Christians in North Korea face torture, execution by firing squad: USCIRF report

People look toward the north through a barbed-wire fence near the militarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, December 21, 2017.
People look toward the north through a barbed-wire fence near the militarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, December 21, 2017. | Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

North Korea’s communist dictatorship has been deploying factions within the regime to carry out wrongful arrests, torture, executions and the denial of fundamental religious freedom rights as it seeks to “exterminate all Christian adherents and institutions,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says in a report.

In its report, “Organized Persecution – Documenting Religious Freedom Violations in North Korea,” USCIRF says the violations it documented “as occurring as recently as 2020, are seemingly designed to remove all traces of Christianity.”

“The campaign to exterminate all Christian adherents and institutions in North Korea has been brutally effective, and continues through the work of the Ministry of State Security, networks of informants that stretch into China, the presence of ‘no-exit’ political prison camps, executions, and an educational and organizational system that deters adherence through schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods,” says the report, which is based on interviews of survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of religious freedom violations in 2020 and 2021.

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The freedoms in North Korea are “subordinate to and overruled by a document known as the Ten Principles for Establishing a Monolithic Leadership System,” which has as its purpose to bring each North Korean individual’s thoughts and acts in line with the teachings of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un, it says.

USCIRF also found that the Workers’ Party of Korea maintains church buildings in Pyongyang, and “it instructs a small group of approved specialized cadres to perform Christian ceremonies in these buildings, while at the same time forbidding North Korean citizens — including that group of specialized cadres — to live as Christians.”

North Koreans experience the denial of the right to religious freedom from birth, the report reveals.

“[School] lessons feature missionaries, and there are also movies about the missionaries,” a North Korean citizen is quoted as saying.

“There is actually a movie titled 'The Missionary.' The movie features an American missionary who came to Korea during the Japanese colonial occupation period and swindled children after pretending to care about them. After people watched the movie, they developed a negative impression of the missionaries on an intuitive level. People even use the word ‘missionary’ as a curse word.”

Another citizen was quoted as saying, “There was a separate subject that completely demonized the missionaries. The very purpose of that subject was to stress how horrible the missionaries are and how horrible religion and the practice of superstition is.”

USCIRF says it also “documented credible accounts of the execution of Christian adherents.”

“Kwon Eun Som and her grandchild were executed in July 2011 in Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province, with only a few security and law enforcement officials present to witness the event,” the report adds. “The execution was by firing squad and took place outside Hajong-ri in Onsong County. It was overseen by Onsong Ministry of State Security branch personnel, acting on the authority of the North Hamgyong Ministry of State Security in Chongjin.”

The report also identifies 68 cases of the state prosecuting individuals for their religion or belief or for their association with religious persons.

For years, North Korea has ranked as the worst country globally when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA's World Watch List.

“Being discovered as a Christian is a death sentence in North Korea,” says Open Doors USA, adding, “If you aren’t killed instantly, you will be taken to a labor camp as a political criminal.”

The ministry says that North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un is reported to have expanded the system of prison camps, in which an estimated 50,000-70,000 Christians are imprisoned.

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