At Large

The North Korean Prison State

Where people are jailed for not starving and reading the Bible could be a capital offense.

By 8.20.08

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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.

Refugees began streaming north during the 1990s. Explains the Commission:

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.

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."

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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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).