In practice the government severely restricted religious freedom, including organized religious activities, except those controlled by officially recognized groups.
The government dealt harshly with all opponents, including those who engaged in religious practices it 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 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under reportedly horrific conditions.
In November the South Korean newspaper Joong Ang Ilbo reported that 80 individuals were publicly executed for crimes including possessing Bibles, watching foreign television dramas, and prostitution. The mass executions were reportedly carried out on November 3, in seven different cities. According to the report, an eyewitness stated that in Wonsan the authorities gathered 10,000 people in a sports stadium to watch the execution of eight people by firing squad.
In its 2012 report Songbun: Marked for Life, North Korea’s Social Classification System, the Washington, D.C.-based NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea reiterated that all religious individuals were regarded as enemies of the state. The report noted that religion is used as an element of the classification of families within the songbun, the socio-political system by which families are classified according to their loyalty to the government. The pervasive songbun system determines access to education and health care, employment opportunities, place of residence, and marriage prospects.
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 among religious personnel both inside the country and with those across the border in China appeared to be increasing.
Government practices severely restricted the practice of religion. The 2013 KINU White Paper indicated the government utilized authorized religious entities for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” Foreigners who met with representatives of government-sponsored religious organizations stated they believed that some members were genuinely religious, but noted that others appeared to know little about religious doctrine. KINU concluded that the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated that ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom.
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, but the government reportedly regarded as subversive elements members of underground churches or those connected to missionary activities. There were 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, nonreligious children of believers suffered broad discrimination, with sometimes severe penalties or even imprisonment.
A few Buddhist temples and relics have been renovated or restored 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.
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 attended Korean-language services at the Christian churches on a regular basis. 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, but doubted the authenticity of clergy. 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 generally assumed that the government monitored them closely. According to the 2013 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.
The government allowed religious education at three-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy, a religious studies program at Kim Il-sung University, a graduate institution that trained pastors, and other seminaries related to religious groups mentioned above.
Former government security agents who defected to South Korea reported intensified police action aimed at halting religious activity at the border.