SPRINGFIELD, VA — North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim
Jong-il is dead. No one knows what is likely to follow. But one important
measure of reform by the new leadership will be ending the regime's
brutal religious persecution..
The so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea pioneered the
fusion of Communism and monarchy when in 1994 Kim succeeded his
father, Kim Il-sung, as supreme leader. Before his death, Kim Jong-il
sought to ensure the same transition to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
But the latter Kim, tagged "Great Successor" by North
Korea's official media, may not live up to his new title. Kim
Jong-il spent a couple decades ascending the party hierarchy
under his father's protection; he anointed his own son less than
three years ago. There are plenty of claimants to the throne
who have been waiting a long time for the Kims to step, or be
Whoever wins the inevitable power struggle will face a nation in crisis:
isolated and impoverished, the North wins attention only by highlighting
its missile and nuclear programs. The country desperately needs economic
reform if it is ever going to become "a powerful and prosperous
country," the theme for next year's planned celebration of the
100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth.
Even more pressing is political reform. The DPRK suffers under the
most murderously repressive government on earth. The stultifying personality
cult, extensive system of prison camps, and ruthless suppression of
dissent look a lot like Stalin's Soviet Union, Hoxha's Albania, and
The North also is among the world's most vicious religious persecutors.
For the Kim cult is akin to a religion, as evidenced by the exaggerated
grief expressed over Kim Jong-il's death.
The regime claims the whole person, just like Christianity and other
religions. And in North Korea any competition with the state must be
destroyed. That's why believers are treated as "hostile elements," according
to Human Rights Watch.
The architect of the North Korean state, Kim Il-sung, reportedly explained: "we
came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad
habit if they are killed."
We know very little about life in the North other than that the regime
is brutally repressive. Open
Doors routinely rates North Korea number one on its World Watch List. International
Christian Concern always places the DPRK in its "Hall of Shame."
Some 150,000 to 200,000 people are believed to be imprisoned in abysmal
conditions. Of those, between 40,000 and 70,000 are said to be held
for religious reasons -- principally for Christian worship and evangelism.
ICC figures that number may be even higher, perhaps 100,000, though
no one really knows. Reports circulate of the execution of believers,
especially leaders like pastors and Bible smugglers.
According to the
State Department's latest report on international
religious liberty, "the government severely restricted religious
activity, except that which was supervised tightly by officially recognized
groups linked to the government. Genuine religious freedom does not
exist." Unfortunately, repression only seems to have worsened
in recent years.
While it is impossible to verify any reports that come out of North
Korea, State observed: "Recent refugee, defector, missionary,
and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reports indicated religious
persons engaging in proselytizing in the country and those who have
been in contact with foreigners or missionaries have been arrested
and subjected to harsh penalties. Refugees and defectors continued
to say they witnessed the arrest and possible execution of underground
Christian church members by the government in prior years."
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom regularly
designates the DPRK as a "Country of Particular Concern." The
Commission reported that "Severe religious freedom abuses occur
regularly, including: discrimination and harassment of both authorized
and unauthorized religious activity; the arrest, torture, and possible
execution of those conducting clandestine religious activity."
Nevertheless, the regime is nervous. The flood of refugees into China
and the regular flow back into the North has increased opportunities
for evangelism. The Commission explained: "The North Korean government
interrogates asylum-seekers repatriated from China about their religious
belief and affiliations, and mistreats and imprisons as security threats
those suspected of distributing religious literature or having ongoing
connections with South Korean religious groups."
Even worse in Pyongyang's eyes is the rise of Christianity within
the North's boundaries. Although no accurate count of Christians is
Pew Forum estimates 480,000, most of them Protestants.
The regime targets the faithful: "In recent years, police and
security agency offices have infiltrated Protestant churches in China,
begun training police and soldiers about the dangers of religion, and
set up fake prayer meetings to catch worshippers."
The penalty for law-breakers is high. Stated the Commission: "Anyone
caught distributing religious materials, holding unapproved religious
gatherings, or having ongoing contact with overseas religious groups
is subject to severe punishment ranging from labor camp imprisonment
One North Korean believer told Open Doors: "Since Kim Jong-un
came closer to the helm, North Korea has stepped up its attempts to
uncover any religious activities."
One of the most detailed accounts of persecution in the DPRK comes
Yeo-sang and Han Sun-young of the North Korean Human Rights
Archives and Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, respectively.
They interviewed North Korean defectors and refugees and published
their report two years ago.
The authors stated: "only 2.9 percent of those arrested are sent
to labor training camps. By contrast, 14.9 percent are sent to prisons
and an astonishing 81.4 percent to political prisons camps, the harshest
level of punishment in North Korean society. This testifies how severely
the regime punishes those involved in religious activities."
The persecution is made worse by the lack of international scrutiny.
Private and public violence against Christians and other religious
minorities is common in countries such as China, Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan.
However, the abuses frequently occur in front of the cameras. At least
the names of many victims are known and circulated throughout the international
faith community. Believers learn that they are not alone, while governments
feel constrained to limit the worst abuses.
In North Korea the suffering church stands almost alone against the
most repressive government on the planet. Yoon and Han attempt to personalize
the persecution by including reports on North Koreans punished for
their faith. Groups like the North
Korea Freedom Coalition also work
to highlight the reality of persecution, but the individual victims
remain largely anonymous. One who spoke out, after escaping to South
Korea, was Jeong Young-sil; she was tortured and imprisoned for evangelizing.
Yoon and Han warned that "Religious oppression is ongoing with
no signs of any improvement." Even so, their research suggested
that "The number of unofficial, behind-the-scenes and clandestine
religious activities has increased little by little despite the North's
anti-religious policies." No wonder the Kim regime was so nervous
about religious freedom.
Of course, Pyongyang recognizes the international advantages of faking
religious tolerance. Yoon and Han explain: "North Korea has adopted
a so-called 'parallel policy' toward religion, whereby it takes advantage
of religion politically, but in fact suppresses it. The 'parallel policy'
is a dual policy through which the regime tries to appear in the international
community as if it is tolerating religion and guaranteeing religious
freedom, while implementing a policy of suppressing religion internally."
Four churches (two Protestant, one Catholic, and one Orthodox) operate
legally in Pyongyang. I attended one when I visited the DPRK years
ago. A friend, who speaks Korean, told me that he made a similar trip
and heard a sermon filled with injunctions about obeying state authority.
So much for the radical message of the Gospel.
Several religious associations and seminaries also operate -- under
government control. Moreover, a number of Buddhist temples are open;
the government is more tolerant of Buddhism, apparently viewing it
largely as a cultural artifact.
religious groups occasionally have been taken in by the North's Potemkin religious activities. It is a curious blind
spot. It should come as no surprise that a regime willing to allow
hundreds of thousands or millions of people to starve to death and
send hundreds of thousands of people to labor camps refuses to protect
genuine religious freedom.
Kim Jong-il's death provides an opportunity for change. Some observers
hope the new leadership will relax state control over religion -- after
all, it would be hard to "be as evil and non-caring as Kim Jong-il," observed
Sam Kim, executive director of the Korean Church Coalition for North
Korea Freedom. But no one knows how the leadership transition will
turn out in Pyongyang. Nor does a Western education or even a commitment
to economic reform guarantee increased respect for human rights.
The greatest threat to North Korea's communist system is not internal
strife, but the people's transfer of allegiance to a different God,
one who created human beings in his image and values them accordingly.
That possibility must frighten any government in Pyongyang which continues
to tie its legitimacy to the Kim dynasty.
The DPRK is a security threat to Northeast Asia. It also is perhaps
the world's greatest humanitarian tragedy. The West should challenge
whatever leadership emerges to treat the North Korean people as human
beings rather than human chattel. At the same time, Western peoples
should work and pray for such a transformation. The people of the DPRK
should no longer suffer alone in the shadows.
Foreign Follies archives
Foreign Follies is copyright (c) 2012 by Doug Bandow. All
A version of this article appeared at The
American Spectator on December 23, 2011.
Doug Bandow is the Senior Fellow in International Religious Persecution
at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.
See a complete biographical sketch.
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