The opportunity to do so come again soon in a prison country that regards religious belief as “bad habit” punishable by imprisonment or worse.
North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is dead. No one knows what is likely to follow. But one important measure of reform by the new leadership will be ending the regime’s brutal religious persecution.
The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea pioneered the fusion of Communism and monarchy when in 1994 Kim succeeded his father, Kim Il-sung, as supreme leader. Before his death, Kim Jong-il sought to ensure the same transition to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
But the latter Kim, tagged “Great Successor” by North Korea’s official media, may not live up to his new title. Kim Jong-il spent a couple decades ascending the party hierarchy under his father’s protection; he anointed his own son less than three years ago. There are plenty of claimants to the throne who have been waiting a long time for the Kims to step, or be pushed, aside.
Whoever wins the inevitable power struggle will face a nation in crisis: isolated and impoverished, the North wins attention only by highlighting its missile and nuclear programs. The country desperately needs economic reform if it is ever going to become “a powerful and prosperous country,” the theme for next year’s planned celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth.
Even more pressing is political reform. The DPRK suffers under the most murderously repressive government on earth. The stultifying personality cult, extensive system of prison camps, and ruthless suppression of dissent look a lot like Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hoxha’s Albania, and Mao’s China. The North also is among the world’s most vicious religious persecutors. For the Kim cult is akin to a religion, as evidenced by the exaggerated grief expressed over Kim Jong-il’s death.
The regime claims the whole person, just like Christianity and other religions. And in North Korea any competition with the state must be destroyed. That’s why believers are treated as “hostile elements,” according to Human Rights Watch. The architect of the North Korean state, Kim Il-sung, reportedly explained: “we came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad habit if they are killed.”
We know very little about life in the North other than that the regime is brutally repressive. Open Doors routinely rates North Korea number one on its World Watch List. International Christian Concern always places the DPRK in its “Hall of Shame.”
Some 150,000 to 200,000 people are believed to be imprisoned in abysmal conditions. Of those, between 40,000 and 70,000 are said to be held for religious reasons — principally for Christian worship and evangelism. ICC figures that number may be even higher, perhaps 100,000, though no one really knows. Reports circulate of the execution of believers, especially leaders like pastors and Bible smugglers.
According to the State Department’s latest report on international religious liberty, “the government severely restricted religious activity, except that which was supervised tightly by officially recognized groups linked to the government. Genuine religious freedom does not exist.” Unfortunately, repression only seems to have worsened in recent years.
While it is impossible to verify any reports that come out of North Korea, State observed: “Recent refugee, defector, missionary, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reports indicated religious persons engaging in proselytizing in the country and those who have been in contact with foreigners or missionaries have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties. Refugees and defectors continued to say they witnessed the arrest and possible execution of underground Christian church members by the government in prior years.”
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom regularly designates the DPRK as a “Country of Particular Concern.” The Commission reported that “Severe religious freedom abuses occur regularly, including: discrimination and harassment of both authorized and unauthorized religious activity; the arrest, torture, and possible execution of those conducting clandestine religious activity.”
Nevertheless, the regime is nervous. The flood of refugees into China and the regular flow back into the North has increased opportunities for evangelism. The Commission explained: “The North Korean government interrogates asylum-seekers repatriated from China about their religious belief and affiliations, and mistreats and imprisons as security threats those suspected of distributing religious literature or having ongoing connections with South Korean religious groups.”
Even worse in Pyongyang’s eyes is the rise of Christianity within the North’s boundaries. Although no accurate count of Christians is possible, the Pew Forum estimates 480,000, most of them Protestants. The regime targets the faithful: “In recent years, police and security agency offices have infiltrated Protestant churches in China, begun training police and soldiers about the dangers of religion, and set up fake prayer meetings to catch worshippers.” The penalty for law-breakers is high. Stated the Commission: “Anyone caught distributing religious materials, holding unapproved religious gatherings, or having ongoing contact with overseas religious groups is subject to severe punishment ranging from labor camp imprisonment to execution.” One North Korean believer told Open Doors: “Since Kim Jong-un came closer to the helm, North Korea has stepped up its attempts to uncover any religious activities.”
One of the most detailed accounts of persecution in the DPRK comes from Yoon Yeo-sang and Han Sun-young of the North Korean Human Rights Archives and Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, respectively. They interviewed North Korean defectors and refugees and published their report two years ago.
The authors stated: “only 2.9 percent of those arrested are sent to labor training camps. By contrast, 14.9 percent are sent to prisons and an astonishing 81.4 percent to political prisons camps, the harshest level of punishment in North Korean society. This testifies how severely the regime punishes those involved in religious activities.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?