The North Korean capital of Pyongyang greeted the new year with singing, dancing, and fireworks as the national anthem played at midnight on December 31st.
Beyond the staged Pyongyang crowd and across the rest of the darkened country, the reaction to another year under the Kim regime may have received a less warm welcome —especially in the numerous political prison camps thought to detain an estimated 120,000 people, according to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights conditions in North Korea found that a wide range of acts perceived to be against the state can land someone in a political prison camp. For repatriated defectors, simply encountering a Christian church is grounds for detention in a political prison camp, or even execution. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) believes as many as 50,000 of the prisoners in political labor camps are Christians imprisoned for their faith.
Any act of faith puts North Korean Christians in danger. One defector testified to the severe risk of possessing a Bible: “In North Korea, you can get away with murder if you have good connections. However, if you get caught carrying a Bible, there is no way to save your life.”
Unfortunately, the past year brought no known improvements to North Korea’s abysmal human rights record. And the changes that have occurred in 2020 point to rising hardships for the North Korean people and an increasingly dangerous security situation.
The young dictator Kim Jong Un is under intense pressure as he tries to manage an already struggling economy that has been hampered even more than usual due to COVID-19. Speaking at a military parade in October, Kim was driven to tears as he apologized for the difficulties many North Koreans faced in 2020. It is almost unheard of for a North Korean leader to admit failure, and it may signal a vulnerable regime. Yet, at the same parade, the military unveiled a record number of new weapons, which present clear threats to the United States and its allies.
North Korea has long been a national security priority for U.S. presidents. This is unlikely to change for the incoming administration, which will doubtless be forced to cope with a rogue North Korean regime that continues to threaten its neighbors and adversaries.
No matter how the U.S. chooses to tackle the challenges posed by North Korea, one thing is certain: addressing human rights violations must be a part of the strategy. A new Family Research Council report, North Korea: The World’s Foremost Violator of Religious Freedom, outlines several ways that the U.S. government can promote religious freedom and human rights in North Korea.
In any negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, human rights should be on the table. Before the U.S. even considers lifting sanctions, the North Korean regime must take measurable steps to alleviate the dire human rights situation within its borders. One specific demand American officials can make of North Korea is the release of all Christians, along with children and families, from prison camps.
Additional efforts should also be made to support the dissemination of information inside of North Korea. North Korean defectors regularly cite exposure to outside news and media as a primary motivating factor prompting their escape. The regime tightly restricts access to information or entertainment aside from state propaganda, but North Koreans deserve to know the truth.
South Korea’s National Assembly recently made human rights activism more difficult for its citizens by passing an anti-leaflet law meant to crack down on balloon and bottle launches that sent leaflets, USB sticks, and even Bibles across the border into the North. This new law is a disappointing move on the part of the South Korean government. Both South Korea and the U.S. should be supporting, rather than restricting, human rights advocacy on behalf of the millions of North Koreans who are barred from speaking up for themselves.
As an incoming U.S. presidential administration crafts its foreign policy priorities for the next four years, the North Korean religious freedom and human rights situation should occupy a prominent position. A transformed North Korea that poses no threat to the rest of the world ultimately requires a North Korean government that respects its people and allows them to live according to their consciences.
Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.