Every time it seems the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is about to join the “world community,” the Kim Jong Il regime reminds us of its criminal nature. A North Korean soldier recently shot and killed a South Korean tourist. Pyongyang has naturally stonewalled Seoul’s call for an investigation and threatened to kick South Korean personnel out of the country.
But most grotesque is what the DPRK does to its own people. North Koreans are starving again and Pyongyang is calling for food aid from abroad. As with other communist states, the North’s economic failure is the result of government policy. Should Washington provide more food aid, yet again bailing out a government whose policies led to the deaths of at least a half million and perhaps many more people during the horrid famines of the late 1990s?
Aiding the regime in Pyongyang is more than a political problem. Defense Forum Foundation President Suzanne Scholte recently argued that “North Koreans are by far the most persecuted people in the world.” She even charged that “There is a holocaust going on,” an overstatement, but an understandable one, since the North’s human rights abuses are grotesque and legion. The number of other states seriously vying for the title of world’s worst tyranny — Burma, for instance — is small. By most measures DPRK leads the race.
North Korean repression of religious liberty is particularly harsh. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has published a new report, “A Prison Without Bars,” based on interviews with refugees and former security personnel. The details are horrendous.
There was a thriving Christian community in northern Korea before that territory was occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. However, the new dictatorship under Kim Il Sung had other plans. Explains the Commission: “the Kim family created and imposed a quasi-religious personality cult.” The veritable worship of Kim Il Sung and now his son, Kim Jong Il, “is not merely a method of social control, but the ideological basis of the Kim family’s political legitimacy. Independent religious practice is considered a direct political threat.”
THE COLLAPSE OF North Korea’s economy and agricultural sector has only heightened the regime’s fears. Tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees have escaped north into China; some seek food and work, while others hope to defect. This desperate human flow discredits the regime in Pyongyang and threatens to bring alien ideas back into the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.p>Refugees began streaming north during the 1990s. Explains the Commission: br> /p>
Punishment for those crossing the border in search for food, though the act is technically illegal, was limited to several months at hard labor in the rodongdanryeondae mobile labor brigades. However, contact in China with South Koreans or Korean-Americans, many of whom are associated with faith-based humanitarian relief efforts, is still deemed a more severely punishable political offense. North Korean security agents reportedly regularly employ torture and coercive interrogation techniques, including beatings and prolonged stress positions, in order to induce the repatriated North Koreans to admit to such meetings. Most of the interviewees for this present report believed that many who confessed under duress to meeting South Koreans or adopting a religious belief system from such contact were punished more severely. Nine of the former North Koreans interviewed for this report claim that following repatriation, their punishment was more severe on account of admitting during interrogation that they had contact with Christian believers while in China.br> More recent developments appear to be an increased severity of punishment for border-crossers — many of whom were forcibly repatriated by Beijing — and a refusal by refugees to admit to any contacts with “South Korean missionaries or aid workers, as such a confession does risk much more severe punishment, including, the interviewees believed, potential execution or being sent to the kwanliso , political penal labor camps.” The refugees’ fears seem warranted. The Commission’s latest interviews find that refugees who are captured “continued to be pressed during interrogation for details about attending church, meeting missionaries, watching South Korean television, and meeting South Koreans,” while “recent data confirms that the North Korean regime’s policy of penalizing North Koreans for coming into contact with religious institutions or persons, or for meeting with South Koreans, continues.”
Indeed, Pyongyang takes such activities so seriously that it deploys State Security Agency operatives to uncover South Korean spy rings which it presumes to be operating along the border. Notes the Commission: “spying for South Korea is conflated with ‘cultural aggression’ by ‘American imperialism’ through the infiltration into North Korea of ‘poisonous ideology’ with the aim of ‘liquidating socialism.’ In explaining the North Korean view, the former police agents explicitly cited the long-standing government attack on Protestant Christianity.” Adds the Commission, “Religion is seen as the ‘advance guard’ of aggression,” an attempt by America to seize control of the northern half of the Korean peninsula.
IT COMES AS no surprise, then, to learn that there is no religious freedom in North Korea. Like the Soviet Union, the DPRK provides formal legal guarantees but, reports the Commission, interviewees “all believed that they were included for international consumption, and did not reflect domestic practice.” A few even “recounted how they had been taught by university professors or superiors that such provisions existed to create the appearance of compliance with international norms, but were not something they would expect the government to follow.”
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