Religious persecution in the DPRK has long been discussed by Western media and anti-Pyongyang organizations. On August 10, 2016, in its annual report, the US State Department stated that freedom of conscience in the DPRK did not exist, and the regime brutally persecuted everyone engaging in any religious practices. The special document, The 2015 International Religious Freedom Report describes that, although the right to freedom of religion in the DPRK is guaranteed by the Constitution, any religious activity unsanctioned by the state becomes a reason for repressions, and a significant part of political prisoners are those who worshipped the crucified god. Owning the Bible and any religious materials brought from other countries is prohibited and punishable (up to the death penalty). For this reason, since 2001, Washington has classified the DPRK as a country where the freedom of religion is violated.
In 2017, the South Korean NGO Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) issued the 2016 White Paper on the Freedom of Religion in the DPRK. According to the authors, the study was conducted on the basis of a survey of 11,730 North Korean refugees who arrived in Korea after 2007, and 51.8% of them indicated that religious activities in the North were punishable by the sending of people to camps as political prisoners. There are also less severe punishments. 2.8% mentioned correctional labor, 11.4% – imprisonment in ordinary prisons. The analysis of the database on human rights in the DPRK revealed that after the 1990s, 1,247 cases were registered closely linked to the persecution of religious circles. 59.3% of them were imprisonment cases, 10.7% – restriction of movement, 9.1% – death penalty. In 6.6% of the cases, religious activists had gone missing.
It is also true that this organization is searchable on the web practically only in the context of this survey, which formally states that its organizers somehow managed to interview almost half of the adult population of the refugees. The resources of a small NGO for such undertakings remain a secret.
South Korean protestant-based human rights organizations like to demonstratively equal the genocide of Jews under Hitler to the “purging of Christian martyrs” by the regime of Kim Il Sung.
Let us look back to the history for clarification. The protestant community in North Korea existed, because the only opportunity to openly engage in nationalism under the Japanese rule was linked to being protected by western missionary organizations, which in this way trained a group of absolutely loyal people.
After the liberation of the country, there were attempts to attract Christians to the new government (some priests who supported the government were even victims of attempted murder). However, the official atheism and anti-Americanism of the authorities irritated the community, which had close relations with the West.
In this context, the so-called “Sinuiju Incident” is very interesting. On November 23, 1945, between 500 and 1,000 schoolchildren gathered to demand the return of the director of a Christian school to his post after he had been dismissed by the People’s Committee, which was dominated by the Communists. The meeting was allegedly peaceful and unarmed. Nevertheless, soldiers opened fire, killed a couple dozen of people, and injured several hundred others. Rumors dispersed widely, after which Kim Il Sung personally visited the city to clarify the situation, met with representatives of the schoolchildren, and criticized the local communists for excessively rude actions, after which no information on the collision followed, even from western sources.
The repressions of the Christians intensified as, after the formation of the DPRK and the Republic of Korea, the authorities of the South started using Christian structures as the fifth column. Between 1946 and 1949, church property was confiscated, and the Christian League of North Korea was established as a pro-government organization. Those priests who did not join it were subjected to pressure, but they usually had a chance to escape to the South. Moon Sun Myung, by the way, was one of them.
During the Korean War, Christian activists in the North started massively cooperating with the occupation authorities, and since the late 1950s, an active anti-Christian and anti-clerical campaign began in the country. Moreover, most of church communities ceased to exist, and a lot of church buildings were destroyed by American bombing.
The 1980s marked the beginning of traditional folk festivals in Korea. Since then, the activity of religious associations such as the Union of Christians of Korea or the Association of Korean Buddhists increased.
Today, as the author was explained during his trip to the DPRK in 2016, “state religion” has simply ousted all the others. Kim Il Sung, of course, respected believers. However, the present generation, especially the young, does not believe in Buddha or other gods. Buddhism and Christianity are not formally prosecuted, but they are not allowed to develop further to a certain level, and the unifying structure for believers is under strict state control. It prepares specialists for contacts with believers abroad, rather than priests conducting proselytistic work inside the country, and the basis for that is Article 68 of the Constitution: “Religion cannot be used as a means for penetration of external forces and violation of state and public order.”
There is no special Article similar to “apostasy” in the codes of a number of Islamic countries in the criminal code of the DPRK. Articles 267 and 268 of the Criminal Code of the DPRK envisage punishment for “occult services” in exchange for money or goods as well as involvement in them. This Article is more designed for shamans or fortune-tellers.
In Pyongyang, there are two Protestant churches and one Catholic church, each of which officially hosts about 150 parishioners. And during his last visit to Russia, Kim Jong Il suggested building an Orthodox church in Pyongyang, saying, “We will find believers”. And although, according to the information from the author’s respondents, most of the church-goers are employees of the Russian embassy, the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity has existed in Pyongyang for more than ten years now.
It is difficult to establish whether a “catacomb church” exists in the DPRK, and it is even more difficult to understand how Korean Christians consider their religion as a way of resisting the regime. But even if we take the information coming from biased Protestant sources, the secret church in the north is exposed to persecution, and does not try to do anything more than passionately suffer. We do not know of attempts to “hang crosses or Christmas slogans” even from the words of the like of the “Voice of Martyrs”.
And here again, we draw attention to an important point: all the scandals associated with the religious persecution for some reason or other do not concern Buddhists or Catholics, but only one congregation – the American-South Korean Protestant sects, the policies of which with regard to Pyongyang are absolutely clear.
By combining fanaticism and pragmatism, Korean Protestants are fighting their own war with the DPRK, favored by the fact that atheistic collectivism of the DPRK is widely perceived by this public as the “Satan State”. It is from their circles that the most horrible fairy tales come, like the ones mentioned above, and some of the most prominent propaganda fakes illustrating the DPRK as an “Empire of Evil”.
In the actions of such sects, it is almost impossible to separate Christian preaching from the propaganda of anti-state actions, and we have numerously mentioned espionage scandals, in which American or South Korean Protestant pastors played a key role.
Religious and anti-state propaganda go hand in hand, while pastors do not refrain from using pornography to attract people into their networks, simultaneously engaging in the production of counterfeit dollars or North Korean currency (exclusively to undermine the DPRK’s economy, of course), and sometimes even engaging in human trafficking under cover of “refugee transportation”.
The list of their activities is much longer. The author has repeatedly heard of reports that some groups of this type were trying to seriously “rock the boat” by recruiting terrorists in China and neighboring countries from among defectors or local Koreans. These recruits were to commit several serious terrorist attacks in North Korea, such as detonation of explosives at monuments of Kim Il Sung, which, as the West puts it, would have two consequences. First, it could be interpreted as a sign that there is a “Christian resistance” in North Korea that needs urgent support (see examples of Syria or Libya). Second, such explosions would of course trigger a new round of repression, which could also be used for propaganda purposes. The worse, the better. And such plans are openly discussed, for example, about attempts to explode the statues of Kim Il Sung with explosive drones.
It is no surprise that the DPRK is fighting with “reactionary and religious enthusiasts” who “under the religious disguise worship Western culture and American imperialists” and quite often directly execute tasks of the US CIA. It is not the religion itself that is punishable, but the illegal religious propaganda, or a situation where religious preaches are used as a cover for activities aimed at undermining the state system.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.