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North Korea tightens its repression over religious groups

When Kim Eujin was a teenager growing up in North Korea, it was not uncommon for people in her town in North Hamgyong Province to be arrested for crimes against the state. Most were for minor violations, she said, and they returned — albeit thinner and chastened — after six months or a year in a penal labor colony.

The ones caught with a Bible, or rumored to have been caught in a sweep of underground churches in the region, however, never came back. These were the people who could not be convinced to give up God and worship the ruling Kim family, which has presided over North Korea with an iron fist for three generations.

Mostly secret followers of the Catholic faith, they simply disappeared, Kim Eujin told DW. And a new report by a non-governmental organization suggests the crackdown on those who refuse to give up their religion is becoming even harsher.

"There are some churches in Pyongyang, but they are only there for show and so the government can say there is freedom of religion. In reality, people are expected to revere the Kim family and religion is banned," said Kim Eujin, who fled the North with her mother in the 1990s due to the food shortages that plague her homeland.

Reverence for the Kim family

For many years, religious and human rights groups have sent food, medicine, small amounts of cash and miniaturized Bibles over the border from South Korea attached to balloons. Others have worked in far more dangerous conditions on the Chinese side of the frontier with North Korea, smuggling Bibles into the North and helping defectors who have made the perilous crossing in the other direction.

A handful of people have entered the North and set up underground churches to spread their religion.

"But as more and more people joined the churches, it became much more difficult to keep them secret and the government increased their campaign against religion and the punishments became more severe," said Kim Eujin, who lives in Seoul and is now a member of Freedom Speakers International, which helps defectors obtain English-language skills.

"When people from secret churches were caught, they were separated from others who had been arrested," she recalled. "They were sent to different camps to be punished. I never met a person who had come out of a camp after being caught for being religious. They just did not survive."

The assaults on religious freedoms continue to this day, with Radio Free Asia reporting as recently as May 23 that North Korean authorities had seized five Christians as they arrived at a farmhouse on the outskirts of Sunchon City for a prayer and Bible study session. It is believed an informant had tipped off the authorities, who also seized dozens of Bible booklets.

Two-year-old sent to political prison camp

Citing an investigation by Korea Future, an NGO that documents human rights abuses in North Korea, the US State Department's most recent report on religious freedom said a child aged 2 was, in 2009, given a life sentence in a political prison camp alongside their entire family after one person was found with a Bible.

There may be as many as 400,000 secret Christians in North Korea, primarily in western parts of the country after missionaries became established in the early 1900s.

The US State Department's 2023 report on International Religious Freedom singles out North Korea as "among the worst in the world."

"North Korea's ruling ideology, known as Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism, forbids competing ideologies — including religious ones — and treats religion as an existential threat," it said.

The regime's "songbun" system classifies citizens based on their perceived loyalty to the state, with followers of religion falling into the "hostile class" and considered enemies of the state, deserving "discrimination, punishment, isolation and even execution," the report pointed out.

State-controlled organizations such as the Korean Buddhist Foundation and the Korean Catholic Federation "provide an illusion of freedom," the report adds. "In reality, religious freedom remains non-existent as authorities actively and systematically target and persecute religious groups and adherents, including Christians, practitioners of shamanism and others."

Song Young-Chae, an academic and activist with the Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, said the leadership in North Korea "wants to demolish all religions because they are a threat."

Regime fears gatherings

"The regime believes that if they allow the people to gather together to pray and read the Bible then they will talk and that the authorities will quickly lose control over society," he said. "Their most important aim is to control the people and keep power and they fear losing that."

"They do not fear religion itself, they fear the freedom of thought and belief that people can obtain through religion," said Song, himself a frequent church-goer in South Korea.

Song's group works closely with a network of similar organizations, including a number that are smuggling Bibles into the North. And it is still worth the effort even if the majority are intercepted and destroyed, but a few get through.

Yet Song and human rights groups fear the repression in the North has become even fiercer in recent years, with borders closed down due to the COVID pandemic and fewer defectors able to make the journey to South Korea.

"We are getting less and less information from inside North Korea and I fear that means the situation there has become worse for people in underground churches," he said. "I fear there is less freedom and more control."

Source: Deutsche Welle

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