Refugee testimonies in a report released this month by a US government body confirm severe persecution of Christians throughout North Korea.
In the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) report, refugees said that Christianity remained a key factor in the interrogation of people repatriated from China to North Korea.
Border guards reserved the harshest punishment for those who admitted having any contact with Chinese or South Korean Christians.
The report, released on 15 April, found that consequences are harsh for those found violating state policies on religion.
“For example, recently many North Korean refugees have Bibles with them when they are repatriated,” one refugee said. “In North Korea you can get away with murder if you have good connections. However, if you get caught carrying a Bible, there is no way to save your life.”
Most of the refugees interviewed said they had little exposure to religious activity before seeking asylum in China, although a few told stories of grandparents hiding a Bible or other religious literature – adding that punishment for owning a Bible could include execution and the imprisonment of “three generations” of the owner’s family.
“Worshiping God or [contact with foreign religious groups or leaders] would make one a political criminal,” another refugee confirmed. “The government believes that the Christian Church is an anti-national organisation.”
Yet another stated categorically: “There is no freedom of belief or religion … [We are taught] that if one is involved in religion, one cannot survive.”
Former security agents interviewed for the report said authorities told them that US or South Korean intelligence agencies distributed Bibles as part of a master plan to destabilise North Korea.
Based on interviews with North Korean refugees who have sought asylum in South Korea, the report confirms that some religious practices – of Christianity, Buddhism and traditional folk religion – have survived the repression of both Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il.
“The report provides evidence that the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong Il and his family remains strong, and that Kim Jong Il’s regime perceives any new religious activity as a security threat to be combated at all costs,” according to a USCIRF statement.
“As a result, stringent security measures have been enacted to stop the spread of religion, mostly Protestantism, through cross-border contacts with China.”
Refugees interviewed for the report also confirmed that the few official churches in Pyongyang were “sham” churches, and that articles in the North Korean constitution guaranteeing religious freedom were included solely for the benefit of an international audience.
Former North Korean security agents interviewed for the report said police had stepped up efforts to halt religious activity at the border. The North Korean government even provided basic theological training for border security guards, enabling them to identify and entrap North Korean converts.
“New believers” who have come to faith through contact with Christians in China are considered a greater threat than “old believers” who came to faith as a result of family tradition.
The report offers a rare perspective on the health of the North Korean church. Interviewees testified to secret church meetings and missionary activity; officials perceived both as threats to North Korean security.
The North Korean government has claimed there are a total of 512 house churches throughout the country, but one former police agent quoted in the report said while there were certainly “underground believers” in North Korea, it was far too dangerous for “underground churches” – gatherings of more than a handful of believers – to operate.
Refugees interviewed who had been to Pyongyang knew about the few official religious venues in the capital but said they were “showplaces” for foreigners, and not “real churches like those in China and South Korea.” These same refugees knew of religious rights provisions in North Korean law but believed these were included for “show” and did not reflect reality.
Cross-border contact with China has contributed to the growth of the North Korean Church in recent years. While it is impossible to measure this growth, some refugees interviewed for the report had attended prayer meetings, while former border guards had been instructed to set up false underground churches to attract Christian converts repatriated from China.
(Compass Direct News)