The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. 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.
In February the COI final report concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association; the government engaged in crimes against humanity in suppressing these and other rights; and the leadership of the country should be brought before the ICC on these grounds. The conclusion the government had engaged in crimes against humanity in repressing religious and other freedoms and the appeal to have the government brought before the ICC was repeated in October by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the DPRK.
The COI report found the government considered Christianity a serious threat, as it challenged the official cult of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside of the government. The report concluded that Christians faced persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practiced their religion outside the state-controlled churches.
The government-controlled press reported the arrest and imprisonment, and in some cases release, of several foreigners, some possibly in connection with religious activities. South Korean media also reported a South Korean Baptist missionary was sentenced to life in a labor camp. International press reported an Australian missionary was released after 13 days of detention and interrogation for distributing religious pamphlets. In October the government released a U.S. citizen who reported in the press that he left a Bible in a public place and had been detained since May. In November a U.S. citizen who had previously engaged in missionary activity was released after having been convicted and sentenced to 15 years hard labor in 2012.
Defectors reported the government increased its investigation, repression, and persecution of unauthorized religious groups in recent years, but access to information on current conditions was limited.
According to the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU’s) “White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea 2014”, Article 68 of the constitution continued to be used as a tool to oppress religious freedom.
Juche, or self-reliance, remained an important ideological underpinning of the government and the cult of personalities of the late Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong il, and current leader Kim Jong Un. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority was regarded as opposition to the national interest and reportedly resulted in severe punishment.
Some scholars state the Juche philosophy and reverence for the Kim family resemble a form of civil religion. Approximately 100,000 Juche research centers reportedly exist throughout the country. The 2014 report of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies stated that while unforced, “every citizen has chosen to follow the Juche Idea…and is firmly believing in Juche Idea thinking and acting according to its requirement.”
According to the KINU white paper, no Protestant or Catholic churches existed in the country except in the capital Pyongyang.
In Pyongyang there were four state-controlled Christian churches: two Protestant churches (Bongsu and Chilgol Churches), a Catholic church, and Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church. The Chilgol Church was dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il-sung’s mother, Kang Pan-sok, who was a Presbyterian deaconess. The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these churches was unknown. Numerous North Korean defectors from outside of Pyongyang reported no knowledge of these churches.
The Ryongtong Buddhist Temple in Kaesong was refurbished and expanded recently. The 2014 report of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies states the Singye Buddhist Temple in Mt. Kumgang and the Pobun Buddhist Temple in Mt. Ryongak were newly restored.
This report also affirmed the existence of religious organizations such as the Korean Christians’ Federation, the Korean Buddhists’ Federation, the Korea Catholic Association (KCA), the Korea Chondoist Society, and the Korean Association of Religionists in the DPRK.
The government-established KCA provided basic services at the Changchun Roman Catholic Church, but had no ties to the Vatican. There were no Catholic priests residing in the country, but visiting priests occasionally celebrated Mass at the Changchun Church. The KCA declined to send North Korean Catholics to attend Pope Francis’ Mass in South Korea on August 18, citing the Republic of Korea’s refusal to cancel an upcoming joint military drill with the United States as the reason for its decision.
According to religious leaders who have traveled to the country, there were Protestant pastors at the Bongsu and Chilgol Churches, although it was not known if they were resident or visiting pastors.
Two citizens who studied at the Russian Orthodox Seminary in Moscow served as priests at the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, purportedly to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country.
The government reportedly allowed certain forms of religious education, including training programs at three-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy, a religious studies program at Kim Il-sung University, a graduate institution that trained pastors, and other seminaries related to Christian or Buddhist groups.
In its July 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported the existence of 500 “family worship centers.” According to the 2014 KINU white paper, however, no North Korean defectors interviewed were aware of family churches or worship centers. Observers stated that “family worship centers” may be part of the state-controlled Korean Christians’ Federation.
According to a late 2013 survey of more than 8,000 defectors by the South Korea-based Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights, 99.7 percent of defectors from North Korea said there was no religious freedom in the country and just 4.2 percent said they had seen a Bible when they lived there.
The COI report concluded that authorities systematically sought to hide the persecution of Christians who practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches from the international community by pointing to a small number of state-controlled churches as exemplifying religious freedom and pluralism.
Religious and human rights groups outside the country provided numerous reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs.
The KINU white paper indicated the government used authorized religious entities for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship. According to the white paper, ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” Foreigners who met with representatives of government-sponsored religious organizations stated they believed some members were genuinely religious, but noted others appeared to know little about religious doctrine. KINU concluded the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom.
Little was known about the day-to-day life of religious persons in the country. Members of government-controlled religious groups did not appear to suffer discrimination, but the government reportedly regarded as subversive elements members of underground churches or those connected to missionary activities. The government reportedly was concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border of China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and alleged that these groups were involved in intelligence gathering.
The government allowed some overseas faith-based aid organizations to operate inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance. Such organizations reported they were not allowed to proselytize, their contact with nationals was limited and strictly monitored, and government escorts accompanied them at all times.