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State Enforced Worship in North Korea

Nina Shea

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Task Force for this holding this important briefing and for inviting me to speak on behalf of Hudson’s Center for Religious Freedom. I am honored and humbled to be sharing a panel with two heroic women who have had to bear so much suffering at the hands of the North Korean system on account of their Christian faith.

Documenting human rights abuses in N. Korea is extraordinarily difficult because it is one of the most closed societies in the world. Little is known about the full extent of religious persecution and the extent of underground activity. What can be said unequivocally is that it is one of the world’s very worst persecutors. The new World Survey on Religious Freedom (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) of the Center for Religious Freedom ranks North Korea at the very bottom of its religious freedom scale. The U.S. State Department also designates N. Korea as a “Country of Particular Concern” for egregious religious persecution.

When Kim Il-sung took power half a century ago, he began a systematic campaign of indoctrination in his own Stalinist ideology, in which religion had no place. Today, virtually all outward vestiges of religion have been wiped out, and North Korea is regarded as the most hard-line atheistic nation in the world. The government relies on relentless propaganda and a comprehensive surveillance system to control virtually every act, belief and desire of its citizens. North Koreans are prohibited from making the slightest deviation from the Communist Party’s rigid ideology.

Kim considered religion to be “superstition” and “a hindrance to the socialist evolution.” By the early 1960s, his secret police had begun an intense effort to eradicate religious belief. All temples, shrines, churches, and other religious sites were closed, and all religious literature and Bibles were destroyed. Religious leaders were either executed or sent to concentration camps. In place of Buddhism, Christianity, and other faiths, Kim imposed an alternative religion, a personality cult built around himself and his son. From early childhood, North Koreans were taught to look on the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung and, later on, his son Kim Jong-Il as infallible, godlike beings and progenitors of the Korean race. This practice survived Kim Il-Sung’s death and continues to the present.

The government allows and controls three religious organizations: the Buddhist Federation, the Korean Christian Federation and the Korean Catholic Association.

There are several hundred Buddhist temples, but most appear to be historical cultural sites, rather than active religious centers. Although fifty years ago the capital of Pyongyang was nicknamed “Asia’s Jerusalem” because of the strong influence of Christianity, there are now only four churches – two Protestant, one Catholic and one Orthodox. All are located in the capital and seem to be used solely to impress Western observers. No Roman Catholic priests live in the country, so the sacraments cannot be administered even in the showplace church. Foreign journalists who have attended services in the churches reported that neither the congregants nor the national leader of the government-controlled Protestant Federation could name the first three books of the Bible. Others who went unannounced on Easter Sunday found the churches locked and empty. Christianity is perceived by authorities to be a threat, with the potential of undermining the Kim dynasty. Underground Christians have told foreign groups that they fear being executed on the spot if they are caught in possession of the Scriptures. Defectors report that Christians are given the heaviest work, the least amount of food, and the worst conditions in prison. Those caught praying in prison are beaten and tortured.

A new report, A Prison Without Bars, released this month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which I serve as a Commissioner, details the mandatory veneration of Kim Il Song, North Korea’s Stalinist founder, and provides rare insights through interviews with dozens of defectors and refugees, such as the following:

“When a person is caught carrying the Bible, he will be punished severely because he has brought an external influence to North Korea. A person caught carrying a Bible is doomed. When a person is caught [worshipping], he will be sent to the penal labor camp…and the whole family may disappear.”

Another defector recounted:

“There was an incident in Xian (China), where about 70 N. Korean refugees were living. A Korean-Chinese informed the Chinese police and they were arrested. The North Korean border police called the Ujin military unit in Yanbian. They took the Christians by train to North Korea. The arrestees kept praying even as they were beaten. The group leaders and the most faithful ones were sent to the penal labor camps.”

An interviewee told the Commission about the pervasive surveillance that makes religious practice in community a near impossibility:

“North Korea is a prison without bars. The reason why the North Korean system still exists is because of the strict surveillance system. When we provide the information like ‘this family believes in a religion from their grandfather’s generation,’ the National Security Agency will arrest each family member. That is why entire families are scared of one another. Everyone is supposed to be watching one another like this. All organizations, the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, and the Women’s League are [gathering information].”

I especially wish to point out interviewees’ testimony about the rampant sex trafficking of North Korean refugee women inside China. One told us:

“North Korean women are usually sold to Chinese people. [Once a woman is sold], they guard the woman so that she can’t go anywhere. There are also many cases where women actually wish to be sold of their own desire because their situation is so difficult. A 20-year-old woman is sold to a 70-year-old man. I once witnessed in Heilongjiang Province that a Korean-Chinese woman was selling seven North Korean women. The seven were seated and [buyers] chose from among them. [Women] are not sold to rich people but to very poor people or handicapped people. They are sent to rural town. Prices vary depending on the age [of the woman]. It is just like trading goods. Because [North Korean women] don’t speak Chinese, they are sold and treated like slaves.

The Commission’s report contains many more such interviews. I commend it to anyone interested in knowing the horrors of what is occurring in that secretive state.

Thank you.

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