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Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor > Releases > International Religious Freedom > 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom > East Asia and Pacific
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Korea, Democratic People's Republic of
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the reporting period, and government policy continued to interfere with the individual's ability to choose and to manifest his or her religious belief. The regime continued to repress the religious activities of unauthorized religious groups. Recent refugee, defector, missionary, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports indicate that religious persons engaging in proselytizing in the country, those who have ties to overseas evangelical Christian 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 during the reporting period remained difficult to verify. The Government allowed foreigners to attend government-sponsored religious services.
There were no reports available on societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.
The U.S. Government does not have diplomatic relations with the country. Since 2001, the Secretary of State has designated the country a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The U.S. Government raised its concerns about the deplorable state of human rights in the country with bilateral partners and in multilateral forums.
The Government does not allow representatives of foreign governments, journalists, or other invited guests freedom of movement that would enable them to fully assess human rights conditions or confirm reported abuses. This report is based on information from interviews; press reports; South Korean government reports; NGO reports; and missionary, refugee, and defector testimony obtained over the past decade, supplemented where possible by information drawn from more recent reports from visitors to the country and NGO representatives working on the Chinese border. Refugee and defector testimony is often dated because of the time lapse between departures from the country and contact with organizations able to document human rights conditions. This report cites specific sources and time frames wherever possible, and reports are corroborated to the extent possible. While limited in detail, the information in this report is indicative of the situation with regard to religious freedom in the country in recent years.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has an area of 46,500 square miles and a population estimated at 22.7 million. The number of religious believers was unknown but was estimated by the Government in 2001 to be 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, and 800 Catholics. Estimates by South Korean and international church-related groups were considerably higher. In addition, the Chondogyo Young Friends Party, a government-approved group based on a traditional religious movement, had approximately 15,000 practitioners, according to the Korean Institute for National Unification (KINU) 2008 White Paper. According to a South Korean press report, in 2002 the chairman of the Association of North Korean Catholics stated that the Catholic community in the country had no priests but held weekly prayer services at the Changchung Catholic Church in Pyongyang. However, some doubted that all of those attending services were Catholic.
In Pyongyang there are four state-controlled Christian churches: two Protestant churches (Bongsu and Chilgol Churches), the Changchung Roman Catholic Church, and the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church. The Chilgol Church is dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il-sung's mother, Kang Pan-sok, who was a Presbyterian deaconess. The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these churches is unknown.
The Presbyterian Church of Korea in the Republic of Korea (ROK) has been partnering with the Christian Association in North Korea to rebuild Bongsu Church since 2005. In the fall of 2006, according to press reports, a delegation of 90 Christians from South Korea visited the Bongsu church to celebrate completion of its first phase of renovation. According to religious leaders who traveled to the country, there were Protestant pastors at these churches, although it was not known if they were resident or visiting. In July 2008 South Korea's Dong-A Ilbo newspaper reported that 157 members of the Presbyterian Church of Korea visited Pyongyang for another dedication ceremony. The Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) has reportedly contributed to humanitarian projects administered by Bongsu Church.
In its July 2002 report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the country reported the existence of 500 "family worship centers." However, according to the 2008 KINU White Paper, defectors interviewed were unaware of any such centers. Observers stated that "family worship centers" may be part of the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation, while an unknown number of "underground churches" operate apart from the Federation and are not recognized by the Government. The 2008 KINU White Paper included defector testimonies referencing the existence of underground churches but concluded that their existence is hard to verify. In July 2009 the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper reported an estimated 30,000 Christians, while some NGOs and academics estimate there may be up to several hundred thousand underground Christians in the country. Others question the existence of a large-scale underground church or conclude that it is impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations are reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. At the same time, some NGOs reported that the individual churches are connected to each other through well-established networks. The regime has not allowed outsiders the access necessary to confirm such claims.
According to the 2008 KINU White Paper, there were an estimated 60 Buddhist temples. Most were regarded as cultural relics, but religious activity was permitted in some. A few Buddhist temples and relics have been renovated or restored in recent years under a broad effort aimed at "preserving the Korean nation's cultural heritage." In 2007 reconstruction was completed on the Shingye or Singyesa (Holy Valley) Temple, which was destroyed during the Korean War. The ROK Government and foreign tourists funded the reconstruction. A South Korean monk, the first to permanently reside in North Korea, has lived at the temple since 2004 but serves primarily as a guide for visiting tourists rather than as a pastor ministering to Buddhists living in the area.
The Government announced in June 2007 that 500 monks and Buddhist followers from South Korea were making day-long pilgrimages to the recently renovated Ryongthong Temple in Kaesong strictly for religious purposes. These visits were discontinued in November 2007, however. Foreign diplomats in Pyongyang who visited the temple were told that the two monks living there may be joined by more. State-controlled press reported on several occasions that Buddhist ceremonies had been carried out in various locations. Official reporting also linked descriptions of such ceremonies with the broader theme of Korean unification.
The Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church opened in Pyongyang in 2006. Kim Jong-il reportedly commissioned the church after he visited an Orthodox cathedral in Russia in 2002. Two North Koreans who studied at the Russian Orthodox Seminary in Moscow were ordained as priests and are serving at the church. The purported aim of the church was primarily to provide pastoral care of Russians in the country, but one religious leader with access to the country speculated that the church likely extended pastoral care to all Orthodox Koreans as well. As with other religious groups, no reliable data exists on the number of Orthodox believers.
Several foreigners residing in Pyongyang attended Korean-language services at the Christian churches on a regular basis. Some foreigners who visited the country stated that church services appeared staged and contained political content supportive of the regime, in addition to religious themes. Foreign legislators attending services in Pyongyang in previous years noted that congregations arrived at and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed that they did not include any children. Other foreigners noted that they were not permitted to have contact with congregants. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups, but it was generally assumed they were monitored closely. According to the 2008 KINU White Paper, defectors reported being unaware of any recognized religious organizations that maintained branches outside of Pyongyang.
Several schools for religious education exist in the country. There are three-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy. A religious studies program also was established at Kim Il-sung University in 1989; its graduates usually worked in the foreign trade sector. In 2000 a Protestant seminary was reopened with assistance from foreign missionary groups. Critics, including at least one foreign sponsor, charged that the Government opened the seminary only to facilitate reception of assistance funds from foreign faith-based NGOs. The Chosun Christian Federation, a religious group believed to be controlled by the Government, contributed to the curriculum used by the seminary. The Chosun Christian League operates the Pyongyang Theological Academy, a graduate institution that trains pastors affiliated with the Korean Christian Federation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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 discouraging organized religious activities except those controlled by officially recognized groups. Genuine religious freedom does not exist.
"Juche," often translated as extreme self-reliance, and the cult of personality of Kim Jong-il and his late father Kim Il-sung remained important ideological underpinnings of the regime. 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 as the de facto ruling logic. 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, who exemplified the state and society's needs, was regarded as opposition to the national interest and sometimes resulted in severe punishment. NGOs reported that citizens were exhorted to glorify Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.
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 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, only officially recognized religious groups enjoy this right. 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.
The regime allows some overseas faith-based aid organizations to operate inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance. Such organizations report, however, they are not allowed to proselytize, their contact with nationals is limited and strictly monitored, and government escorts accompany them at all times.
The regime also has allowed a number of high-profile religious leaders to visit the country. In August 2008 Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, visited North Korea for four days to meet with high-level government officials, visit relief projects, and preach at the Bongsu Church. In April 2009 two American Christian bands, Casting Crowns and the Annie Moses Band, traveled to and won awards at North Korea's annual Spring Friendship Arts Festival.
In 2008 interreligious exchanges, especially joint restoration projects of religious facilities and large-scale Christian events, took place, but less frequently than in previous years. According to the North Korea Database (NKDB) 2009 White Paper on Religious Freedom in North Korea, 597 South Koreans traveled to North Korea to participate in religious exchanges in 2008.
Some South Korean religious groups visited the country to promote reunification. In May 2007 a South Korean interfaith delegation visited Pyongyang, where it met with the Government's Council of Religionists to discuss reunification of the peninsula. Following instructions from the Vatican, the Catholic members of the delegation refrained from celebrating mass to avoid giving the Eucharist to North Koreans posing as Catholics. In 2008 the Catholic Priests' Association for Justice held a joint mass for peaceful reunification in Pyongyang with 96 South Korean Catholic priests and followers attending. The National Council of Churches in Korea and the North Korean Chosun Christian Federation jointly hosted a prayer gathering for peaceful unification at Bongsu Church in 2008.
Buddhist exchanges also continued in 2008 but were less active than in previous years. As part of exchanges, the Jogye Order association of believers traveled to Pyongyang to discuss with the North Korean Chosun Buddhist Federation the issue of recovering cultural assets.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Government policy and practice severely restricted the practice of religion. The 2008 KINU White Paper indicated the regime utilizes authorized religious entities for external propaganda and political purposes and citizens are strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens consider such sites to be primarily "sightseeing spots for foreigners." KINU 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. 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 then channeled through the Korean Workers Party (the only political 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.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
The Government deals harshly with all opponents, including those who engage in religious practices deemed unacceptable by the regime. Religious and human rights groups outside of the country provided numerous reports in previous years that members of underground churches had been arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 persons were believed to be held in political prison camps in remote areas, some for religious 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.
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, South Korean humanitarian or religious groups, or missionaries while in China.
In June 2009 South Korean activists reported that Ri Hyon Ok was publicly executed for distributing Bibles in the city of Ryongchon near the Chinese border. She allegedly was accused of spying and organizing dissidents. These claims could not be independently verified.
Defector reports indicated that the regime increased its investigation, 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; however, there was not enough data to determine the size and scope of religious activity. Reports from NGOs, refugees, defectors, and missionaries indicated that, of the many persons engaging in 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.
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.
According to an unconfirmed claim from one foreign Christian NGO, nine North Korean nationals in its network disappeared in 2008. The reason for their reported disappearance was unknown.
In 2006 the Government reportedly sentenced Son Jong-nam to death for espionage. NGOs, however, claimed 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 the ROK. 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.
The whereabouts of South Korean missionary Kim Dong-shik, who disappeared in 2000 near the country's border with China, remained unknown. North Korean agents allegedly kidnapped him while he was assisting North Korean refugees in China. In 2007 media reported that Kim's wife believed Kim most likely died within a year of his disappearance.
Unverified news reports in recent years indicated the Government increased the reward for information on any person doing missionary work in the Chinese border region. Former North Korean security agents who defected to South Korea reported intensified police activity aimed at halting religious activity at the border.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States or who had not been allowed to be returned to the United States.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice; no information was available on societal attitudes toward religious freedom.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government does not have diplomatic relations with the country and has no official presence there but sought to address its religious freedom concerns as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The country was first designated a CPC in 2001 and most recently was re-designated on January 16, 2009. As the action under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary designated the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
The U.S. Government raises religious freedom concerns about the country in multilateral forums and bilaterally with other governments, particularly those that have diplomatic relations with the country. The United States has made clear that addressing human rights would have a significant impact on the prospects for closer U.S.-North Korea ties. State Department officials, including staff from the Office of International Religious Freedom, meet regularly with North Korean defectors and with NGOs focused on the country. Since 2006 the U.S. Government has participated in the annual North Korea Freedom Week.
In December 2008 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution, which the United States cosponsored, that condemned the country's poor human rights record, expressing "very serious concern" at "continuing reports of systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights." The resolution called on the country to fulfill its obligations under human rights instruments to which it was a party, and it further urged the Government to invite U.N. special representatives to visit and to ensure that humanitarian organizations had free access to the country.
The Department of State continued to support programs that document human rights abuses and increase the availability of outside information in the country, and provided support to NGOs that seek to build the capacity of South Korea-based NGOs in their efforts to improve and expand monitoring and reporting of the human rights situation in the country. Radio Free Asia and Voice of America also provided regular Korean-language broadcasting