North Korea has been back in the news recently as the subject of a new comedy Holywood film – and a possible hacking attack by the country on the film’s producers, Sony Pictures. Superstars Seth Rogen and James Franco are giving the secretive state some attention in ‘The Interview’, the film which portrays them as two journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong Un. North Korea have considered the film as an act of war, and many think the attack on Sony was their response to their leader being internationally humiliated.
But whilst the Interview might not be the most sensible way to engage with North Korea, the film does come at a time when the world’s knowledge of, and interest in, North Korea is high. We’re all aware that North Korea is a horrific place to live for a vast proportion of its population, and we want it to change.
And a new report, published this week highlights exactly why we should continue to take North Korea seriously. The findings of the report by The British All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (APPG) call for further international pressure on North Korea so that it can no longer systematically oppress religious freedom with impunity.
It suggests that the international community should invest in long-term engagement with North Korea, in an effort to uphold the right to freedom of belief, protected in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Some practical suggestions include educational exchanges, investing in the 30,000 North Korean people who have managed to escape, breaking the information blockade, and critical engagement on human rights.
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.
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 highlighted the chronic, wide-spread human rights abuses in the North Korea. 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’.
The UN Commission of Inquiry also labelled North Korea’s treatment of Christians a crime against humanity, recommending that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court. The first step of this process was implemented on 18 November, when 111 nations voted at the UN General Assembly for its referral.
Those who practice a religion in North Korea 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 APPG 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 North Korea 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.
Despite incredible persecution, thousands of North Korean believers continue to follow Jesus. Chin-Hwa* says: “My parents were secret Christians and when we were discovered we were forcibly moved. We had to live long years and suffer from the hardest labours. However, we kept our faith even under this hellish persecution. It was only possible because we had the word of God’s promise warmly penetrating within our spirits.”
Open Doors has been working in North Korea for many years. We help Christians survive by supplying them with food, medicines, clothes and other essentials. Without our support many Christians will simply starve to death. We also support believers by distributing Christian materials and giving Biblical training to North Korean Christians living temporarily in China.
*name changed for security reasons
Source: World Watch Monitor; Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights
We support people who are beaten, tortured,
imprisoned, falsely accused, and hated simply for following Jesus.