The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the state religion; the law requires the state to contribute to the Catholic Church’s maintenance. The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of religions that does not impugn “universal morality or proper behavior,” and it provides for redress in cases of alleged violations of religious freedom. In February, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) rejected an accusation of political hostility filed against the Conference of Catholic Bishops. A draft 2019 bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state remained on the Legislative Assembly’s plenary agenda, but it was not on the priority list of bills for legislators during the year. In June, Catholic bishops, with the support of the Evangelical Alliance, stated their opposition to the proposal to remove Catholicism as the official state religion, stating doing so would erode religious freedom in the country. Some non-Catholic religious leaders continued to state the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of their religious groups, in particular regarding registration processes, expressing a preference for a separate registration procedure for religious groups rather than being obligated to register as associations. The Constitutional Chamber received 24 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom in government institutions and discrimination by government entities, an increase related to cases based on COVID-19 restrictions, compared with 10 in 2019. The chamber dismissed 19 of the claims, stating there was insufficient evidence or no basis for claiming discrimination, compared with eight dismissals in 2019. Many of the dismissed claims involved government restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the other five cases, the chamber ruled in favor of the claimants, including two Seventh-day Adventists – a student and a police officer – who defended their right to observe the Sabbath on Saturdays.
Instances of anti-Catholic language on social media continued, reportedly spurred by continued high level investigations of priests charged with sexual abuse. Jewish community leaders reported anti-Israeli comments, some of which they considered anti-Semitic, although not directed at Jews living in the country. Interludio, an interreligious forum created in 2017 and with participants from Catholic, evangelical Christian, Lutheran, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, and indigenous communities, continued to promote dialogue among the country’s faith communities. The group met periodically throughout the year and hosted a variety of events, including informative talks, concerts, and drive-through activities during the pandemic.
U.S. embassy representatives engaged with public officials to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. They also met with religious leaders throughout the year, including those representing religious minorities, to discuss their views on religious freedom, the situation of churches during the pandemic, and the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the free exercise of religious beliefs. The embassy provided funding to the Resilience Academy, coordinated by the Museum of Empathy and providing psychological and spiritual support to those especially vulnerable due to the pandemic. On October 5, the embassy hosted a roundtable with leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities; representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education; and other religious groups to discuss religious freedom and their members’ experiences during the pandemic. The embassy used social media to send congratulatory messages highlighting tolerance and respect for religious diversity to religious groups on special religious occasions.
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. It states religion is a personal choice, and all churches and religious organizations have equal rights. A concordat with the Holy See defines relations with the Roman Catholic Church. Statutes and agreements determine relations between the government and 14 other religious groups. The law prohibits public speech offensive to religious sentiment. In July, the government moved to invalidate the registration of the Reformed Catholic Church for recognizing same-sex marriage after registering the group earlier in the year. Municipal authorities in the town of Jaslo proceeded with construction of a road running through what the Rabbinical Commission for Cemeteries identified as a Jewish cemetery and, after uncovering several graves, exhumed the bodies and reburied them in another cemetery over the opposition of the commission. The government decided 22 religious communal-property restitution cases out of 2,938 outstanding cases, compared with 151 cases decided in 2019. During the national presidential campaign, President Andrzej Duda and governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, as well as opposition politicians, expressed opposition to restitution for Jewish heirless property claims arising from the Holocaust era. Government-controlled media used anti-Semitic rhetoric during the presidential campaign in the spring and summer. Some opposition parliamentarians made anti-Semitic comments during the year. Senior government officials participated in Holocaust remembrance events.
The government investigated 370 religiously motivated incidents in 2019 (the most recent data available), compared with 429 in the previous year. There were 182 anti-Semitic, 112 anti-Muslim, and 76 anti-Catholic incidents. Civil society groups said the figures were not comprehensive. Although statistics for 2020 were unavailable, there were reports of assault against Roman Catholic priests and vandalism against Roman Catholic and Jewish sites during the year. On October 25, abortion rights demonstrators disrupted masses and vandalized Catholic churches throughout the country following a ruling by the Constitutional Court that banned abortions in certain circumstances. Authorities recorded 22 cases of disruption of Mass and 79 of vandalism associated with the ruling. Online anti-Semitic speech continued, particularly during the presidential campaign.
The U.S. Ambassador, other embassy and consulate general staff, and visiting U.S. officials discussed with government officials antidiscrimination, the status of private property restitution, and countering anti-Semitism. In January, the Secretary of the Treasury led a U.S. government delegation to the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the U.S. Secretary of State announced a contribution of $2 million to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. In May, October, and December, the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met virtually with representatives of the Jewish community, academics, and civil society activists to discuss anti-Semitism, Holocaust remembrance and education, and other issues of importance to the Jewish community. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general staff also met with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders to discuss property restitution, Holocaust remembrance and education, proposed legislation restricting religious slaughter, and the communities’ concerns over intolerance, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim sentiment. The embassy and the consulate general in Krakow engaged with Jewish and Muslim leaders on countering anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and sponsored exchanges, roundtables, cultural events, and education grants promoting interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.