Are North Korea’s Christians Facing Genocide?

Olivia Enos
Olivia Enos
Senior Fellow
Are North Korea’s Christians Facing Genocide?
South Korean activists wave banners reading "abolish concentration camps!" during a rally for North Korea's human rights in Seoul on December 9, 2011. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images)

At the ten-year mark of the seminal Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in North Korea, the United Nations is taking a hard look at the country’s human rights record. The 2014 COI report found North Koreans face ongoing crimes against humanity, with human rights conditions unparalleled in the modern world. Today, the situation remains dire, and may even be worsening. Evidence suggests that the persecution of particular groups, especially North Korean Christians, may even amount to genocide. The UN is slated to release an update to the 2014 COI report in September; they should use the new report as an opportunity to investigate whether genocide, in addition to crimes against humanity, is ongoing in North Korea.

According to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, to carry out genocide means to have “intent to destroy in whole or in part” a people group on the basis of their nationality, race, ethnicity, or religion. Acts of genocide are defined in Article II of the Convention to include “Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Not all of these element’s need be met for an atrocity crime to be considered genocide; even if just one is present, it can be deemed genocide.

The commissioners of the 2014 COI report viewed investigating crimes of genocide as outside of their mandate. The 2024 report, however, should go beyond the scope of the original by investigating the crime of genocide, especially against Christians.

Classified as a “hostile class” in the songbun system, a social ranking dictated by perceived loyalty to the Kim regime, Christians have long faced severe punishments, imprisonment and execution. Proving that Christians are killed on the basis of their religion is not hard to do. Even the COI report documented killings of Christian. Media reports over the years have documented the public executions of believers, including for simply having a Bible.

Deliberate efforts have been undertaken to subject North Korean Christians to bodily harm intended to destroy their group. The regime will stop at almost nothing, in fact, to persecute Christians, including sentencing a two-year-old child and her Christian family to life imprisonment. Rights groups estimate that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians in North Korea, and as many as 70,000 Christians have been imprisoned for their faith.

The Kim regime also carries out severe harm and physical destruction on Christians via its complex system of labor and political camps. The COI report exposed the nature of the camps detailing the regime’s policies of starvation, torture, rape and sexual violence, forced labor and even death in the camps. If a North Korean refugee is found to have been to church or encountered a Christian missionary, they are often sent to the camps or subject to death through one means or another.

Christians are not the only group suffering from gross human rights violations that may constitute genocide in North Korea. Those who practice Shamanism, non-Christian members of the hostile class, and half-Chinese Koreans, may also face genocide.

In my latest report for Hudson Institute, I argue that much more is needed to help the long-suffering North Korean people. In its update to the COI report, the UN should renew commitments to defending human rights in North Korea and explore whether genocide and crimes against humanity are ongoing.

The U.S. should also issue an atrocity determination of its own, saying whether the regime has committed genocide or crimes against humanity. There is also a need to reenergize U.S. leadership in defending North Korean human rights – extending refugee safe haven, and pressing for access to and the release of women, children and the elderly in the camps, are but a few of the next steps the U.S. government should take. Ultimately, the U.S. should pursue the closure of all political prison camps in North Korea. Doing so clearly advance U.S. interests and values in the region.

Ten years after COI took the world by storm, the North Korean people are continuing to suffer. The U.S. and the international community need to act to support the North Korean people — one important measure could be issuing an atrocity determination.

Mia Vu, an intern at Hudson Institute, made substantial research and writing contributions to this piece.

Read in Forbes.