British Parliamentary report urges global pressure to oppose systematic religious persecution in N.Korea
Originally published in World Watch Monitor
It was International Human Rights Day on Wednesday (December 10, 2014) but the right to freedom of belief is violated each and every single day, especially in North Korea, despite being protected by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A globally recognised campaigner and specialist on North Korea, British Lord David Alton wrote in a Dec. 8 email that “Christmas spent in a North Korean gulag will be just another day of grotesque suffering,” according to California Catholic Daily.
On December 10, the British All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief published a report about the findings of its inquiry into persecution in North Korea. The findings of the group encourage countries around the globe to maintain momentum and public pressure on North Korea so that it can no longer systematically oppress religious freedom with impunity.
The report, entitled “Religion and Belief in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” key findings include how the North Korean government systematically oppresses freedom of religion or belief and continues to target Christians in a way that amounts to crimes against humanity.
“For many years North Korea has been viewed as an impossible case, but now the international community is finally beginning to afford the country the attention its people so desperately need,” said Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, chairman of the APPG.
In an effort to uphold the values of Article 18, the report encourages the international community to invest in long-term strategic engagement with North Korea. Some of the practical suggestions include: educational exchanges, investing in the 30,000 North Korean people who have managed to escape, breaking the information blockade, critical engagement on human rights and the re-instigation of the ‘Six Party Talks.’.
It also recommends that governments use “soft power” to push the North Korean regime for further openness, and urges the BBC World Service to establish a radio broadcast to the Korean Peninsula, in both English and Korean languages, giving citizens a window out of their closed world.
Chronic wide-spread human rights abuses
In March 2014, the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea presented the first-ever UN Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the UN Human Rights Council. The 372 page report accentuated the chronic, wide-spread human rights abuses in the DPRK. It reported how countless followers of religion “have been severely punished, even unto death”, stating that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
Crimes against humanity
The UN Commission of Inquiry also labelled North Korea’s treatment of Christians a crime against humanity, recommending that the DPRK be referred to the International Criminal Court. The first step of this process was implemented on Nov. 18, when 111 nations voted at the UN General Assembly for its referral.
In response, members of UK’s Parliament with an interest in the subject formed an all-party group, an informal, nonpartisan caucus, to launch an inquiry into religion in the DPRK, with a view to the role that the international community can play in furthering justice, accountability and increasing openness in this country.
The UN report found that although there were visible changes in DPRK policy toward religion in the 1970s-1990s, these did not point to an overall relaxation of pressure on religious groups. On the contrary, the DPRK continued to actively target religious groups functioning outside the extremely limited state-controlled religious structures.
Imprisoned for owning Bibles and executed for praying
Those who practice a religion in the DPRK do so knowing full well that they could be sent to prison for saying grace at meals and executed for possessing a Bible.
In 2009, two women, Seo Keum Ok and Ryi Hyuk, were executed for distributing Bibles. They were accused of having connections with the US and South Korea and were charged with spying and being Catholic. Three generations of the women’s families were also arrested and sent to prison camps, highlighting North Korea’s three-generation guilt policy.
If a married person is accused of practicing religion his or her spouse will often seek divorce in a bid to save the wider family from punishment.
Religious groups were also targeted for particularly harsh treatment in prison camps. The All-Party group heard how Christians were “forced to stick out their tongue and iron was pushed into it”. Another woman, arrested for her faith, was “assigned to pull the cart used to remove excrement from the prison latrines. Several times the guards made her lick off excrement that had spilled over in order to humiliate and discipline her.”
Far from being a secret, religious persecution in the DPRK is widely known. According to a study by the the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights, 99.7% of refugees interviewed said there is no religious freedom. Of those who had experienced, witnessed or perpetrated religious persecution, 45.5% were Protestant, 0.2% Catholic, 1.3% Buddhist, 1.7% no religion, 1.1% ‘others’ and the beliefs of 50.3% were unknown.
Religions threat to North Korean government
Religious belief is considered treasonous by the DPRK because it is seen to directly compete with its national ideology that advocates atheism. Decades of state-sponsored religious oppression are summarised in a 1962 speech by former leader Kim Il-sung: “We have tried and executed all religious leaders higher than a deacon in the Protestant and Catholic churches. Among other religiously active people, those deemed malignant were all put to trial. Among ordinary religious believers, those who recanted were given jobs while those who did not were held in prison camps”.
Despite this, religious institutions appeared in the DPRK in the 1970s and state-approved religious buildings emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.
Although the report said these organisations and buildings opened a small window of opportunity for engagement with the DPRK, it concluded these limited examples of religious activity did not constitute freedom of religion or belief.