North Korea remains one of the most isolated countries in the world. Access from the outside world is minimal and freedom of movement of North Korean citizens, whether within the country or abroad, is strictly monitored, and in most cases, prohibited. The Kim family has been in power for three generations and citizens of the country are controlled to ensure and maintain complete loyalty to the regime. The State controls all aspects of life in North Korea by using strict surveillance, enabled by a wide network of informants, to maintain control (BBC News, 2019). It is this strict control and little access into or out of the country that creates an environment for the perpetuation of human rights violations by the Kim regime.
On paper, North Korea appears to adhere to international human rights standards. It is a signatory to multiple international human rights treaties, and it claims to protect and promote a variety of rights in its own laws. By doing so, the North Korean regime supposedly ensures the promotion and protection of human rights and universal freedoms. Witness testimonies tell a different story, however. In 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in North Korea concluded that the Kim regime is guilty of perpetrating crimes against humanity (United Nations General Assembly, 2014). The COI’s report describes and records acts of persecution committed by the regime to suppress religious minorities, with a focus on Christians.
The country has been described as one of the worst persecutors of Christians in the world. A recent inquiry by the International Bar Association (IBA) and The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) found that Christians are particularly targeted and sent to detention facilities where they are subject to grave treatment, as “persecution against Christians in the DPRK detention centers is particularly egregious” (p. 115, 2022). It is nevertheless estimated that there are up to 500,000 Christians in North Korea (approximately 1.5% of the population), of which 50,000–70 000 are believed to be detained in prison camps. Practicing Christianity is punishable by death in North Korea (Open Doors, n.d.; Salát, 2019).
The North Korean regime’s repression of Christianity is historically and ideologically driven. Historically, a large number of Christians lived in the northern part of the peninsula which is now North Korea. Before the Korean war, approximately one-sixth of the population of North Korea’s capital were Christians (Facts and Details, 2021). When the Communist regime (the Kim regime) came to power in North Korea, it forcibly closed down most of the churches. Incidentally, when the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea into occupation zones in 1945, most Christians remained in North Korea. However, they were monitored with extreme suspicion by the Kim regime because they were organized, and did not always obey the laws of the new Communist rule (Facts and Details, 2021). Between 1945, when Soviet forces first occupied North Korea and the end of the Korean War in 1953, the perception of Christians worsened and many were considered “bad elements” by the Kim regime, so they fled to South Korea to escape persecution (Facts and Details, 2021). Christians who remained in North Korea faced terrible persecution. Many who retained their religion practiced secretly or went into hiding, and those who were found by the authorities ended up in prison or labor camps or even dead (these included missionaries, priests, and nuns). Approximately, 1,500 churches were destroyed in North Korea during the early decades of the Communist regime (LA Times, 2005). It shows that the North Korean regime continues to associate Christianity with the West, in particular the United States, and alleges their support of Capitalism since the early 1950s. This leads to its portrayal of Christianity as a threat to the nation and State. The regime is concerned about the religion’s power to influence its own ideology that is systematically based on absolute control and cult-loyalty to the Kim family. The irony is that Kim Il-sung was born in a Christian household that was directly influenced by American missionaries (PCUSA, 2017).
Ideologically, the Kim regime perceives Christianity as an obstruction to the continuous consolidation of juche, an all-encompassing state ideology that guides the actions of individuals, leaving no space for religious belief. The strengthening of juche additionally led to the establishment of the songbun system developed during the late 1960s. Songbun classifies citizens into three broad categories according to their perceived political loyalty to the regime, based on their family history. This classification is extremely important, as it influences all aspects of one’s life in North Korea. Religious people are placed in the lowest category, as they are considered to be hostile towards the regime. The regime conceives Christianity as a threat since religious beliefs are perceived to undermine the regime’s power as well as the founding ideology of juche. For this reason, it prosecutes and persecutes Christian believers (Salát, 2019). In addition to juche, North Korean citizens are strictly guided by the Ten Principles of Monolithic Ideology (TPMI) which serves as a standard by which the entire life of every citizen is shaped (Collins & Mortwedt, 2017). The TPMI also directly impacts on the operation of the political prison camps and the denial of human rights within and outside the prison camps (Collins & Mortwedt, 2017). This system is ultimately based on ensuring that there is complete loyalty paid to the Kim regime. Juche and TPMI serve as the foundation of the Kim family rule and beyond it there is no room for deviation or other beliefs.
The North Korean Constitution supposedly protects the right to freedom of religion. However, this is only a façade, since the regime severely restricts any religious activity (US Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2011). Article 68 of the North Korean constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, with the stipulation that “religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order,” highlighting the construction of religion as a potential force deriving from foreign powers (US Dept. of State, Office of International Religious Freedom, 2022; Salát, 2019). The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea stated that the exercise of freedom of religion in the country is “nearly impossible” (US Dept. of State, Office of International Religious Freedom, 2022). Citizens must only worship the Kim regime. Those found practicing Christianity or in possession of a Bible are sent to prison camps or severely tortured; some accounts even report executions (US Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2011).
There are hundreds of reports which shed light on this horrific act against Christians. A 2020 report by Christianity Today describes the names of those who were involved in repressing secret Christian believers and the methods employed to persecute Christians (Casper, 2020). In 2021, a report by the Korean World Missionary Fellowship (KWMF) records that six South Korean missionaries are currently being held captive in North Korea from four to eight years (Lee, 2021). KWMF has made a public call for the detainees to be released. Furthermore, in 2021 Korea Future Initiative produced a report, Persecuting Faith, which revealed 273 documented victims of human rights violations, 76 of whom are still in the North Korean prison system. Of the 273 victims interviewed, 215 were Christian (Korea Future, 2021). The report is a result of escapee-interviews conducted between 2019 to 2021 and offers great detail into the grave treatment of Christians in North Korea. Some examples include young men and women being beaten with sticks and other objects, older men and women being beaten and later dying from injuries, being sentenced to prison time and/or death (Mares, 2021). Many of these reports highlight that the violations have been committed by or in the presence of government officials. More recently, in 2021, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea in the United Kingdom released a report showcasing evidence confirming that much of North Korea’s crimes are focused on the Christian population (Dima, 2021). These are recent reports which suggest that the human rights crisis of Christians in North Korea is continuous and systematic.
Among the crimes perpetrated by the North Korean regime, the UN COI found that the State almost completely denied the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The regime continues to execute, torture, arrest, or physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities (US Dept. of State, Office of International Religious Freedom, 2022). According to Article 2 of the Genocide Convention of 1948, the crime of genocide is described as
“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) 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” (p. 3).
Based on this definition, the North Korean regime’s persecution of Christians could arguably amount to genocide. Its repression of Christianity is ongoing and systematic. The Kim regime strictly monitors and severely punishes Christians, since their religious practice is viewed as a political crime against the State (Human Rights Watch, 2007). In North Korea, anything which may challenge the cult of the Kim regime is prohibited and punished. The regime views Christians as the most dangerous political class of people due to the religion’s historical legacy. Family members go so far as to hide their faith from one another for fear of being seen as “enemies of the state” (The Voice of the Martyrs, n.d.). Religion forms a major part of one’s culture. To a large degree, religion and culture exist in close relation to each other. This is why the North Korean regime may be seen as the perpetrator of a cultural genocide in its targeting, persecuting and punishing of citizens who practice the Christian faith.
It is a tragic reality to acknowledge the persecution of Christians in North Korea today, especially since Pyongyang was once called the “Jerusalem of the East.” This clearly shows the dominance of the Kim regime and the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family. North Koreans have no choice but to worship Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un, following the unadulterated subscription to juche and the strict enforcement of the TPMI. Considering the regime’s persistent attempts to eliminate Christianity from the country, the persecution of the Christian minority in North Korea remains a great human rights concern. North Korea may arguably be the perpetrator of a cultural genocide of Christians. We call on the international community, including governments and civil society, to pressure the North Korean regime to immediately end its harsh practice against Christian believers.
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