The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief. The 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK, however, found an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and in many instances, the COI determined that there were violations of human rights committed by the government which constituted crimes against humanity. Multiple sources indicated the situation had not changed since the report was published. On September 20, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK reported to the UN General Assembly, “There is no freedom of expression and citizens are subject to a system of control, surveillance and punishment that violates their human rights.” The government reportedly continued to deal harshly with those engaged in almost any religious practice through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify. It also made it difficult to estimate the number of religious groups in the country and their membership. A South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO), citing defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until December 2018 and other sources, reported 1,341 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 120 killings and 90 disappearances. For the 18th consecutive year, the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA 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 guilt by association in cases of detentions of Christians. According to one defector, some members of his extended family were in a political prison camp because one member was Christian and additional family members had been executed for being Christian. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism and “superstitious” activities. Media reported in March that in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, authorities publicly executed two women for fortune telling and sentenced a third to life in prison following a sham trial. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners. Sources said in April police issued a proclamation ordering citizens to report their status as Falun Gong practitioners. Following the proclamation, police arrested 100 persons in Pyongyang’s Songyo District for being Falun Gong practitioners. In September The Christian Post reported an NGO obtained a government video depicting Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies.” According to NGOs, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. Many foreign visitors said activities at the state-sanctioned churches in Pyongyang appeared to be staged, and an NGO stated the churches served “mere propaganda purposes.”
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 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.
The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the country. In his remarks at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the Vice President said, “[T]he United States will continue to stand for the freedom of religion of all people of all faiths on the Korean Peninsula.” Additionally, 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[.]”
Since 2001, the country 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 18, 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.