and returned to North Korea carrying two Bibles with her. She was arrested and sent to the National Security Agency. Then, her whole family disappeared.”
Caught at the Border
Testimony confirmed that Christianity was a key factor in the interrogation of repatriated refugees. The admission of contact with Christians in China may result in torture, imprisonment in North Korea’s labyrinth of labor camps or execution. Those who escape such punishment face ongoing surveillance and discrimination.
Protestant Christians are targeted because of their historical connection with U.S. missionaries and their present connection with a vibrant Protestant population in South Korea.
Explaining the official North Korean viewpoint, a former security guard said that the United States was perceived as “controlling one-half of the Korean peninsula” and attempting to “use religion to get the other half.”
Following the years of famine, in 1999 the regime recognized that thousands of citizens had gone to China in search of food. Border security guards may now overlook cases where refugees have accepted merely food or shelter from Korean-Chinese churches. But refugees have also got wiser in recent years; many have learned not to admit to such contact with religion in China.
The report concludes that North Koreans repatriated to China – particularly those who have any religious connection – have a well-founded fear of persecution, qualifying them for protection under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
“Either they are persons who have a well-founded fear of persecution had they remained in North Korea, or they are refugees because of the place to which they fled,” the report states. “The Chinese government continues to forcibly repatriate North Koreans who have entered China without proper authorization back to North Korea, where they face brutal interrogations, detentions, forced labor, and disappearance into the infamous kwanliso or political penal labor colonies.”
The report reiterates that the freedom to leave one’s country of origin is a right protected by both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. North Korea is a party to the latter, yet it is illegal to leave North Korea without authorization.
The report calls on the international community to press China to cease repatriating North Korean refugees and provide protection for them as required by the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocols, to which China is a party.
“Policy towards North Korean refugees repatriated to China against their will clearly requires more urgent attention,” the report concludes.
Entitled “A Prison Without Bars,” the USCIRF report by David Hawk updates a previous study, “Thank You Father Kim Il Sung,” released in 2005.
In January, Christian support organization Open Doors released its annual World Watch List of the worst religious persecutors, with North Korea topping the list for the sixth consecutive year.
“There is no other country in the world where Christians are being persecuted in such a horrible and relentless way,” according to the organization.
SIDEBAR: The ‘Cult’ of Kim Il Sung
Refugees interviewed in the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report stressed that Juche, or Kim-Il-Sung-ism, remained the only acceptable ideology in North Korea following Kim Jong Il’s succession, although fortune-telling or shamanism had made a comeback in recent years and was tolerated – even patronized – by some officials.
Kim Il Sung constructed his “Revolutionary Thought” system in the late 1950s and early 1960s to fill a void created by the repression of other religions. By the mid-1980s, he had extended Juche into an elaborate belief system that deified Kim Il Sung and his family.
Under Kim Jong Il, according to the report, “Absolute reverence for the Kim family continues to be indoctrinated … through schools, media and the workplace … disinterest, ‘complaints’ or ‘wrong thoughts’ can, in some cases, lead to the imprisonment of up to three generations of one’s family.”
Propaganda against other religious beliefs is widespread; in fact all citizens are required to attend at least one weekly indoctrination class at their local “Revolutionary Idea Institute” or “Research Room.” Portraits of the Kim family must be visible in every home, office, school and public venue, and special committees police this requirement diligently.
All is not well in Kim Il Sung’s self-proclaimed paradise, however. Several refugees, including former soldiers and intelligence officers, claimed that support for the ideology is only surface-deep and varies geographically. “There is a remarkable contrast … between the border and inland areas,” one refugee said. “The border area is ruled by capitalism and the inland area is ruled by socialism. Inland people still believe Kim Jong Il is the best.”
Interviewees spoke of discontent with the ideology ranging from private to public complaints, lax enforcement and disregard for some requirements.
One stated that, “Living conditions are harsh and studying Juche doesn’t give you rice … Workers like us go to study [propaganda sessions] because we are told to … In factories, we were told to read several books and quote them during ‘Self-Criticism Meetings.’ If not insane, who would read these books?”
Another claimed eight out of 10 people in most study sessions had silent complaints, but if anyone complained openly they would “disappear” the following day; he added, “Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are god … You have to stand up and say everything’s good even though you have nothing to eat.”
Copyright 2008 Compass Direct News