The absence of freedom of religion and or belief in North Korea and the severity of punishment for those practicing Christianity is well-documented. But a story in the February Vantage Point contained information that was new, to me at least. (Sorry, but I cannot find the piece on the web to hyperlink.)
The report begins by recounting video footage broadcast on TV Chosun (affiliated with the conservative South Korean newspaper) of three elderly people conducting a 65 minute worship service. The video was allegedly recorded in Chongjin in 2007 and the three individuals depicted are thought to have been subsequently arrested and imprisoned or executed. The source of the video was a South Korean missionary group, Seoul USA, which indicated that it did not release the footage for five years for fear that it could lead to the persecution of the three individuals. Believing that the three are now dead, the group provided the video to Chosun TV.
For obvious reasons, the practice of Christianity is highly secretive. Yet according to Steve Kim, head of the 318 Partners Mission Foundation, the number of underground churches has grown considerably in recent years, with his organization being in contact with 267 of them, typically cells of three to four believers, like the one depicted in the Chosun TV video. Overall estimates of the number of Christian believers range from 100,000-400,000. Ron Boyd-MacMillan of Open Doors, a US-based organization that works with Christians in oppressive countries, estimates that up to 70,000 Christians may be held in the prison camp system. None of the sources cited in the Vantage Point report believe that there has been any relaxation control policies under Kim Jong-un, through the general fraying of the repressive apparatus means that actual control may be lessening. In addition, the spread of IT products means that religious materials can be smuggled into the country more easily, on thumb drives, for instance.
Documenting the lack of religious freedom in North Korea is depressingly easy to do, but regrettably the problem is not confined to the northern part of the peninsula. While South Korea possesses a lively market for religion, not all practices are entirely welcomed. South Korea has mandatory military service, but no law or provision for conscientious objection, despite the UN Human Rights Council, and its predecessor the UN Human Rights Commission, repeatedly recognizing “the right of everyone to have conscientious objection to military service as a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as laid down in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
In South Korea, according to the United States Commission on Religious Freedom, roughly 800 Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently imprisoned for refusing compulsory military service, typically serving sentences on the order of 18 months, with an estimated 500 new conscientious objectors jailed each year. According to Human Rights Without Borders, since 1950, 17,107 Jehovah’s Witnesses have served a total of 32,423 years in prison. As the Commission observes, because of their criminal records, these individuals are barred from government office and unable to apply for any type of national certification exam. Men who have done their military service but subsequently refuse to accept mandatory reservist obligations are also punished, usually by monetary fines.
Clearly the punishment of religious dissenters in North and South Korea are not comparable in scope or severity. Nevertheless, the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other individuals who object to compulsory military service on the basis of conscience or religion puts South Korea in a league with Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Singapore, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and North Korea—not a place any self-respecting country would want to be.