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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Korea, Democratic People's Republic of

International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

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, and there have been 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 across the border with the People's Republic of China (PRC) appear to have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties, according to several unconfirmed reports. In the late 1980's, there was some easing of religious discrimination policies when the Government initiated a campaign highlighting the "benevolent politics" of the country's leader at that time, Kim Il Sung. Government-sponsored religious groups that were established at that time continue to operate. The Government allowed some foreign religious leaders to visit the country during the period covered by this report. The inter-Korean summit in mid-2000 led to an increase in contacts with the Republic of Korea; the impact of these contacts on the religious freedom situation remains unclear.

There was no information available on societal attitudes toward religious freedom.

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

The Government does not allow representatives of foreign governments, journalists, or other invited 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 nonetheless indicative of the religious freedom situation in the country today.

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, still exists. According to the Government, the number of practitioners of the Chondogyo religion is approximately 40,000. 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. In the late 1980's, the Government sent two Roman Catholic men to study for ordination in Rome. However, the two returned before being ordained priests, and it still is not known whether any Catholic priests, whose role is a fundamental element for the practice of the Catholic faith, remain in the country. Seoul Archbishop Nicholas Jin-Suk Cheong, appointed by the Pope as Apostolic Administrator of Pyongyang, was quoted in July 2000 as stating that while there were 50 priests in the country in the 1940's, it was not known if they still were alive in July 2000. 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 has no priest, but that weekly prayer services are held at the Changchung Catholic Church in Pyongyang.

Two Protestant churches under lay leadership--the Pongsu and Chilgok churches--and a Roman Catholic church (without a priest) 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 resident 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. Overseas religious relief organizations also 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 from 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 have been unconfirmed reports of members 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 cult of personality and state ideology, has become a kind of civil religion used by the Government as a "spiritual" underpinning for its rule. As defined by Kim Il Sung, juche is a quasi-mystical concept in which the collective will of the populace is distilled into a supreme leader. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority exemplifying the State and society's needs thus is regarded as opposition to the national interest.

Until the 1940's, Pyongyang was a major center of Christianity on the Korean Peninsula. However, many Christians in the North fled to the South between 1945 and 1953. During and immediately after the Korean War of 1950-53, large numbers of religiously active persons were identified by the Government 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 eased the system that it had instituted after a period of factional strife in the 1950's of classifying the population into dozens of rigidly defined categories according to family background and loyalty to the regime, and 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 genuinely are religious but note that others appear to know little about religious dogma or teaching. Although the organizations continue to operate and visits by foreign religious figures have increased, the Government appears to have suppressed 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."

The inter-Korean summit in mid-June 2000 led to an increase in contacts with persons in the Republic of Korea. Civic groups in the South, including religious organizations, have been active in efforts to promote inter-Korean reconciliation, including participation in North-South activities such as Liberation Day celebrations. 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 remains unclear.

Several schools for religious education exist. 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; however, critics, which included at least one church official providing assistance, stated that the Government opened the seminary only to train personnel to facilitate reception of assistance funds from foreign faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGO's).

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

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 religiously 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. The food crisis apparently has heightened government concern about antiregime activity. 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 that they 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.

In June 2001, a North Korean delegation visited Brussels to discuss human rights issues with the European Union (EU), and in October 2001, the Director General of the External Relations Department of the EU stated that the North Korean responses to his queries on the reported persecution of Christians in the country and on other human rights issues were "inconclusive" and "tentative."

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, unconfirmed reports that members of underground churches have been beaten, arrested, or killed because of their religious beliefs. According to an unconfirmed report, 7 Christian men, ranging in age from 15 to 58 years, were killed in April 2000. According to another unconfirmed report, 23 Christians were killed between October 1999 and April 2000; some reportedly were killed under falsified criminal charges, and some reportedly were tortured prior to their deaths. 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. These reports, and reports of even higher numbers of killings, could not be confirmed or disproved because of the effectiveness of the Government in barring outside observers.

In April 1999 and in May and June 2002, witnesses testified 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 that "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. Because the country is a closed society, such allegations could not be substantiated.

Nonetheless, the collective weight of anecdotal evidence over the years of harsh treatment of unauthorized religious activity lends credence to such reports. The regime deals harshly with its critics, and views religious believers belonging to underground congregations or with ties to evangelical groups in North China as opponents. 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 several unconfirmed reports of killings of such persons during the period covered by this report. There were unconfirmed reports that repatriated North Korean defectors who were found to have contacted Christian missionaries outside the North were punished severely, and in some cases were 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 have been unconfirmed reports that some of those detained in the country are detained because of their religion. According to a 2001 press report, 6,000 Christians were being held in Prison Number 15 in the northern part of the country. In 2000, a religious publication reported an unnamed South Korean pastor's claim that there were approximately 100,000 Christians among those imprisoned in labor camps. These reports could not be confirmed.

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. 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. In October 2001, the Secretary of State designated the DPRK as a "Country of Particular Concern" for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

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