A Christian agency that monitors religious persecution in Communist and former Soviet states released a report Thursday on the ongoing repression of Christians in the socialist nation of North Korea, including several accounts given by North Korean refugees and nearby sources. Although the agency knows of the execution and torture of Christians continuing, it has not been able to establish if followers of other religions have suffered similarly.
"North Korean Protestants are said to be very, very strong believers", Norway-based Forum 18 reported.
“But when they stubbornly refuse to recant they are then shot,” the agency stated.
According to Forum 18 sources, the state is said to be watching the increase in contacts between North Korea and the rest of the world "very carefully", and "false believers" may be used by the authorities to contact missionaries in humanitarian aid initiatives. Details of sources could not be revealed by Forum 18, for fear of reprisals against them.
Protestant sources, who have contacts with Christians in North Korea, told Forum 18 that known Christians are in some cases executed by being shot, or are imprisoned, and that it is thought by the authorities that "you are an enemy of the state if you have a Bible". The sentence is dependent on the situation, the sources reported, and it remains unclear whether it is imposed by a court or by a single party official. "It can be for any excuse, without explanation," one source said.
Forum 18 also received a separate report that such executions continue from a Protestant who had learned of them from a North Korean in 2002.
The agency has been unable to gain independent verification of the executions and martyrdom of Christians, as the secretive regime ruling North Korea (known officially as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) does not allow independent religious freedom monitoring. However, the Forum 18 has received other reports of the execution of Christians, and the torture of religious prisoners in North Korea.
A Korean speaker, who has interviewed North Korean refugees, told Forum 18 that a group of elderly Christians, who had maintained their faith since before 1950, in a small town along the North Korean-Chinese border were executed in 2000 for their refusal to renounce their faith. Former North Korean officials and prisoners have also testified that religious persons, particularly Christians, who were imprisoned, were subject to worse treatment than other prisoners.
Such Protestant sources maintained that the main objection to Christianity is its incompatibility with state ideology, which demands sole faith–-of a markedly religious nature--in the communist leadership, which is officially still headed by "Eternal President" Kim Il Sung, despite his death in 1994.
"If you believe in Jesus you go to jail. You must believe in Kim Il Sung," believers are often told. Even ownership of a South-Korean produced Bible, for instance, might also be a factor in punishment, since it suggests illegal contact with foreigners.
The sources also stressed to Forum 18 that North Korean Protestants are "very, very strong believers" and said prison guards sometimes offer material incentives to Christian prisoners if they recanted their faith, but that they stubbornly refuse to do this and so are then shot.
Discussing the current increase in contacts between North Korea and the rest of the world, the sources told Forum 18 that some government officials might say they were believers in order to attract funds or gain information, and that the state was watching "very carefully" foreign missionaries and humanitarian aid workers who are trying to enter the country. "[The missionaries] will meet false believers, who will try to contact them," the sources warned.
The sources also told Forum 18 that there is no reliable estimate for the number of Christians, of any church, in North Korea, and that they could not name even towns where Christians are located for fear of an indiscriminate crackdown in those places. North Korean churches lead an entirely underground existence, they said, meeting in unpopulated areas of the countryside to evade bugging in homes or informants. Noting that the population lives communally, the sources said that the secret police were very prevalent in society with, for example, wives spying on husbands and vice versa.
North Koreans who became Christians as the result of a dramatic spiritual revival, which began in 1945-47 before the Korean War began in 1950, have been instrumental in Christianity surviving in North Korea, by the faith being passed on almost exclusively through families, the sources reported.
North Koreans outside the country with official permission remain highly fearful of religious contacts. A Korean-speaking Protestant pastor told Forum 18 that he had had some unofficial contact with such North Koreans, but that their superiors did not allow them to mix with foreigners, as this could have a negative impact on their families at home. He said that they might have some kind of memory of religion, but "they don't open up", adding, "One was interested to know what I did, but it was very difficult to determine his reaction."
According to this year’s annual report to the U.S. Congress, released on Sept. 15 by the State Department, North Korea is considered one of the worst offenders of religious liberty, with more political and religious prisoners than any other country in the world.