North Korea and Human Rights: A State of Denial

statue-of-kim-ii-sung

“There is almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought conscience and religion as well as the right to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.” That was the conclusion reached by the United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights in North Korea over two years ago. Indeed, the UN inquiry went further, noting that the regime in North Korea “considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat” and as a result, “Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted”. Severe punishments are inflicted on “people caught practising Christianity”.

Loyalty to the Regime is expected

Our new report – Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Koreaprovides further evidence that freedom of religion or belief is a human right that is “largely non-existent” in the country. The ruling Kim dynasty is deified. Pictures of the three generations of dictators – Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-Il and now Kim Jong-Un – are displayed in private homes and public spaces, cleaned daily and inspected regularly by the authorities to ensure they are in the best condition. Allowing one of these photographs to decay or gather dust is akin to a blasphemy. Anything less than total loyalty to the ruling family is severely punished.

“Anything less than total loyalty to the ruling family is severely punished.”

In 1974, Kim Jong-Il issued a set of regulations which are superior even to the constitution and the Party itself. These are known as the Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-ideology System, and they set out the requirements for total devotion to the Kim family. Kim Jong-Un revised them three years ago to legitimise his succession and consolidate his power. North Korean children are taught the Ten Principles at school, and citizens are required to carry out daily evaluations of their conduct to ensure they abide by them. In reflecting on what he learned about Kim Il-Sung at school, one North Korean said: “I remember learning that he was sent from heaven, a leader of the people and leader of the world.”

The songbun system

The regime has also introduced a system of social classification which decides the fate of every person in North Korea. Known as the songbun system, it divides people at birth into three classes – ‘core’, ‘wavering’ and ‘hostile’ – based on family background and history. A person’s songbun determines everyday life, including access to health care, education and employment. Anyone suspected of holding religious beliefs or with a history of religion in their family is classified in the ‘hostile’ class, an enemy of the state.

“The regime has also introduced a system of social classification which decides the fate of every person in North Korea.”

Guilt-by-association and punishment up to three generations is another policy designed to drive fear into the minds of North Koreans. If a person commits a political misdemeanour, it is not only they who end up in a gulag, their children and grandchildren do too. So, even a person who has no religious faith themselves, but has Christian relatives, can be jailed.

Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea

In this context, Christians in North Korea practise their faith in secret. If they are discovered to be worshipping or caught with a Bible in their possession, they are taken to the notorious prison camps where they face years of incarceration in dire conditions of slave labour, extreme torture and sexual violence. In some cases they may be executed. Documented incidents include Christians being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges and trampled under-foot.

Practitioners of other religions, such as Buddhism, Shamanism and the native Korean Cheondoism – which combines elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taosim and Shamanism – also face restrictions and discrimination, but are treated more leniently. Christianity is repressed most harshly because it is viewed as a foreign religion, and Christians are suspected of being spies.

In Pyongyang, there are four churches – two Protestant, one Catholic and one Russian Orthodox – but these are widely regarded as Potemkin-style show churches for the benefit of foreign visitors. It is rumoured that the congregation is brought in on buses to Sunday services whenever foreign visitors are there, to create a veneer of religious freedom. I visited these churches in 2010 with Lord Alton and Baroness Cox, and while no one can see into the souls of the worshippers, it is clear that these churches are tools of the regime, rather than free places of worship.

Perilous path to a better life

In China, Christian missionaries and humanitarian workers are helping North Koreans who escape in search of a better life. But it is perilous, for the refugees and those who help them. North Korean agents have murdered some missionaries, and the Chinese authorities have arrested and jailed others. And North Koreans who encounter Christian faith for the first time in China and convert face significant risks if arrested by the Chinese authorities. China has a policy of forcible repatriation, in breach of international principles of non-refoulement. When a North Korean who has become a Christian is forcibly repatriated back to North Korea, they face a desperate fate: certain torture and detention, and in some cases execution. China’s policy is in effect a death sentence, and it must stop. Today is Save North Koreans Day, when people around the world will deliver a letter to Chinese embassies to urge China to change its policy and allow North Koreans safe passage through China to sanctuary in South Korea or beyond.

“When a North Korean who has become a Christian is forcibly repatriated back to North Korea, they face a desperate fate: certain torture and detention, and in some cases execution. China’s policy is in effect a death sentence, and it must stop.”

In 2007, we published a comprehensive report of human rights violations in North Korea, which was among the first to call for a UN inquiry. In North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act, we detailed what we believed to be crimes against humanity. Seven years later, the UN itself reached the same conclusion. Its 400-page report argues that “the gravity, scale and nature” of the violations of human rights in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”. The systematic and widespread violations, described as “unspeakable atrocities”, are continuing “because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place”. They amount, according to the inquiry, to “crimes against humanity in international law” which “clearly merit a criminal investigation”.

Since the commission of inquiry, the UN has established a human rights field office in Seoul to continue to document violations of human rights in North Korea, and a panel of experts has been appointed to explore ways forward on accountability.  These are welcome steps, but more is needed. Three days ago marked the anniversary of the Korean martyrs, Saints Andrew Kim Tae-gon and Paul Chong Ha-sang and their companions, murdered in the persecutions of the nineteenth century. We must pray and speak for today’s Korean martyrs, and for that basic right to freedom of religion or belief that has been denied to the people of North Korea for too long.

By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader

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