Religious Persecution in North Korea


In the ultimate long game, I would not bet against the believers
Marcus Noland (PIIE)



It is hard to imagine a better introduction to the issue of religious persecution in North Korea than a report, “Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea,” published last week by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The report covers a wide range of topics including international law, North Korean law, actual practice, Chinese policies, and a remarkably fair-minded discussion of engagement by Christian groups, and the diverse attitudes, strategies, and tactics embodied by those groups.

The North Korean constitution guarantees religious freedom—up to a point: “Citizens have freedom of religion. This guarantees the right to build religious buildings or hold religious services. Religion shall not be allowed to attract foreign intervention or disrupt the state’s social order.” The problem, of course, is that final clause. The regime maintains what might be described as Potemkin Christian churches and Buddhist temples in a seeming effort to improve its international image, gain acceptance and even access aid. Yet even something as elementary as access to Christian or Buddhist texts is severely restricted, as I can personally attest. The deeper issue is the incompatibility of independent religious belief with the Ten Principles and 65 subclauses of the monolithic belief system codified in 1974, a doctrine that virtually deifies the Supreme Leader and demands total subjugation by the people. As a result, religious practitioners are subjected to severe repression. In the songbun caste system, religious adherence is justification for classification into the hostile class. “Once the 51 songbun sub-classifications were finalised in the late 1960s, individual religious groups were given their own specific category. Shamans were classified as category 29; Cheondoists (practitioners of a native Korean religion) as category 32; Protestants as category 37; Buddhists as category 38; and Catholics as category 39.”

Christians are singled out for particularly severe abuse insofar as their religion is considered antirevolutionary and antinationalist due to its association with foreign imperialism, and the US and South Korea in particular. Christians are routinely sent to the kwanliso or political prison camps. There they are subjected to torture including beatings, being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges, trampled underfoot, and used as test subjects for medical training and experimentation.

No one knows the number of believers. North Korea has official estimates which appear motivated by the desire to persuade foreign interlocutors that freedom of religion exists and gain international acceptance. According to the report, “Cornerstone Ministries International works with North Korean Christians in China and North Korea. The organisation stated in 2012 that it was in contact with 37,000 churchgoers in North Korea, and that it presumed based on its research that between around 10-45% of those imprisoned in detention camps are Christians. Cornerstone Ministries therefore estimated a total number of 200,000-300,000 Christians.” Obviously, this estimate is speculative. But whatever the base, the numbers may well be growing: the report provides evidence based on refugee testimonies suggesting an uptick in Christian (and Buddhist) practice over the past 15-20 years due to refugees returning from China exposed to these religious practices and even bearing texts. My own gut instinct is that if there were any genuine relaxation, there would be an explosion of repressed religiosity. 

In recent years China has adopted a less benign stance with respect to Christian communities ministering to North Korean refugees as well as acting as conduits for the spread of Christianity back into North Korea. For their part, the North Korean authorities appear to regard the Christians as spies, no different from South Korean intelligence agents. Indeed, North Korean operatives are suspected in the murder a prominent Korean-Chinese pastor, Han Choong-ryeol, who was killed in Jilin province this past April.  For the North Koreans, contact with Christians in China is sufficient to warrant execution or consignment to a political prison camp upon repatriation.

These are not positive developments. Yet this must be the ultimate long game, and I for one would not bet against belief systems that have flourished for millennia.  

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