There were reports of abuses of religious freedom in the country, including religious prisoners and detainees. In practice the government severely restricted religious freedom and discouraged organized religious activities except those controlled by officially recognized groups.
The government dealt harshly with all opponents, including those who engaged in religious practices deemed 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 100,000 to 200,000 political prisoners were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas, some for religious reasons. Prison conditions were harsh, and refugees and defectors who had been in prison stated that prisoners who had contact with foreign missionaries or foreigners were generally treated worse than other inmates.
The 2012 KINU White Paper cited defector testimony that the wife of a Chinese military officer was publically executed for possession of a Bible in 2009 in North Hamgyeong Province, and that a family of three was taken to a political prison camp in 2011 for conducting a family worship service in Sambong-gu, Onseong-gun, North Hamgyeong Province. According to additional defector testimony in the KINU White Paper, one person caught praying was sentenced to prison.
The North Korean Human Rights Database Center reported in September that according to four defectors, authorities arrested former Musan county Jucho-gu Women’s Union Leader Cha Young Hee on February 7, 1998 for engaging in religious activities and passing out Bibles. Cha was transferred through the North Hamgyong Province Musan county Military Security Agency to the Provincial State Security Agency, and later transferred once more after interrogation to an unidentified prison. Cha died two years and nine months later, presumably as a result of torture.
In its 2012 report Songbun: Marked for Life, North Korea’s Social Classification System the U.S.-based NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea stated that all religious individuals were regarded as enemies of the state. The report also noted that religion was used as part of the “songbun,” a system by which families were classified according to their loyalty to the government. The songbun system determined access to education and health care, employment opportunities, place of residence, and marriage prospects.
NGOs and defectors reported that among those the government executed in recent years were individuals who engaged in religious activities such as proselytizing and having contact with foreign missionaries or other religious foreigners. Some North Koreans crossed the border into China; if returned by Chinese authorities or caught by the North Korean police, they typically were questioned about their activities in China, including contact with religious organizations or church attendance. Defectors reported the government punished those who had contact with South Korean humanitarian or religious groups or missionaries in China.
Defectors reported 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, defectors, and missionaries indicated that persons engaged in proselytizing or with ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border in China were arrested and subjected to harsh punishment.
Government practices severely restricted the practice of religion. The 2012 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 considered such sites primarily “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” KINU concluded that the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated that ordinary citizens did not enjoy religious freedom.
Two citizens who studied at the Russian Orthodox Seminary in Moscow were ordained as priests and served at the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church. The purported aim of the church was to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country, but one religious leader with access to the country speculated that the church likely extended pastoral care to Orthodox Koreans as well.
Little was 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 country’s only political party. There were unconfirmed reports that nonreligious children of religious believers were employed in mid-level positions in the government. In the past, nonreligious children of believers reportedly sometimes suffered broad discrimination, including severe penalties or imprisonment.
Beginning in 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 were organized primarily as counterparts to foreign religious organizations and international aid agencies, rather than as instruments to guarantee and support free religious activities. Only officially recognized religious groups enjoyed the constitutional right, provided since 1992, to conduct authorized religious gatherings and “to construct buildings for religious use.” Ownership of Bibles or other religious materials was reportedly illegal and punishable by imprisonment or in some cases execution.
The authorities renovated or restored a number of Buddhist temples and relics in recent years, under a broad effort aimed at “preserving the Korean nation’s cultural heritage.”
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.
During the year, 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.
Several foreigners residing in Pyongyang regularly attended Korean language services at the Christian churches. Some foreigners who visited the country stated that church services appeared staged and, in addition to religious themes, contained political content supportive of the government. Other foreigners who visited the country noted the appearance of genuine worship among some participants. Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years noted that congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed that the worshipers did not include any children. Some foreigners noted that they were not permitted to have contact with worshipers; others noted limited interaction with them. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups, but it was generally assumed that they were monitored closely. According to the 2012 KINU White Paper, defectors reported being unaware of any recognized religious organizations that maintained branches outside of Pyongyang. Religious ceremonies such as weddings and funerals were almost unknown.
Several religious education schools existed in the country. There were three-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy. A religious studies program was established at Kim Il Sung University in 1989; its graduates usually worked in the foreign trade sector. In 2000, a Protestant seminary was reopened 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 NGOs. The Chosun Christian Federation, a religious group believed to be controlled by the government, contributed to the curriculum used by the seminary. The Chosun Christian League operated the Pyongyang Theological Academy, a graduate institution that trained pastors affiliated with the Korean Christian Federation. The Bongsu Church reportedly ran a theological seminary. Reports from October 2009 indicated that 12 students studied there.
Former government security agents who defected to South Korea reported intensified police activity aimed at halting religious activity at the border.