International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief;" however, in practice the Government discourages organized religious activity, except that which is supervised by officially recognized groups. Genuine religious freedom does not exist.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The regime appears to have cracked down on unauthorized religious groups in recent years, and there have been unconfirmed reports of the killing of members of underground Christian churches. In addition religious persons who proselytize or who have ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border with China appear to have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties, according to several unconfirmed reports. In the late 1980's, there was some easing of religious discrimination policies when the Government initiated a campaign highlighting President Kim Jong Il's "benevolent policies." Government sponsored religious groups that were established at that time continue to operate, and foreign religious leaders visited the country during the period covered by this report. The inter-Korean summit in mid-2000 led to an increase in contacts with the Republic of Korea; its impact on the religious freedom situation remains unclear.

There was no information available on societal attitudes toward religious freedom.

The U.S. Government does not have diplomatic relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and information about the situation for religious freedom in the country is limited. The Government maintains tight and effective control on information on conditions in the country.

North Korea does not allow representatives of foreign governments, journalists, or other invited visitors the freedom of movement that would enable them to assess human rights conditions fully there. This report is based on information obtained over more than a decade, updated where possible by information drawn from recent interviews, reports, and other documentation. While limited in detail, this information is nonetheless indicative of the religious freedom situation in North Korea today.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total land area of approximately 47,000 square miles, and the population is approximately 21 million. The number of religious believers is unknown but has been estimated at 10,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, and 4,000 Catholics. In addition the Chondogyo Young Friends Party, a government-sponsored group based on a traditional religious movement, is still in existence. There has been a limited revival of Buddhism with the translation and publication of Buddhist scriptures that had been carved on 80,000 wooden blocks and kept at an historic temple. In the late 1980's, the Government sent two Roman Catholic men to study religion in Rome. However, the two returned before being ordained priests, and it still is not known whether any Catholic priests, whose role is a fundamental element for the practice of the Catholic faith, remain in the country. Seoul Archbishop Nicholas Jin-Suk Cheong, appointed by the Pope as Apostolic Administrator of Pyongyang, was quoted in July 2000 as stating that while there were 50 priests in the country in the 1940's, it was not known if they still were alive in July 2000.

Two Protestant churches under lay leadership and a Roman Catholic church (without a priest) have been opened since 1988 in Pyongyang. One of the Protestant churches is dedicated to the memory of North Korean former leader Kim Il Sung's mother, Kang Pan Sok, who was a Presbyterian deacon. Several foreigners resident in Pyongyang attend Korean services at these churches on a regular basis. Although some foreigners who have visited the country over the years stated that church activity appears staged, others believe that church services are genuine, although sermons contain both religious and political content supportive of the regime. The Government claims, and visitors confirm, that there are more than 500 authorized "house churches." Hundreds of religious figures have visited the country in recent years, including papal representatives, the Reverend Billy Graham, and religious delegations from the Republic of Korea, the United States, and other countries. A Vatican delegation, including Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Vatican undersecretary for relations with states, visited the country in November 2000. The delegation reported a meeting with the Catholic community in Pyongyang, and a meeting with the leader of the Association of North Korean Catholics. Overseas religious relief organizations also have been active in responding to the country's food crisis. An overseas Buddhist group has been operating a factory in the Najin-Sonbong Free Trade Zone since 1998 to produce food for preschool children.

There are 300 Buddhist temples. Most of the temples are regarded as cultural relics, but in some of them religious activity is permitted.

There have been unconfirmed reports of members of underground Christian churches.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief;" however, in practice the Government discourages organized religious activity, except that which is supervised by officially recognized groups. Genuine religious freedom does not exist. The Constitution also stipulates that religion "should not be used for purposes of dragging in foreign powers or endangering public security."

During and immediately after the Korean War of 1950-53, large numbers of religiously active persons were identified by the Government as "counterrevolutionaries," and many of them were killed or imprisoned in concentration camps. The peak of this oppression was in the early 1970's when a constitutional revision added a clause regarding "freedom of antireligious activity." The Government began to moderate its religious discrimination policies in the late 1980's, when it launched a campaign highlighting Kim Jong Il's "benevolent politics." As part of this campaign, the regime eased the system that it had instituted after a period of factional strife in the 1950's of classifying the population into dozens of rigidly defined categories according to family background and loyalty to the regime, and allowed the formation of several government-sponsored religious organizations. These organizations serve as interlocutors with foreign church groups and international aid organizations. Foreigners who have met with representatives of these organizations believe that some members are genuinely religious but note that others appear to know little about religious dogma or teaching. Although the organizations continue to operate and visits by foreign religious figures have increased, the Government appears to have suppressed unauthorized religious groups in recent years. In particular, religious persons who proselytize or who have ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border with China appear to have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties, according to several unconfirmed reports. The inter-Korean summit in mid-June 2000 led to an increase in contacts with persons in the Republic of Korea; its impact on religious freedom in North Korea remains unclear.

A constitutional change in 1992 deleted the clause about freedom of antireligious propaganda, authorized religious gatherings, and provided for "the right to build buildings for religious use."

Several schools for religious education exist. There are 3-year religious colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy. A religious studies program also was established at Kim Il Sung University in 1989; its graduates usually go on to work in the foreign trade sector. A Protestant seminary was reopened in 2000 with assistance from foreign missionary groups; however, critics, which included at least one church official providing assistance, stated that the Government opened the seminary only to train personnel to facilitate reception of assistance funds from foreign faith-based nongovernemntal organizations (NGO's).

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Persons engaging in religious proselytizing may be arrested and are subject to harsh penalties, including imprisonment and prolonged detention without charge. The Government appears concerned that religiously based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border with the People's Republic of China may become entwined with more political goals, including overthrow of the regime. The food crisis apparently has heightened government concern about antiregime activity. An article in the Korean Workers Party newspaper in 1999 criticized "imperialists and reactionaries" for trying to use ideological and cultural infiltration, including religion, to destroy socialism from within. South Korean law requires all parties, including religious groups, traveling to North Korea or contacting North Koreans to request permission from the South Korean security agency. This requirement increases suspicions among North Korean officials about the intentions of such groups.

Little is known about the actual life of religious persons in the country. Members of government-recognized religious groups do not appear to suffer discrimination; in fact, some reports claim that they have been mobilized by the regime. Persons whose parents were believers but who themselves are nonpracticing are able to rise to at least the middle levels of the bureaucracy, despite their family background. Such individuals, as a category, suffered broad discrimination in the past. Members of underground churches connected to border missionary activity appear to be regarded as subversive elements.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government deals harshly with all opponents, including those engaging in religious practices deemed unacceptable to the regime. In April 1999, witnesses testified on the treatment of persons held in prison camps through the early 1990's. The witnesses stated that prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs generally were treated worse than other inmates were. One witness, a former prison guard, testified that because the authorities taught that "all religions are opium," those believing in God were regarded as insane. He recounted an instance in which a woman was kicked repeatedly and left with her injuries unattended for days because a guard overheard her praying for a child who was being beaten. Because the country is a closed society, such allegations could not be substantiated.

Religious and human rights groups outside the country have provided numerous, unconfirmed reports that members of underground churches have been beaten, arrested, or killed because of their religious beliefs. One unconfirmed report stated that 1 dozen Christians were killed by government authorities between October 1999 and April 2000. According to another unconfirmed report, 7 Christian men, ranging in age from 15 to 58 years, had been killed in April 2000. According to another unconfirmed report, 23 Christians were killed between October 1999 and April 2000; some reportedly were killed under falsified criminal charges, and some reportedly were tortured prior to their deaths. A religious NGO quoted an unnamed South Korean pastor's claims that 400 Christians were killed in 1999. These reports could not be confirmed or disproved because of the effectiveness of the Government in barring outside observers.

Nonetheless, the collective weight of anecdotal evidence of harsh treatment of unauthorized religious activity lends credence to such reports. The regime deals harshly with its critics, and views religious believers belonging to underground congregations or with ties to evangelical groups in North China as opponents. Reports of executions, torture, and imprisonment of religious persons in the country continue to emerge.

The regime appears to have cracked down on unauthorized religious groups in recent years, especially persons who proselytize or who have ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border with China. There were several unconfirmed reports of killings of such persons during the year covered by the report. News reports indicated that the Government had taken steps to tighten control and increased punishments at the Chinese border, increasing the award for information on any person doing missionary work. One South Korean missionary asserted that the Government was conducting "education sessions" as a means for identifying Christian leaders so that they could be apprehended.

There is no reliable information on the number of religious detainees or prisoners, but there have been unconfirmed reports that some of those detained in the country are detained because of their religion.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

There was no information available on societal attitudes toward religious freedom. The regime does not allow representatives of foreign governments, journalists, or other invited guests the freedom of movement that would enable them to assess religious freedom in the country fully. The Unification Church, which has business ventures in the country, is constructing an interfaith religious facility in Pyongyang.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The United States does not have diplomatic relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and has no official presence there. The country is a closed society and is extremely averse and resistant to outside influences. U.S. policy allows U.S. citizens to travel to the country, and a number of churches and religious groups have organized efforts to alleviate suffering caused by shortages of food and medicine.

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*The United States does not have an embassy in North Korea. This report draws heavily on non-U.S. Government sources.

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