Christmas Behind Bars in North Korea

Doug Bandow | Center for Vision & Values | Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Behind Bars in North Korea


December 22, 2008

Every time it seems the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is about to join the “world community,” the regime in Pyongyang reminds us of its criminal nature. A North Korean soldier not long ago shot and killed a South Korean tourist. Pyongyang naturally stonewalled Seoul’s call for an investigation.

But most grotesque is what the DPRK does to its own people. North Koreans are starving again and Pyongyang is calling for food aid from abroad.

Aiding the regime in Pyongyang is more than a political problem. Defense Forum Foundation President Suzanne Scholte argued that “North Koreans are by far the most persecuted people in the world.”

North Korean repression of religious liberty is particularly harsh. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has published a report, “A Prison Without Bars,” based on interviews with refugees and former security personnel. The details are horrendous.

There was a thriving Christian community in northern Korea before that territory was occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. However, explains the Commission, “Independent religious practice is considered a direct political threat.”

The veritable collapse of North Korea’s economy has only heightened the regime’s fears. Explains the Commission: “contact in China with South Koreans or Korean-Americans, many of whom are associated with faith-based humanitarian relief efforts, is still deemed a more severely punishable political offense.”

Indeed, adds the Commission: “Religion is seen as the ‘advance guard’ of aggression” by America. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that there is no religious freedom in North Korea.

The few churches and other worship centers in Pyongyang “were not for the North Korean people but were showplaces for foreigners and not ‘real churches like those in China and South Korea’.” Outside of these venues religious literature is banned.

Moreover, the threat of punishment is omnipresent, which means any religious believers must risk all. Notes the Commission: “it is widely known that there are severe penalties meted out against those discovered practicing banned religions. Many interviewees testified that they had heard about or witnessed severe persecution of persons caught engaging in religious activity.”

Refugees cite one tragic case after another. Punishments include “torture, mistreatment, and the disappearance of those suspected of religious activity.”

Tying everything together is the fact “that veneration of the Kim family, or KimIlSungism, was the official state ideology, and the only belief system allowed to exist in North Korea.” Although the famine apparently has undercut belief in the leadership’s infallibility, the “highly elaborate and structured belief system based on the semi-deification of Kim Il Sung and his family” remains. The stories people tell are bizarrely repulsive.

Despite the horrors visited upon religious believers, faith does survive. It is hard to assess the size of the underground church. Nevertheless, the regime is concerned enough to set up religious sting operations, even creating fake congregations “to attract repatriated refugees who had converted in China and also to infiltrate religious groups in China.”

North Korea’s brutality is compounded by China’s ruthless repatriation of refugees. Just as China has disappointed those disposed to think well of it by failing to improve respect for human rights at home, Beijing’s continued support for the worst North Korean practices creates another black mark against that regime.

While Christianity is the principal target of North Korean religious repression, it also offers North Koreans the greatest hope for the future. For Christianity challenges the basis of the DPRK tyranny.

One member of the secret police observed that the authorities treat more leniently refugees who flee to China simply in search of jobs and food, even if they seek aid from churches, than those “who confess to religious belief, or are suspected of spreading Christianity.”

The Commission cites another former security agent explaining that “Christianity was suppressed more than Buddhism because it is against the One and Only Ideology. Kim Il Sung is god; a real God [cannot] replace him.”

In short, Christianity offers the most obvious alternative to the ideological foundation of the regime. Thus, as Christianity spreads, even under severe repression, North Korea’s communist system is likely to face ever greater challenges.

There is no magic solution to the tragedy of North Korea. But the regime’s ferocious battle against religious belief suggests that the authorities fear the future. It is imperative that people of good will around the world never forget the suffering people of North Korea.


Doug Bandow is the Senior Fellow in International Religious Persecution at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is a member of the Economic Theory & Policy Working Group with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College and the author of Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (Xulon Press, forthcoming). 

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