If Christians in North Korea are found possessing a Bible, they face the death penalty, and family members, including children, are sentenced to life imprisonment, reveals a report by the U.S. State Department, which includes an incident where a 2-year-old child was sentenced to life in a prison camp after his parents were caught with a Bible.
An estimated 70,000 Christians are incarcerated in North Korea, where prisoners face harsh conditions and physical mistreatment, says the State Department’s recently released 2022 International Religious Freedom Report.
The report attributes 90% of documented human rights abuses against both Christians and adherents of Shamanism to that country’s Ministry of State Security.
It cites Korea Future, a nonprofit organization working on human rights in North Korea, as saying that the North Korean government engages in severe persecution of individuals who practice religious rituals, own religious items, or associate with religious individuals, with punishments ranging from arrest and detention to torture, forced labor, deportation and denial of the right to life.
A 2021 report by the organization, which includes interviews with 151 Christian women, shows rampant abuse of religious freedoms, with forced labor, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, torture and deportation being the most common forms of maltreatment.
Educational materials in North Korea are anti-religion, it says, explaining that people who have escaped from the country recount textbooks containing sections on Christian missionaries, characterizing them as committing “evil deeds,” such as rape, organ harvesting and murder.
While North Korea’s constitution officially guarantees religious freedom, and the communist dictatorship points to churches it has constructed in Pyongyang as proof of this guarantee, the State Department report contends these churches function merely as “showpieces for foreigners.”
The discrimination extends to followers of Shamanism as well, according to the report, which says they can face six months to several years in a forced labor camp or reeducation facility.
One victim was quoted as saying, “[Officials] worked us hard without feeding us properly … I suffered from malnutrition and was sure I would not survive. I kept having diarrhea, even when I only drank water, and I weighed just 35 kilograms [77 pounds]. Today I weigh 60 kilograms [132 pounds], so I was like a skeleton back then.”
Others described or showed signs of being beaten, ingesting contaminated food, being forced into uncomfortable positions for long periods of time, and receiving verbal abuse.
For Christians, the report points out, the sentences are significantly more severe, ranging from 15 years to life in prison.
One case involved the 2009 arrest of a family based on their religious practices and possession of a Bible. The entire family, including a 2-year-old child, were given life sentences in political prison camps.
In December, the United States co-sponsored a United Nations resolution deploring the North’s “systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights.” The resolution expressed significant concern about abuses, including summary executions of individuals exercising their freedom of religion or belief.
In its 2021 report, “Organized Persecution – Documenting Religious Freedom Violations in North Korea,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the violations it documented in 2020 were “seemingly designed to remove all traces of Christianity.”
“The campaign to exterminate all Christian adherents and institutions in North Korea has been brutally effective, and continues through the work of the Ministry of State Security, networks of informants that stretch into China, the presence of ‘no-exit’ political prison camps, executions, and an educational and organizational system that deters adherence through schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods,” said the report, which was based on interviews of survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of religious freedom violations in 2020 and 2021.
The freedoms in North Korea are “subordinate to and overruled by a document known as the Ten Principles for Establishing a Monolithic Leadership System,” which has as its purpose to bring each North Korean individual’s thoughts and acts in line with the teachings of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un, it added.
For years, North Korea has ranked as the worst country globally when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA's World Watch List.
“Being discovered as a Christian is a death sentence in North Korea,” says Open Doors USA, adding, “If you aren’t killed instantly, you will be taken to a labor camp as a political criminal.”