Demonstrations, rallies, seminars, and prayer vigils will be held throughout this week to promote the freedom, human rights, and dignity of the people in North Korea, who activists say are "suffering under the most brutal regime in the world."
From Apr. 25 to May 1, North Korean defectors, South Korean leaders, and activists will highlight the "misery" that they say Dictator Kim Jong-il's regime has inflicted on the people of North Korea, as well as citizens of South Korea, Japan and other countries.
"We cannot remain silent as this tragedy continues or we will face God's judgment," says Professor Yon Hee Lee, who organized Sunday's opening prayer vigil for North Korea Freedom Week.
"Because of the increasing despair inside North Korea caused by the currency devaluation and the dramatically increasing information getting to the North Korean people from the outside world, it is more important than ever that we stand up for the North Korean people and fight for their freedom, human rights, and dignity," adds Suzanne Scholte, chairwoman of North Korea Freedom Coalition and one of the main organizers of North Korea Freedom Week.
Though North Korea most frequently makes headlines for its government's nuclear ambitions, those familiar with the country highlight it as one of the poorest countries in the world, with about 9 million people needing urgent food assistance, according to the World Food Program.
North Korea's totalitarian regime is also noted for being holder of the arguably the worst human rights record in the world and as the world's worst persecutor of Christians.
While there are some "open" Christians in the capital Pyongyang, almost all the country's Christians are forced to worship in underground churches as it is illegal to be a Christian or to believe in any faith in North Korea other than a semi-personality cult revolving around Kim Jong-il and his deceased father.
Being a Christian can result in imprisonment in labor camps, torture or even public execution, say groups such as Christian persecution watchdog group Open Doors, which claims there are an estimated 400,000 Christians in North Korea who live under the constant threat of imprisonment, torture or public execution. An estimated 200,000 Christians, it adds, are currently in prison labor camps because of their faith.
"This is such an important time of the year – a time when we can pray and actively help those who are suffering in North Korea," says Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, whose ministry is a member of the North Korea Freedom Coalition and lead organizer of prayer events for North Korea throughout the United States. "North Korea is a living nightmare."
To raise awareness and galvanize public support for the people of North Korea, several events will be held in Seoul, South Korea, and around the world, including special events focusing on the North Korean gulag, the trafficking of North Korean women, the abduction by the regime of South Korean and Japanese citizens, and other topics.
The kick-off event, which has been held annually in Washington since 2004, was held for the first time this year in South Korea, to where around 17,000 North Korean people have successfully fled against the odds. It is a state crime to leave North Korea and those who are fail to escape or are returned face torture and possibly death.
"Our hope is that North Korea Freedom Week will empower the 17,000 strong North Korean defectors in South Korea, awaken the consciousness of the world that the human rights conditions in North Korea must be addressed, and inform all who are suffering north of the DMZ that we will work together until the day their freedom, human rights and dignity are realized," says Scholte.
In addition to raising awareness of the suffering in North Korea and giving defectors the opportunity to speak out, North Korea Freedom Weeks in past years have also resulted in meetings with the president of the United States with North Korean defectors and family members of abductees, the first-ever Congressional hearings to focus on the South Korean and Japanese abductee and POW issue and to expose the involvement of the Kim Jong-il regime in counterfeiting and drug trafficking and other illicit activities.
North Korea Freedom Week was first established in 2004 as a single day to galvanize public support in the United States for the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004.