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Similarly intended are the few churches and other worship centers in Pyongyang which, believe the refugees, “were not for the North Korean people but were showplaces for foreigners and not ‘real churches like those in China and South Korea.’” Outside of these venues religious literature is banned. The “consequences of owning such material were well-known, and if the religious material was associated with Protestant Christianity, punishment could include execution and the imprisonment of ‘three generations’ of the owner’s family.”
Through its interviews the Commission found “three mutually reinforcing reasons for the lack of religious freedom.” The first: “anti-religious propaganda is ubiquitous and reinforced through the educational system, mass media, and the workplace.” To some Americans that might sound a bit like the U.S., given the hostility of leading cultural institutions to religion, but state control obviously remains far more pervasive and antagonistic to religion in North Korea. Religion retains none of the cultural beachheads in the North that it enjoys in America.
The second factor is the threat of punishment, which means any religious believers must risk all. Notes the Commission: “it is widely known that there are severe penalties meted out against those discovered practicing banned religions. Many interviewees testified that they had heard about or witnessed severe persecution of persons caught engaging in religious activity.”
Refugees cite one tragic case after another. An entire family disappeared after one member gave a Bible, acquired in China, to a friend. Age, whether young or old, offers no protection. In one case a 16-year-old memorized parts of the Bible in China; his entire family was arrested. Notes the Commission: “Refugees consistently report that any religious activity is deemed illegal by the regime and practitioners can be arrested, sent to political prison camp (kwanliso), or executed.” Other punishments include “torture, mistreatment, and the disappearance of those suspected of religious activity.”
BECAUSE RELIGION IS treated as a political offense, agents are rewarded for finding believers. Many learn about Christianity to catch Christians. One former National Security Agency officer explained: agents are “desperate because if they don’t catch two or more cases, they cannot get promoted and they might get kicked out.” Thus, security operatives go to great lengths — detailed in “A Prison Without Bars” — to find individual believers, as well as expose underground churches.
Tying everything together is the fact “that veneration of the Kim family, or KimIlSungism, was the official state ideology, and the only belief system allowed to exist in North Korea.” It is a philosophy unlike anything any where else: when I visited in 1992, residents of Pyongyang all wore Kim Il Sung buttons, photos of the Great and Dear Leaders, as the two Kims were known, graced every office and home, pictures of the senior Kim “giving guidance” were everywhere, and propaganda slogans rolled down the sides of buildings, hung over streets, and filled billboards in surrounding farmlands. I was told that the DPRK’s “Great Leader” was unlike anyone in any other land. (I had to agree: Great Leader George H.W. Bush just didn’t have the same ring to it.)
Although the famine apparently has undercut belief in the leadership’s infallibility, the “highly elaborate and structured belief system based on the semi-deification of Kim Il Sung and his family” remains. The refugees, notes the Commission, “provided consistent testimony to the way this cult of personality dominates their daily lives and the penalties associated with questioning or challenging its mandatory rites and requirements.” The stories people tell are bizarrely repulsive.
Despite the horrors visited upon religious believers, faith does survive. For instance, the Commission reports “what seems to be a network of quasi-functioning Buddhist temples preserved as ‘cultural heritage sites,’ as well as rise in “Shamanistic divination.” Moreover, “in the border regions with China there is evidence of clandestine Protestant activity that is actively combated and repressed by the regime, which views the existence of such activity as an ideological and security threat.” Unfortunately, it is hard to assess the size of the underground church. Nevertheless, the regime is concerned enough to set up religious sting operations, even creating fake congregations “to attract repatriated refugees who had converted in China and also to infiltrate religious groups in China.”
The tragedy of North Korea’s brutality is compounded by China’s ruthless repatriation of refugees. Whether Beijing believes that most of the refugees are economic migrants, fears that an unconstrained refugee flow will destabilize its ally and neighbor, disdains aid for anyone seeking freedom of religion and conscience, or all three is hard to judge. But the policy is barbarous in any case. Just as China has disappointed those disposed to think well of it by failing to improve respect for human rights at home, Beijing’s continued support for the worst North Korean practices creates another black mark against that regime.
WHILE CHRISTIANITY is the principal target of North Korean religious repression, it also offers North Koreans the greatest hope for the future. For Christianity challenges the basis of the DPRK tyranny.
One member of the secret police observed that the authorities treat more leniently refugees who flee to China simply in search of jobs and food, even if they seek aid from churches, than those “who confess to religious belief, or are suspected of spreading Christianity.” The Commission cites another former security agent explaining that “Christianity was suppressed more than Buddhism because it is against the One and Only Ideology. Kim Il Sung is god; a real God [cannot] replace him.” In short, Christianity offers the most obvious alternative to KimIlSungism, the foundation of whatever legitimacy the regime retains. Thus, as Christianity spreads, even under severe repression, North Korea’s communist system is likely to face ever greater challenges.
There is no magic solution to the tragedy of North Korea. But the regime’s ferocious battle against religious belief suggests that the authorities are not nearly as certain of their survival as they proclaim. It is imperative that people of good will around the world never forget the suffering people of North Korea.
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