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Evidence of Rising Clandestine Religious Activity by North Koreans

July 11, 2013

Read in Korean

The following article about religious activity and persecution in North Korea appeared on pages 36-37 of the March 2013 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation courtesy of NKnet volunteer Graham Hand.

“The proportion of refugees who have participated in religious activities [before leaving North Korea] has been increasing steadily since 2009.” –Yoon Yeo Sang, NKDB

Seminar on North Korea’s Religious Policies and Religious Persecution held by NKDB, February 14, 2013. From left to right: Jang Eun Sil of NKDB, Yoon Yeo Sang of NKHRA, Seo Yoon Hwan (moderator), Father Kim Jong Nam, Pastor Kim Gyu Ho.
North Korea has been identified as the world’s harshest persecutor of Christians. The 2013 World Watch List released by U.S.-based international Christian organization Open Doors USA ranks North Korea number one on a list of 50 countries it identifies as oppressing Christians. This is the 11th consecutive year North Korea has held the top position on the list. Recent studies indicate that despite the fact that religious freedom is not guaranteed in North Korea, clandestine religious activity is taking place. In fact, “Since 2009, the percentage of North Korean refugees entering South Korea who have secretly participated in religious activities has continued to rise,” according to participants of a seminar commemorating the publication of the 2012 White Paper on Religious Freedom in North Korea (2012 북한 종교자유백서) organized by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (북한인권정보센터, NKDB) on February 14 at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea’s Education Center (국가인권위원회 배움터) in Jung Gu, Seoul. The seminar included presentations on the state of religious freedom within North Korea and a general discussion. After introductory remarks by Kim Sang Hun (김상헌 이사장), chairman of NKDB, topical presentations on the subject of North Korean religious freedom were given by researcher Jang Eun Sil (장은실 연구원) of NKDB and Yoon Yeo Sang (윤여상 소장), head of the North Korean Human Rights Archives (북한인권기록보존소, NKHRA), which is run by NKDB. Father Kim Jong Nam (김종남 신부) of Young Tong Sung Ryung Cathedral (영통성령성당) and Pastor Kim Gyu Ho (김규호 목사), secretary general of Christians for Social Responsibility (기독교사회책임 사무총장), took part in the general discussion that followed.

North Korean Religious Organizations Are In Fact Socialist Revolutionary Groups

Researcher Jang Eun Sil presented on the “The Current State of Religion in North Korea and Religious Policy,” and began by stating that, “Although the North Korean Constitution stipulates that limited religious freedoms are permitted, the actual practice of religion is not permitted within North Korean society.” According to Ms. Jang, “Freedom of religious faith is clearly guaranteed by the North Korean Constitution, including the freedom to hold a religious faith, to construct buildings for the purpose of religious observances, and to hold religious observances. However, in reality religious activities such as missionary work, religious education, and preaching outside of designated worship facilities are prohibited. Most of those in North Korea who participate in the limited and formal religious life in the country are nothing but supporters of the North Korean socialist revolution,” she argued.

As a result, Jang continued, “After 1945 the North Korean authorities designated religion as an ‘opiate,’ seeing it as nothing more than a superstition left over from the feudal period…. Kim Il Sung thought that religion was a reactionary and unscientific worldview, would paralyze class consciousness and cause the popular desire for revolution to vanish. Consequently, “The current goals of religious organizations within North Korea are geared less toward purely religious than political ends, such as eliciting aid from foreign religious groups and international organizations,” she argued. Jang also discussed how North Korea came to use religion as a tool in the arenas of foreign aid and politics. “The primary reason for this was the worsening of the food crisis following the death of Kim Il Sung. While suppressing religion domestically, the regime aggressively entered into international religious activity for the sake of improved relations with the West and foreign aid, and as a way to get foreign currency.” The religious facilities currently in North Korea are believed to consist of 52 Cheondoist temples (천도교당; formed in opposition to “Western religion” in the late 1800s, Cheondoism is a native religion of Korea based largely on “Eastern Learning” or “동학”), 64 Buddhist temples, three churches, and one Catholic and one Russian Orthodox cathedral.

Recent Rise in Refugees Reporting They Have Seen Bibles

Yoon Yeo Sang, head of the North Korean Human Rights Archives, gave a presentation on “Freedom of Religion in North Korea and the Reality of Religious Persecution” based on the results of a survey of 7,481 North Korean refugees who entered South Korea between 2007 and July 2012. “When asked, ‘Can people freely practice religion in North Korea?’, 99.6%, or 6,963 of the 6,989 survey participants who provided valid responses, answered that they could not,” reported Yoon. “This shows that the official religious facilities in North Korea exist for a special purpose, and are not facilities for general religious practice. Only 0.6% of those surveyed said that people could practice religion in North Korea without receiving punishment. 61% said those arrested for practicing religion would be sent to a political prison camp (정치범수용소), 12% said to a reeducation camp (교화소), and 2.6% to a labor-training corps (노동단련대),” he continued. “When we investigated the North Korean authorities’ claim that outside of Pyongyang facilities exist for family worship services (가정예배 처소), 98.9% of those surveyed answered, ‘They do not.’ (As a result) there is no possibility that the facilities for family worship claimed by the North Korean government in fact exist,” he concluded.

Based on the results of the survey, Yoon went on to say that while it has been impossible to openly practice religion in North Korea so far, clandestine religious activity is taking place. “Of those surveyed, 1.2% or 89 respondents said that they had secretly participated in religion inside North Korea. We need to take notice of the fact that the proportion of refugees who have participated in religious activities has been increasing steadily since 2009,” Yoon said. “When refugees were asked whether they had witnessed others’ secret religious activities, 366 respondents (5.1%) answered, ‘Yes.’ This demonstrates the existence of believers within North Korea who are participating in religious activities individually and collectively,” said Yoon. “The number of respondents who said that they had seen Bibles while living in North Korea was 4.1% (290). Although before the year 2000 it was rare for refugees to have seen a Bible while in North Korea, in recent years the number has been rising rapidly.”

“Freedom of religion is a central tenet of human rights,” Yoon continued. “Right now, our brothers and sisters in North Korea who have been punished or imprisoned in political prison camps for their religious beliefs or activities are waiting to be rescued. Religious people in South Korea and all over the world, intellectuals, and human rights organizations need to hold out their hands to the victims of North Korean religious persecution. However, Yoon pointed that, “except for prayer and humanitarian aid, they currently show almost no interest in taking real action or providing aid for the sake of freedom of religion in North Korea or North Korean martyrs and victims of persecution. The majority of South Korean believers hope for missionary work and evangelization in North Korea,” Yoon continued. However, without a long-term, systematic strategy for North Korean evangelization, it is possible for impulsive, emotionally charged contact to lead to negative results. “We need to develop multi-step strategies that differentiate between those for missionary work that may be implemented immediately, those for when missionary work on the level being done in China is possible, and those for when missionary work on the level of that being done in Southeast Asia is possible.”

A Need for Research Regarding Religious Martyrs Inside North Korea

During the general discussion following the topical presentations, Pastor Kim Gyu Ho argued that there has to be a carrot-and-stick policy in dealing with aid to North Korea, and warned that a poorly thought out stance on the issue could lead to missteps and unintended side effects. “The humiliating structure in place of simply giving North Korea whatever it wants for the sake of maintaining good relations is no longer acceptable,” he stated. “We should require improvements in religious freedom in North Korea before giving aid, and we need to move from this prerequisite condition toward making material improvements in the lives of the North Korean people,” he continued. “It is surprising to me that nothing whatsoever has been done for those in North Korea who have been martyred after suffering religious persecution. Within the Christian Council of Korea (한국기독교총연합) we need to establish a committee of investigation (조사위원회) tasked with investigating cases of persecution against Christians in North Korea. “I feel a sense of responsibility for the Catholic Church’s passive stance on North Korean religious freedom,” said Father Kim Jong Nam. “Catholics must be aware of religious problems in North Korea and begin serious discussions on the issue.”

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