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North Korea

Executive Summary

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The North Korean government last reported religious demographics in 2002, and estimates of the number of total adherents of different religious groups vary. In 2002, the DPRK reported to the UN Human Rights Committee there were 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, 800 Catholics, and 15,000 practitioners of Chondoism, a modern religious movement based on a 19th century Korean neo-Confucian movement. South Korean and other foreign religious groups estimate the number of religious practitioners is considerably higher than reported by authorities. According to the Religious Characteristics of States Dataset Project, in 2015 the population was 70.9 percent atheist, 11 percent Buddhist, 1.7 percent followers of other religions, and 16.5 percent unknown. UN estimates place the Christian population at between 200,000 and 400,000. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates there are 100,000 Christians, and ODUSA estimates the country has 400,000 Christians. In its 2020 World Christian Database, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity reported 58 percent of the population is agnostic; 15 percent atheist; 13 percent “new religionists” (believers in syncretic religions); 12 percent “ethnoreligionists” (believers in folk religions); and 1.5 percent Buddhists. Christians, Muslims, and Chinese folk religionists make up less than 0.5 percent of the population collectively. The NKDB reported that among defectors practicing a religion, the majority were Protestant with a smaller number of Catholics, Buddhists, and others. The COI report stated, based on the government’s own figures, the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002. Consulting shamans and fortune tellers and engaging in shamanistic rituals is reportedly widespread but difficult to quantify. The NKDB reported that five priests from the Russian Orthodox Church are in Pyongyang.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that citizens have freedom of religious belief. This right is granted through the approval of the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies. It further states, “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order.”

According to a 2014 official government document, “Freedom of religion is allowed and provided by the State law within the limit necessary for securing social order, health, social security, morality and other human rights.”

The country’s criminal code punishes a “person who, without authorization, imports, makes, distributes, or illegally keeps drawings, photographs, books, video recordings, or electronic media that reflect decadent, carnal, or foul contents.” The criminal code also bans engagement in “superstitious activities in exchange for money or goods.” According to local sources, this prohibition includes fortune telling. The NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) reported that under these two provisions, ownership of religious materials brought in from abroad is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and other forms of severe punishment, including execution.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Due to the country’s inaccessibility, little was known about the day-to-day life of individuals practicing a religion. Travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated this inaccessibility.

The 2014 COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.

Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear they would be reported to authorities. According to the ODUSA dossier, due to the constant indoctrination permeating the country, Christians were seen as hostile elements in society, and family members and neighbors were expected to report suspicious activities to the authorities, including through the network of neighborhood informers. For this reason, “many parents prefer not to tell their children anything about their Christian faith.”

In 2019, the South China Morning Post reported that a defector described her family quietly singing Christian hymns on Sundays while one person watched for informers. Another described hiding under a blanket or in the bathroom while praying. ODUSA reported that many Bibles, devotionals, Christian books, and songbooks to which individuals had access dated from the 1920s through the end of World War II. These were kept hidden and passed among believers. One man said persons remained careful even within their own families when teaching Christian beliefs for fear of being reported. According to the NGO, “Meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible, and if some believers dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.”

In 2019, KINU again reported accounts of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious activity remained difficult to quantify. While some NGOs and academics estimated that up to several hundred thousand Christians practiced their faith in secret, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. In the “government training” video released by VOM in September 2019, the narrator claimed Cha Deoksun and other believers met in the woods. Some defectors and NGOs said unapproved religious materials were available and that secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China. According to The Christian Post, the NKDB stated in its annual white paper published in October that since 2000, as many as 559 defectors said they had “seen a Bible.” NKDB stated that of the 14,091 individuals who defected between 1997 and 2019, only 167 (1.2 percent) said that they had personally experienced practicing religion in secret. Only 677 (5 percent) of 13,557 individuals had witnessed others practicing in secret.

While COVID-19 restrictions prevented individuals from attending weddings and funerals, KINU reported that in prior years, religious ceremonies accompanying these events were almost unknown. Other sources, however, indicated there were still shamanistic elements in weddings and funerals.

According to KFI, the government intensified its campaign against shamanism during the year. The government hung posters and issued directives warning citizens against engaging in “superstitious acts.” These directives were posted in apartment blocks. NGOs noted, however, an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. KFI stated that shamanism was illicitly practiced by both ordinary citizens and officials. Investigators documented many persons engaging both publicly and privately in shamanistic practices, including traditional rituals, fortune telling, physiognomy, exorcism, the use of talismans, the use of the Christian Bible, the use of birth charts, and tarot cards. One source told RFA it was common for individuals to consult fortune tellers before planning weddings, making business deals, handling health matters, or considering other important decisions. One source told Asia Press that government officials also consulted fortune tellers about their health and careers. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism. According to the source, however, fortune tellers who faced punishment were those “who [made] a lot of wrong predictions” and therefore did not receive the protection of officials. The source said, “The good fortune tellers are paid by officials and therefore do not get caught.” One defector who escaped in 2019 told KFI investigators, “People who practice shamanism will be sentenced to a maximum of five years in a re-education camp if the penalty is harsh. They used to be sentenced to a labor training camp for three or six months, but the sentence has been made stricter.”

South Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for religious freedom and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The Alternative Service Act, which provides for alternative options for conscientious objectors to mandatory military service, took effect January 1, with applications beginning on June 30 and actual service in October. Jehovah’s Witnesses said the new law was an improvement over the previous system but noted the disparity between the length of alternative service (three years) and military service (two years or less). As of year’s end, the government had approved 224 applications for alternative service. Four Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors, however, were imprisoned during the year based on court determinations that they did not demonstrate sincere beliefs. As of November, trials were ongoing for 192 conscientious objectors charged with refusing to serve in the military or to participate in reserve forces training before the new law for alternative service took effect. In August, a Presbyterian pastor called on his followers to participate in a mass rally in downtown Seoul despite government-imposed self-isolation orders on church members following a cluster outbreak of COVID-19 among the congregation. After the rally, which the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) linked to a large spike in COVID-19 cases, President Moon Jae-in said the freedoms of religion and assembly could not be protected if they endangered public safety and health. Eighteen Protestant groups filed suit against the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s limitations on in-person worship instituted as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the restrictions violated their freedom of religion. The court dismissed the complaint, determining that the restrictions were necessary to protect public health. In March, the government stated the Shincheonji Church of Jesus (Shincheonji Church) had hindered its efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 in February by failing to provide complete and accurate lists of members and the locations of Church facilities, and it launched a criminal investigation into the Church and its leader, who was arrested in August and subsequently released on bail. Health authorities determined a single individual in that church had infected fellow congregants, which spread the COVID-19 virus to nearly 600 people by late February and to approximately 5,200 others through October. The Korean Falun Dafa Association said a public performance venue in Gangwon Province blocked a Falun Gong-affiliated performance, citing COVID-19 as the reason for the cancellation. The association stated it believed the cancellation resulted from pressure from the Chinese government.

Adherents of the Shincheonji Church said they experienced stigmatization and discrimination after being blamed for causing a major outbreak of COVID-19 in Daegu in February. After six Uzbek migrants who attended an outdoor Eid al-Adha celebration in July in North Chungcheong Province tested positive for COVID-19, some individuals on social media harshly criticized the worshippers, and Muslims in general. Some Christians reported discomfort in expressing their faith publicly after a large outbreak of COVID-19 began in a church community in Seoul in August.

U.S. embassy officers engaged with government officials on issues related to religious freedom, including the religious freedom of Shincheonji Church members. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues and underscored the U.S. commitment to religious freedom with Buddhist, Protestant, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslim, Jewish, Falun Dafa, and other communities. The embassy used social media to highlight U.S. support for religious freedom in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 51.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2015 census conducted by the Korea Statistical Information Service, of the 44 percent of the population espousing a religion, 45 percent are Protestant, 35 percent Buddhist, 18 percent Roman Catholic, and 2 percent “other” (including Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Jeongsando, Cheondogyo, Daejonggyo, Daesun Jinrihoe, and Islam). The census counted members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church) as Protestants. According to the only rabbi in the country, there is a small Jewish population of approximately 1,000, almost all expatriates. The Korean Muslim Federation estimates the Muslim population at 150,000, of which approximately 100,000 are migrant workers and expatriates, mainly from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that all citizens have freedom of religion and that there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life on the basis of religion. Freedoms provided for in the constitution may be restricted by law only when necessary for national security, law and order, or public welfare, but restrictions may not violate the “essential aspect” of the freedoms. The constitution mandates separation of religion and state.

According to regulation, a religious group that has property valued at over 300 million won ($276,000) may become a government-recognized religious organization by making public its internal regulations defining the group’s purpose and activities, meeting minutes of the group’s first gathering, and a list of executives and employees.

To obtain tax benefits, including exemption from acquisition or registration taxes when purchasing or selling property to be used for religious purposes, organizations must submit to their local government their registration as a religious and nonprofit corporate body, an application for local tax exemption, and a contract showing the acquisition or sale of property. All clergy are taxed on earned yearly income, but clergy are exempt from taxation on education, food, transportation, and childcare expenses. Individual laypersons are eligible for income tax benefits upon submitting receipts of donations made to religious organizations.

The law requires active military service for virtually all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 40 (in the army for 21 months, the navy for 23 months, or the air force for 24 months), followed by reserve duty training. Under the Alternative Service Act, which took effect January 1, conscientious objectors may fulfill their service requirement by working as government employees for 36 months at correctional facilities. Those who refuse to fulfill military service or alternative service face up to three years’ imprisonment. The law is silent regarding soldiers currently on active duty who wish to switch to alternative service due to conscientious objections.

Following military service (or alternative service for conscientious objectors) there is an eight-year reserve duty obligation involving several reserve duty exercises per year. Conscientious objectors may perform their reserve duties by working in correctional facilities, with an obligation of four days each year for six years. Failure to perform reserve duties or alternative service carries fines and possible imprisonment. The fines vary depending on jurisdiction but typically average 200,000 won ($180) for the first conviction. Fines increase by 100,000 to 300,000 won ($92 to $280) for each subsequent violation. The law puts a ceiling on fines at two million won ($1,800) per conviction. Civilian courts have the option, in lieu of levying fines, to sentence individuals deemed to be habitual offenders to prison terms or suspended prison terms that range from one day to three years.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools. Private schools and religious schools are free to conduct religious activities. High school students at these schools may opt out of religious instruction, choosing to take ethics or civics courses instead.

The law provides government subsidies for preservation and upkeep of historic cultural properties, including religious sites.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MCST) Religious Affairs Division works with the seven members of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Korea Conference of Religions for Peace – the National Council of Churches in Korea, the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the Catholic Church, Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Cheondogyo, and the Association of Korean Native Religions – on interfaith solidarity and is the primary government contact for religious organizations.

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) investigates complaints, issues policy recommendations, trains local officials, and conducts public awareness campaigns. The NHRCK may make nonbinding recommendations but does not have authority to implement policies or penalize individuals or agencies that violate human rights.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 45 percent of South Korean respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the lowest of their priorities for democratic principles of the nine tested.

Shincheonji Church representatives said Church members experienced discrimination and harassment, including in schools and at workplaces, after the country’s first major outbreak of COVID-19 occurred within the Church community in Daegu in February. In a “letter of appeal” posted on its website on March 4, the Church said there had been approximately 4,000 cases of discrimination against congregants, including some being fired from their jobs and others being abused by their spouses. Major newspapers described Shincheonji Church in derogatory terms such as “shadowy group,” “fringe sect,” and “cult.” A Shincheonji Church advocate said Protestant Christian groups that had tried for decades to have the Church banned because of its success at converting their members treated the group with “aggressive hostility.” One Shincheonji Church member told The New York Times in March, “The entire society has gone berserk against our church since the virus outbreak.” Media reported in March that an online petition calling for the Church to be forcibly disbanded received 1.4 million signatures. On March 1, Church leader Lee held a press conference at which he apologized for the Church’s role in spreading the disease.

Media and NGOs reported that Muslims, mostly foreign workers, continued to face religious discrimination. In July, six Uzbeks who had attended an outdoor gathering celebrating Eid al-Adha in North Chungcheong Province tested positive for COVID-19 after the event. Although the other approximately 350 worshippers did not test positive and the group had, according to media, substantially complied with government COVID-19 mitigation measures, some individuals responded to the news by harshly criticizing the group and Muslims in general on social media.

After the country’s second major outbreak of COVID-19 began at the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul in August, some Christians reported experiencing or fearing discrimination when expressing their faith in public. One pastor told media that as a result of social stigma against Christians after the outbreak, he felt self-conscious when praying before eating at restaurants.

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