Between 80,000 to 120,000 people are trapped in North Korean gulags with many of them being imprisoned for their faith, the U.S. State Department has said.
On Tuesday, the agency released its congressionally-mandated 2017 International Religious Freedom report, an annual document describing the status of religious freedom in every country.
This year's report labels the Rohingya refugee crisis in Burma as "ethnic cleansing." It also places an estimate on the number of people subjected to North Korea's notorious system of prison camps.
Escapees over the years have shared the horrors of torture, forced labor and abuse they have experienced inside North Korea's prison camps. People are imprisoned in what the Kim regime likes to call "re-education camps" for crimes such as worshiping in a church that's not state-recognized or for defecting from the country.
"The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests," the report states. "An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions."
The State Department relied on the expertise of NGOs like Christian Solidarity Worldwide to state that a "a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning that the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs."
"Religious and human rights groups outside the country continued to provide numerous reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs," the report states. "According to the [Database Center for North Korean Human Rights], there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons who were found to be practicing religion within detention facilities. International NGOs and North Korean defectors reported any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps."
According to the report, one Christian who defected after spending eight years in prison for attending church in China for four months told a U.S.-based NGO that she was charged with "practicing Christianity" and learning of its "disgraceful nature."
"During her imprisonment, authorities told her up to a dozen times a day to repent of her past and try to 'wash' her mind," the report reads. "She reported six other women who were in prison for attending church were either beaten to death or died from diarrhea because they did not have access to medicine."
The report also states that Christians are "restricted to the lowest class rungs of the songun system" as they are seen as a "means of foreign, Western encroachment." The songun system classifies individuals on the basis of social class, presumed support of the Kim regime, religious views, family background and other identifiers.
Although North Korea has ranked for the last 16 years as the world's worst persecutor of Christians, the regime also targets Buddhists and their worship networks.
During a press briefing Tuesday, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback offered more details on North Korea's political prison system.
"[W]hat we know is that you've got a gulag system operating in North Korea, and it's been a terrible situation for many years," Brownback said. "You can go on satellite, open-source satellite, and see some of these camps and the situation. You have people that have gotten out and have written about the situation in North Korea."
The release of the report comes as officials from both the U.S. and North Korea are trying to resurrect a potential meeting between President Donald Trump and dictator Kim Jong Un. Brownback was questioned about the likelihood that religious freedom conditions would be brought up in any potential meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials.
"Well, in a sense it already has with the three people that were released that [Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] brought back, and I do expect the president is right on point on North Korea," Brownback said, mentioning the release earlier this month of the three American prisoners in North Korea. "He's very engaged on this, as you know. The secretary is very engaged on this. And I think they're raising all of these issues. But the first three people they brought out were people that had been imprisoned in North Korea, and so this is a matter of discussion."
Brownback, a former U.S. senator and Kansas governor, also commented on how things have changed over the last several years when it comes to trying to have negotiations with North Korea.
"I remember when I was back in the Senate, I was raising the issue of North Korea at that time, but you couldn't get anybody to act," he said. "Well, this president is acting and he's taking this issue on even though it's threatened us for years, if not decades."
Also at the press conference, Pompeo announced that the State Department will host the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July.
The meeting will feature Pompeo's "counterparts from like-minded governments" and representatives from international organizations and religious communities. Pompeo said the meeting will "reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right."
"This ministerial, we expect, will break new ground. It will not just be a discussion group," Pompeo said. "It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all."
Commenting on the July meeting, Brownback assured that while it will be mostly "like-minded" countries, it could also include countries that are "working towards a greater religious freedom now in their nation."
"We'll work to get some actionable items coming forward out of it and also follow-on meetings," he said. "The intent is really to drive the issue of religious freedom more aggressively globally, and the outcomes are really twofold that we intend to get out of it: less terrorism, more economic growth."
Brownback would not give additional details on which countries would be invited to participate.