Harrowing accounts of treatment of believers in North Korea

In 2018, a 38-year-old male was detained in North Pyongan Provincial Ministry of Social Security holding center, a facility in a western province of North Korea. Peering into the prisoner’s cell, a correctional officer asked, “Why did you do what the state forbids?”

The prisoner, whose crime was to possess a Bible, responded, “I just wanted to know for myself.”

The prisoner’s account is part of a report released in December by the Korea Future Initiative, titled ‘Persecuting Faith: Documenting religious freedom violations in North Korea’. The report provides more details into the treatment of religious believers in the closed country.

Investigators conducted 117 interviews with defectors – survivors, witnesses and perpetrators – over a period of seven months in 2019. These interviews were cross-referenced with known data and are drawn from experiences stretching from 1990 to 2019.  In total, 273 victims of religious freedom violations were found. About 76 of those victims are still believed to be within the North Korean penal system.

Of the victims, 215 had adhered to Christianity. Another 56 had adhered to shamanism – a polytheistic, animistic folk religion.

The Korea Future Initiative is a London-based non-profit, non-religious organisation focusing on exposing human rights information that can support positive change in North Korea.

“Even listening to foreign radio is considered a crime against the state. If I had been caught, I could have been executed.”

North Korea has consistently ranked as the world’s most dangerous place for Christians, according to Open Doors.

The United States State Department ‘North Korea report’ from 2019 states that the country has an estimated population of 25.5 million people, of which the United Nations estimates between 200,000 – 400,000 are Christian (though must practice in secret).

In 2008, Il-lyong Ju defected from North Korea with his family, at the age of 12. For 10 years, his family had secretly listened to South Korean radio, including Christian broadcasting, which he counts as one of the motivating factors for their escape. He is now a human rights advocate, who testified in front of US President Trump at the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, run by the US State Department.

“Even listening to foreign radio is considered a crime against the state. If I had been caught, I could have been executed,” he said.

His father escaped first, years before Il-lyong, his mother, and sister crossed the Tumen River, trekked across Southeast Asia, and finally resettled in South Korea after five months of traveling. His father is now a missionary in South Korea.

“When it was discovered that my cousin’s family had encountered a Bible in China, the parents were executed and my cousin went missing. They had only touched religion, but they still lost their lives.”

Writing the foreword for the Korea Future Initiative report, Il-lyong says that the people of North Korea experience two systems of violence which “disable our humanity”.

“Firstly, we experience physical human rights violations. These strip us of agency over our own bodies. Second, we experience mental human rights violations. These force us to relinquish our inner-thoughts and beliefs. Those of us who do not yield to our persecutors must face the consequences, including the suffering of three generations of our families.”

“My grandfather was imprisoned in a political prison camp for discussing the faults of the Supreme Leader’s ideology. My aunt’s entire family was sentenced to a political prison camp because her father in-law was Christian. Her status is still unknown. And when it was discovered that my cousin’s family had encountered a Bible in China, the parents were executed and my cousin went missing.

“They had only touched religion, but they still lost their lives.”

“I asked them whether they were afraid. They just smiled. [One victim] said she was not frightened and told me, ‘Jesus looks over us’. I began to cry because I knew what would happen to people like her.”

The Persecuting Faith report offers harrowing details of torture and abuse of North Koreans accused of Christian belief.

Criminal charges documented in the report include religious practice, religious activities in China, possessing religious items, contact with religious persons, attending a place of worship and sharing religious beliefs.

The consequences of such ‘crimes’ documented in the report included arbitrary arrest, detention, imprisonment, interrogation, punishment of family members, torture or sustained physical assault, sexual violence, surveillance, public trials, verbal abuse, forced labour and execution.

Investigators heard how a group of families were detained, again in North Pyongan Provincial MSS pre-trial detention centre. The group had formed an underground church, with members ranging from 10 to 80 years old. Two families continued to pray together silently, with their eyes open in their cells. The respondent told investigators, “I asked them whether they were afraid. They just smiled. [One victim] said she was not frightened and told me, ‘Jesus looks over us’. I began to cry because I knew what would happen to people like her, but she told me not to worry. The children did not cry either. They were all smiling. They said they were not scared. The next day they were all sent to Chongjin Susong political prison camp.”

The North Korean constitution states that citizens have freedom of belief, though “religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order.”

However, a 2019 US State Department report found “an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

The Korea Future Initiative investigators were able to retrieve several legal commentaries from within North Korea, which are used as authoritative guidance for public officials. The commentaries are “approved interpretations of legislation” within the framework of the Ten Principles for Establishing a Korean Workers’ Party Transcendental Guidance System, the regulations which control the daily lives of all North Koreans.

The Ten Principles main themes are “deification, absolutism and unquestioning and unconditional obedience”, according to the report.

One commentary reads: “The American imperialists have used religion as a tool to invade our country in the past and, today, they are viciously plotting to spread religion to paralyse the class consciousness and revolutionary consciousness of the people and crush our republic.”

Legal practitioners are warned to remain “on high revolutionary alert to prevent enemies from using religion to attract foreign powers and to harm the national social order, which is an important issue for adherence to our socialist system.”

Another respondent recalled how a prisoner told her, “God had sent me here for you.” The respondent said “eventually I listened to her … she was a light that came and warmed me when I was drowning in my sorrow … I would have killed myself if it were not for her.”

Examples are made of those who do not heed the law. KFI investigators report one documented case where a Korean Workers’ Party member was arrested for possession of a Bible and executed at Hyesan airfield in front of 3000 residents.

Another respondent detailed an incident where a victim from North Hamgyong province was charged with supplying information to South Korean missionaries and was executed by firing squad.

Investigators also documented the sharing of religious faith in penal facilities. One respondent explained how a fellow prisoner shared her faith in Chongori long-term re-education camp and performed glossalia (speaking in tongues) in their cell. The respondent recognised these as passages from the Bible.

Another respondent recalled how a prisoner told her, “God had sent me here for you.” The respondent said “eventually I listened to her … she was a light that came and warmed me when I was drowning in my sorrow … I would have killed myself if it were not for her.”

The report detailed 36 instances of torture, including victims being forced to hang on steel bars while being beaten with an oseungogakja (an angled wooden club), sleep deprivation and starvation. One respondent who had converted to Christianity was tortured at Hoeryong City MSS pre-trial detention centre, forced into a steel cage whose bars were heated with an electric current. The victim told investigators that they prayed while in the cage and lost consciousness after about 12 hours.

Multiple respondents detailed how they had been actively educated in anti-religious education from a very young age, with Christianity singled out for attention. Respondents spoke of textbooks containing sections on Christian missionaries that listed their “evil deeds” and which included rape, blood-sucking, organ harvesting, murder and espionage. Several respondents recounted a popular story told to North Korean children: A young Korean boy picks and eats an apple from the orchard of an American missionary. In retaliation, the missionary ties the young boy to a tree and marks the word ‘Thief’ on his forehead with acid.

One respondent recalled thinking, “Christianity is frightening. I should not believe in it.”

The Korea Future Initiative report is labelled ‘Volume 1’.

Lord, have mercy as we wait for Volume 2.

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