There were reports of abuses of religious freedom in the country, including religious prisoners and detainees. In practice the government severely restricted religious freedom, including discouraging organized religious activities, except those controlled by officially recognized groups.
The government deals harshly with all opponents, including those who engage in religious practices it deems unacceptable. Religious and human rights groups outside the country provided numerous reports in previous years that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 persons were believed to be held in political prison camps in remote areas, some for religious reasons. Prison conditions were harsh, and refugees and defectors who had been in prison stated that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs were generally treated worse than other inmates.
During the year, a defector reported that Myong-il Park, who had obtained a Bible during a visit to China, was arrested by the State Security Agency in 2000 and has been imprisoned in a political prison camp since then.
Foreign media and a South Korean NGO reported that 23 Christians were arrested in May 2010 for belonging to an underground church in Kuwol-dong, Pyongsong City, South Pyongan Province. Reportedly, three were executed and the others were sent to the political prison camp in Yodok.
In June 2009 South Korean activists reported that Ri Hyon Ok was publicly executed for distributing Bibles in the city of Ryongchon near the Chinese border. She allegedly was accused of spying and organizing dissidents. These claims could not be independently verified.
In 2009 the NGO Human Rights Watch submitted a report in preparation for the country’s UPR which reported that the government had persistently persecuted religiously active persons, typically categorizing them as “hostile elements.” In 2009 the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in North Korea noted that, while some religious ceremonies seemed to be allowed, there were indications that practicing religion gave rise to persecution.
In 2006 the government reportedly sentenced Son Jong-nam to death for espionage. However, NGOs claim the sentence against Son was based on his contacts with Christian groups in China, his proselytizing activities, and alleged sharing of information with his brother in South Korea. In July 2010 Son’s brother reported that after being tortured Son died in prison in December 2008. Because the country effectively barred outside observers from investigating such reports, it was not possible to verify this information.
NGOs, defectors, and refugees have reported that the government executed some of its opponents in recent years. Among those executed were individuals who engaged in religious activities such as proselytism and having contact with foreign missionaries or other foreign religious individuals. Others reportedly were punished for having contact with South Korean humanitarian or religious groups or missionaries in China.
The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), an NGO based in Seoul, Republic of Korea, maintains a database on human rights violations in the country based primarily on defector testimonies. Its database at the end of the year recorded 1,014 known cases related to restriction on religious practice. Of these cases, 466 were due to religious activities, 205 to the possession of religious items, 84 to religious propagation, 71 to contact with religious people, and 188 to other reasons.
Defector reports indicated that the government increased its investigation, repression, and persecution of unauthorized religious groups in recent years, but access to information on current conditions was limited. Despite these restrictions, reports indicated that contacts with religious personnel both inside the country and across the border in China appeared to be increasing. However, there was not enough data to determine the size and scope of religious activity. Reports from NGOs, refugees, defectors, and missionaries indicated that persons engaged in proselytizing or who had ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border in China have been arrested and subjected to harsh punishment.
Government policy and practice severely restricted the practice of religion. The 2010 KINU White Paper indicated the government utilized authorized religious entities for external propaganda and political purposes, and citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens consider such sites primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” KINU concluded that the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated that ordinary citizens do not enjoy religious freedom.
Little is known about the day-to-day life of religious persons in the country. Members of government-controlled religious groups did not appear to suffer discrimination, while members of underground churches or those connected to missionary activities were reportedly regarded as subversive elements. Some reports claimed, and circumstantial evidence suggested, that many if not most of the government-controlled religious organizations were created for propaganda and political purposes, including meeting with foreign religious visitors. There were also reports that the government channeled funds and goods donated to government-approved churches to the Korean Workers Party (the only political party in the country). There were unconfirmed reports that nonreligious children of religious believers may be employed in mid-level positions in the government. In the past, such individuals suffered broad discrimination with sometimes severe penalties or even imprisonment.
Since the late 1980s, as part of the campaign highlighting Kim Il-sung’s “benevolent politics,” the government allowed the formation of several government-sponsored religious organizations. Foreigners who met with representatives of these organizations believed that some members were genuinely religious but noted that others appeared to know little about religious doctrine. According to NGOs, these religious organizations have been organized primarily as counterparts to foreign religious organizations and international aid agencies rather than as instruments to guarantee and support free religious activities. Since 1992 the constitution has authorized religious gatherings and provided for “the right to build buildings for religious use.” However, only officially recognized religious groups enjoy this right. The constitution stipulates that religion “should not be used for purposes of dragging in foreign powers or endangering public security.” Ownership of Bibles or other religious materials was reportedly illegal and punishable by imprisonment or in some cases execution.
The government reportedly was concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border of China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and alleged that these groups were involved in intelligence gathering. The Korean Workers Party newspaper criticized “imperialists and reactionaries” for trying to use ideological and cultural infiltration, including religion, to destroy socialism from within.
The government allowed some overseas faith-based aid organizations to operate inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance. Such organizations reported that they were not allowed to proselytize, their contact with nationals was limited and strictly monitored, and government escorts accompanied them at all times. During the reporting period, several faith-based NGOs were allowed to visit the country to provide humanitarian assistance.
Former government security agents who defected to South Korea reported intensified police activity aimed at halting religious activity at the border.