The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits religious organizations from exercising any political authority or receiving privileges from the state. Falun Gong members continued to report difficulty in renting performance spaces, which they attributed to People’s Republic of China (PRC) embassy interference. Japan Uyghur Association (JUA) Honorary Chairman and World Uyghur Congress Representative for East Asia and the Pacific Ilham Mahmut reported concern regarding potential bias against Uyghur Muslims applying for refugee status at government immigration centers, as well as continued intimidation by PRC officials. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) reported that in 2019 (latest statistics available), its human rights division received 224 inquiries related to potential religious freedom violations, compared with 164 in 2018, and confirmed seven cases, compared with eight in 2018, as highly likely to be religious freedom violations. The country continued to have a low rate of approval of refugee applications, a policy the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized. In 2019 (latest statistics available), the government granted refugee status, based on the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, to four applicants who had a well-founded fear of being persecuted for religious reasons, compared with two in 2018.
The Beppu Muslim Association faced opposition from some residents in response to its plan to build an Islamic cemetery on land that it owns in Hiji Town, Oita Prefecture.
In meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and while participating in a symposium attended by lawmakers, U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government to continue to work with the United States to protect Muslims originating from China and from other countries that restrict religious freedom. Embassy officials also engaged with faith-based groups and religious minority leaders and their supporters to promote religious freedom and acceptance of diversity. The embassy used its social media platforms to highlight the importance of religious freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, with the stipulation that “religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order.” In July, the UN Secretary-General reported to the UN General Assembly that the country “continues to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly.” Multiple sources indicated the situation had not changed since the 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK was published. The COI found an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. In many instances, the COI determined that there were violations of human rights committed by the government that constituted crimes against humanity. The government reportedly continued to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to limit the availability of details related to individual cases of abuse. It also made it difficult to estimate the number of religious groups in the country and their membership. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Open Doors USA (ODUSA) estimated that at year’s end, 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were in prison for being Christian. In May, the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) estimated 200,000 individuals were being held in prison camps, many for being Christian. The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), a South Korea-based NGO, citing defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until December 2019 and other sources, reported 1,411 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 126 killings and 94 disappearances. In October, the United Kingdom-based NGO Korea Future Initiative (KFI) released a report based on 117 interviews with defectors who were survivors, witnesses, or perpetrators of religious freedom violations from 1990 to 2019. Investigators identified 273 victims punished for engaging in religious practice or having contact with religious persons, attending places of worship, or sharing religious beliefs. The KFI report said they were subjected to arrest, detention, prolonged interrogations, punishment of family members, torture or sustained physical abuse, sexual violence, forced abortion, execution, and public trials. For the 19th consecutive year, ODUSA ranked the country number one on its annual World Watch List report of countries where Christians experienced “extreme persecution.” NGOs and defectors said the government often applied a policy of arresting or otherwise punishing family members of Christians. According to ODUSA, “If North Korean Christians are discovered, they [are] deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot.” In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government on April 23 reportedly extended national emergency quarantine measures until the end of the year and ordered the public to refrain from attending large gatherings, including weddings, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and observance of ancestral rites. In October, the UN special rapporteur stated the decreased contact with the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate entrenched human rights violations. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures, including imprisonment, against the practice of shamanism and “superstitious” activities. In September 2019, an NGO posted on social media a government video depicting Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies” and calling converts “worthless people.” According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners in 2019. According to NGOs, the government used religious organizations and facilities for external propaganda and political purposes. In June, the government demolished the inter-Korean liaison office after defector groups in South Korea sent materials over the border that included Bibles and other Christian materials.
The government encouraged all citizens to report anyone engaged in religious activity or in possession of religious material. There were reports of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious networks remained difficult to quantify. Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from family members, neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear of being branded as disloyal and concerns their activities would be reported to authorities. Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available clandestinely. According to one source, the practice of consulting fortune tellers was widespread.
The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK. The United States cosponsored a resolution adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights” and expressed very serious concern about abuses including imposition of the death penalty for religious reasons and restrictions on the freedoms of conscience, religion, or belief. The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country. In a speech delivered at the Vatican in September, the Secretary of State urged Christian leaders to support religious freedom for Christians in the DPRK.
Since 2001, the DPRK has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. The government does not require religious groups to register; however, registered groups receive tax-exempt status. The government’s strict lockdown, imposed in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, included bans on religious gatherings. Police stringently enforced the lockdown, which lasted through Easter and Ramadan, prompting complaints from some religious groups. In May, the President eased restrictions on houses of worship following consultation with the South African Council of Churches. Police broke up several Ramadan gatherings and made arrests, during which they were filmed making disrespectful remarks to worshippers. Authorities addressed several cases regarding the Muslim call to prayer. In August, a Durban man who publicly acknowledged he opposes Islam won a court case restricting the call to prayer from being heard inside his house. In another case, city authorities in Pretoria issued a notice ordering a mosque to stop broadcasting the call to prayer through loudspeakers. In December, the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that the nonrecognition of Muslim marriages was inconsistent with the constitution. The court gave the President and Cabinet 24 months to amend or pass new legislation to ensure recognition of Muslim marriages as valid.
In July, attackers killed five persons and held men, women, and children hostage at the International Pentecostal Holiness Church in Zuurbekom before police and military rescued the hostages, arrested 40 of the attackers, and seized dozens of weapons. The church has been the scene of sporadic violence between factions since the death of its leader in 2016. Police said the attack “may have been motivated by a feud” or power struggle between factions. Media reported a number of incidents of anti-Semitism online. In November, the Randberg magistrate’s court issued an interim order of protection against Jan Lamprecht, described in the press as a white supremacist, vocal Holocaust denier, and staunch neo-Nazi advocate, for online threats against South African Board of Jewish Deputies (SAJBD) vice-chairperson Karen Milner. The SAJBD recorded 69 anti-Semitic incidents during the year. Numerous individuals made anti-Semitic comments verbally, by mail, and across social media throughout the year.
U.S. embassy officials met with religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and humanist representatives, to gauge and discuss issues of religious freedom, including cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and pending draft legislation that remained stalled in committees at year’s end: the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, the Muslim Marriages Bill, and a proposed draft bill that would require religious institutions to register with the government to operate.