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North Korea: A Prison without Bars

Nina Shea

North Korea’s Kim dynasty considers religion a hindrance to the nation’s socialist evolution. For 50 years, its secret police has waged a brutal campaign to eradicate religious belief. It has nearly succeeded. But the numbers of Christian believers are now slowly rising (maybe even in the low hundreds of thousands) and they must be prepared to pay with their lives for their faith.

In the early Sixties, Buddhist shrines and temples and Christian churches were shuttered, and all religious literature and Bibles destroyed. Religious leaders were either executed or sent to concentration camps. Some temples that have reopened are mainly historical cultural sites, not active religious centers. Pyongyang was known in the 1950s as “Asia’s Jerusalem” for its robust Christian communities, but the five Christian churches that now exist, all in the capital, are state-operated for international propaganda purposes.

Run like an impregnable fortress, North Korea bans human-rights investigations, and the persecution of religious believers, like other aspects of daily conditions, is barely known. Nevertheless, an important study by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and a white paper by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDC), all based on the testimony of refugees over the past ten years most of whom are not religious, help piece together a grim picture of what life is like for Christians and more generally.

These interviews, taken at different times, of different refugees, by different interviewers, corroborate each other and provide powerful evidence of pervasive ideological control, religious persecution, human-rights violations, and government surveillance. These searing voices need to be heard. A representative sample of them follows:

bullet_blue.gif “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].”

bullet_blue.gif “There are churches and Buddhist temples in Pyongyang . . . built only for . . . foreigners to attend. When foreigners visit Pyongyang they would go to churches and temples to pray and bow. I never heard of religious books until I came to China.”

bullet_blue.gif “A forty-something woman, who lived in a city of North Pyongan Province, North Korea, was caught with a Bible in her home. She was seized, dragged from her house, and publicly shot to death. Her execution took place on the threshing floor of a farm. . . . I was curious why she was to be shot. Somebody told me she had kept a Bible at her home. Guards tied her head, her chest, and her legs to a post, and shot her dead. It happened in September 2005.”

bullet_blue.gif “Based on a tip-off, around January 2005, agents from the Central Antisocialist Activities Inspection Unit raided my home in a county of North Hamgyong Province. As a result of their search, they found a Bible. I was taken into custody to a political prison camp alongside my wife and daughter. My son, who was staying in China, entered the North without any knowledge about his family’s detention. He, too, was later taken to the camp.”

bullet_blue.gif “One cannot even say the word ‘religion.’ North Korea does have Christians and Catholics. They have buildings but they are all fake. These groups exist to falsely show the world that North Korea has freedom of religion. But [the government] does not allow religion or [independent] religious organizations because it is worried about the possibility that Kim Jong Il’s regime would be in danger [because] religion erodes society.”

bullet_blue.gif “In 2001, a woman was taken into custody at a political prison camp for having talked with her neighbors, who had been to China, about religion. One of the neighbors was a government spy. She was forced to divorce her husband, and was detained at a political prison camp and died there.”

bullet_blue.gif “At Christmas time we used to sing familiar Christmas carols such as ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Joy to the World.’ Older North Korean Christians know these too. They sang these carols when they were young. Their parents were Christians at the time of the great revival in 1907. Now they are no longer allowed to sing them, because all Christian activity is forbidden.”

bullet_blue.gif “‘Underground believers’ would be a more appropriate term than ‘underground church.’ Church would be something like a place where people can gather and listen to a sermon, but it’s impossible to exist for long. Instead, underground believers can exist. There is a chance that two people pair up and hold their hands together to pray. However, a gathering of three or more is dangerous.”

bullet_blue.gif “In 2003, I watched three men being taken to a place of public execution in a county of North Hamgyong Province [in North Korea]. Among them was a man with whom I had studied the Bible together in China. He was gagged with rags before his execution. When told to say what he wanted to say before dying, he said, ‘O Lord, forgive these miserable people.’ And he was shot dead.”

bullet_blue.gif “You cannot say a word about [religion or] three generations of your family can be killed. People who lived before the Korean War knew [about religion.] But religion was eradicated. We can only serve one person in North Korea [Kim Jong Il].”

bullet_blue.gif “Hanging pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the wall is an obligation. The purpose of hanging the pictures is to worship Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. There is a ritual done before the pictures. [We] worship Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader who saved us from death and emancipated us from slavery. If a fire breaks out, people would show their loyalty by running into the fire to save the portraits. Anyone who gets burned doing this would win commendation.”

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