Policy Area: Humanitarian

International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, State Dept, December 18, 2003

The Constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief”; however, in practice the Government discourages organized religious activity, except that which is supervised tightly by officially recognized groups linked to the Government. Genuine religious freedom does not exist.

There was no change in the extremely poor level of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The regime appears to have cracked down on unauthorized religious groups in recent years; there are unconfirmed reports of the killing of members of underground Christian churches. In addition, religious persons who proselytize or who have ties to overseas evangelical groups operating in the People's Republic of China (PRC) appear subject to arrest and harsh penalties, according to several unconfirmed reports. In the late 1980’s, there was some easing of religious discrimination policies, and Government sponsored religious groups that were established at that time continue to operate. The Government has allowed foreigners to attend Government-sponsored religious services.

No information was available on societal attitudes toward religious freedom.

The U.S. government has raised its concerns about the deplorable state of religious freedom in North Korea at occasional meetings with North Korean officials.

The U.S. Government does not have diplomatic relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and information about religious freedom in the country is limited. The Government maintains tight and effective control on information on conditions in the country. Since 2001, the Secretary of State has designated the DPRK as a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

The Government does not allow representatives of foreign governments, journalists, or other visitors the freedom of movement that would enable them to assess fully human rights conditions in the country. This report is based on information obtained over more than a decade, updated where possible by information drawn from recent interviews, reports, and other documentation. While limited in detail, this information is indicative of the religious freedom situation in the country during the period covered by this report.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of approximately 47,000 square miles, and its population is approximately 21 million. The number of religious believers is unknown but has been estimated by the Government at 10,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, and 4,000 Catholics. Estimates by South Korean church-related groups are considerably higher. In addition the Chondogyo Young Friends Party, a government-approved group based on a traditional religious movement, has approximately 40,000 practitioners. There has been a limited revival of Buddhism with the translation and publication of Buddhist scriptures that had been carved on 80,000 wooden blocks and kept at the Haeinsa temple in the South. It is not known whether any Catholic priests, whose role is a fundamental element for the practice of the Catholic faith, remain in the country. In 2002, according to a South Korean press report, the chairman of the Association of North Korean Catholics stated that the Catholic community in the North had no priests, but held weekly prayer services at the Changchung Catholic Church in Pyongyang.

Two Protestant churches under lay leadership--the Pongsu and Chilgok churches--and the Changchung Roman Catholic church have been open since 1988 in Pyongyang. One of the Protestant churches is dedicated to the memory of former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung's mother, Kang Pan Sok, who was a Presbyterian deacon. Several foreigners residing in Pyongyang attend Korean services at these churches on a regular basis. Although some foreigners who have visited the country over the years stated that church activity appears staged, others believe that church services are genuine, although sermons contain both religious and political content supportive of the regime. The Government claims, and some visitors agree, that there are more than 500 authorized "house churches." Hundreds of religious figures have visited the country in recent years, including papal representatives, the Reverend Billy Graham, and religious delegations from the Republic of Korea, the United States, and other countries. Vatican representatives, including Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Vatican Undersecretary for Relations with States, visited the country in November 2000 and in May 2002. On each occasion, the delegation reported meeting with the Catholic community in Pyongyang and with officials of the Association of North Korean Catholics. During the 2002 visit, the delegation celebrated the Feast of the Ascension with the local and international Catholic community at the Changchung Church in Pyongyang. In July 2001, a delegation from the Seoul Archdiocese of the Catholic Church visited the country and met with officials of the Association of North Korean Catholics.

Foreign religious activity is frequently connected with humanitarian relief, and overseas religious relief organizations have been active in responding to the country's food crisis. An overseas Buddhist group has been operating a factory in the Najin-Sonbong Free Trade Zone since 1998 to produce food for preschool children. A noodle factory established by contributions from Catholics of the Seoul Archdiocese opened in 2001. The Unification Church, which has business ventures in the country, is constructing an interfaith religious facility in Pyongyang.

There are an estimated 300 Buddhist temples in the country. Most of the temples are regarded as cultural relics, but religious activity is permitted in some of them. On June 4, 2002, Kim Jong Il visited the Ryangchon Buddhist temple in South Hamgyong Province. Although his comments during the visit centered on preserving the country's cultural relics, his appearance at any religious site is noteworthy.

There are unconfirmed reports of underground Christian churches. Some older citizens who were religious believers before 1953 reportedly have maintained their faith in secret over the years.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework The Constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief;" however, in practice the Government discourages organized religious activity, except that which is supervised by officially recognized groups. Genuine religious freedom does not exist. The Constitution also stipulates that religion "should not be used for purposes of dragging in foreign powers or endangering public security."

"Juche," or self-reliance, the Government's state ideology, and the personality cult of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il, have become a kind of civil religion used by the Government as a "spiritual" underpinning for its rule. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority exemplifying the State and society's needs is regarded as opposition to the national interest.

During and immediately after the Korean War of 1950-53, the Government identified large numbers of religiously active persons as "counterrevolutionaries," and many of them were killed or imprisoned in concentration camps. The peak of this oppression was in the early 1970's when a constitutional revision added a clause regarding "freedom of antireligious activity." The Government began to moderate its religious discrimination policies in the late 1980's, when it launched a campaign highlighting Kim Il Sung's "benevolent politics." As part of this campaign, the regime allowed the formation of several government-sponsored religious organizations. These organizations serve as interlocutors with foreign church groups and international aid organizations. Foreigners who have met with representatives of these organizations believe that some members are genuinely religious but note that others appear to know little about religious dogma or teaching. These organizations continue to operate, and visits by foreign religious figures have increased. However, the Government appears to have continued to suppress unauthorized religious groups in recent years. In particular, religious persons who proselytize or who have ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border with China appear to have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties, according to several unconfirmed reports. A constitutional change in 1992 deleted the clause regarding freedom of antireligious propaganda, authorized religious gatherings, and provided for "the right to build buildings for religious use."

Efforts at national reconciliation since the inter-Korean summit in mid-June 2000 have increased North-South contacts. Civic groups and religious organizations in the South have been active in efforts to promote inter-Korean reconciliation. Discussions between these groups and their Northern counterparts generally have been limited to promoting social and cultural exchanges. The impact of these contacts on religious freedom in North Korea is unclear.

Several schools for religious education exist in North Korea. There are 3-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy. A religious studies program also was established at Kim Il Sung University in 1989; its graduates usually go on to work in the foreign trade sector. A Protestant seminary was reopened in 2000 with assistance from foreign missionary groups. Critics, including at least one foreign sponsor, charged that the Government opened the seminary only to facilitate reception of assistance funds from foreign faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

According to a 2002 White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, issued by the Korea Institute for National Unification, "there are no genuine religious practitioners in North Korea." The report notes though, that "some people are officially recognized as practicing religion, but in fact they are there to facilitate foreign aid or for purposes of international propaganda."

Persons engaging in religious proselytizing may be arrested and subjected to harsh penalties, including imprisonment and prolonged detention without charge. The Government appears concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border with the PRC may become entwined with more political goals, including overthrow of the regime. An article in the Korean Workers Party newspaper in 1999 criticized "imperialists and reactionaries" for trying to use ideological and cultural infiltration, including religion, to destroy socialism from within.

Little is known about the day-to-day life of religious persons in the country. Members of government-recognized religious groups do not appear to suffer discrimination. In fact, some reports claim, and circumstantial evidence suggests, that many, if not most, have been mobilized by the regime. Persons whose parents were believers but who themselves do not practice religion are able to rise to at least the middle levels of the bureaucracy, despite their family background. In the past, such individuals suffered broad discrimination. Members of underground churches connected to border missionary activity appear to be regarded as subversive elements.

In July 2001, the U.N. Human Rights Committee noted "with regret" that the Government was unable to provide up-to-date information about religious freedom in the country. The Committee also noted, "in the light of information available to the Committee that religious practice is repressed or strongly discouraged" in the country, its concern regarding the authorities' practice with respect to religious freedom. The Committee requested that the Government provide the Committee with up-to-date information regarding the number of citizens belonging to religious communities and the number of places of worship, as well as "practical measures taken by the authorities to guarantee freedom of exercise of religious practice" by the religious communities in the country.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government deals harshly with all opponents, including those engaging in religious practices deemed unacceptable to the regime. Religious and human rights groups outside of the country have provided numerous, usually unconfirmed, reports that members of underground churches have been beaten, arrested, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs. Defectors interviewed by a former humanitarian aid worker claimed that Christians were imprisoned and tortured for reading the Bible and talking about God, and that some Christians were subjected to biological warfare experiments. The Government effectively bars outside observers from confirming these reports.

In April 1999 and in May and June 2002, witnesses testified before Congress on the treatment of persons held in prison camps through the early 1990's. The witnesses stated that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs generally were treated worse than other inmates. One witness, a former prison guard, testified that because the authorities taught "all religions are opium," those believing in God were regarded as insane. He recounted an instance in which a woman was kicked repeatedly and left with her injuries unattended for days because a guard overheard her praying for a child who was being beaten. Another individual testified that in 1990, while serving a sentence in a prison that had a cast-iron factory, she witnessed the killing of several elderly Christians by security officers who poured molten iron on them after they refused to renounce their religion and accept the state ideology of juche.

The collective weight of anecdotal evidence over the years of harsh treatment of unauthorized religious activity lends credence to such reports. Reports of executions, torture, and imprisonment of religious persons in the country continue to emerge.

The regime appears to have cracked down on unauthorized religious groups in recent years, especially persons who proselytize or who have ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border with China. There were unconfirmed reports that persons who proselytize or were repatriated and found to have contacted Christian missionaries outside the North were severely punished or executed. News reports indicated that the Government had taken steps to tighten control and increase punishments at the Chinese border, increasing the award for information on any person doing missionary work. One South Korean missionary asserted that the Government was conducting "education sessions" as a means for identifying Christian leaders so that they could be apprehended.

There is no reliable information on the number of religious detainees or prisoners, but there are unconfirmed reports that some of those detained in the country are detained because of their religion.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

There was no information available on societal attitudes toward religious freedom. The regime does not allow representatives of foreign governments, journalists, or other visitors the freedom of movement that would enable them to assess religious freedom in the country fully.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The United States does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK and has no official presence there. During talks in Pyongyang in October 2002, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs highlighted U.S. concerns about the deplorable human rights record, including religious freedom, of the North Korean regime. Also during 2002, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor raised awareness of the deplorable human rights conditions inside North Korea through speeches before U.S. audiences and testified before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. The U.S. regularly raises these concerns about North Korea in multilateral fora and bilaterally with other governments. U.S. officials urge other countries to condition their bilateral relations with North Korea on concrete, verifiable, and sustained improvements.

The U.S. Government provided the National Endowment for Democracy with $250,000 for sub-grants to two South Korean NGOs to support monitoring and reporting on human rights conditions in North Korea. Radio Free Asia also provides regular Korean-language broadcasting.

The U.S. Government worked to achieve passage for the first time of a resolution on the human rights situation in North Korea, as well as the DPRK's deplorable record on religious freedom, during the 59th session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The resolution condemned the North Korean Government for its human rights abuses, including the use of torture and forced labor, as well as restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. The resolution called on the Government to fulfill its obligations under human rights instruments to which it is a party, invite U.N. special representatives to visit North Korea, and ensure that humanitarian organizations have free access to the country.

The country is a closed society and is extremely averse and resistant to outside influences. U.S. policy allows U.S. citizens to travel to the country, and a number of churches and religious groups have organized efforts to alleviate suffering caused by shortages of food and medicine. Since 2001, the Secretary of State designated the DPRK as a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

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