According to a new study from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, North Korea imposes “the full denial of religious belief” through measures such as torture and execution.
The North Korean government poses “an acute challenge to its citizens’ enjoyment of their right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief,” said the report, which was released Wednesday. “Violations of this right in North Korea are ongoing, egregious, and systematic.”
USCIRF is a bipartisan government commission created in 1998 to monitor the right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.
Based on interviews with North Korean defectors, the report documents 68 cases of prosecution against Christians and adherents of Korean shamanism, the two religions that are still practiced in the country.
“The report tells us that as recently as 2019, shaman and Christian adherents were being subjected to violations that might amount to crimes against humanity,” Suyeon Yoo, one of the report’s co-authors, said in an online discussion held Wednesday.
“The destruction of religious communities is fundamental to the defense of an ideology that exists only to sustain Kim Jong Un and the North Korean leadership,” she said.
Interviewees described physical beatings, sleep deprivation, body cavity searches and being forced to remain in a fixed position for hours at a time, as well as an atmosphere of pervasive terror inside detention centers.
“People getting tortured upstairs keeps people from going to sleep out of the fear it inspires,” said Hong Na Young, a former detainee. “No matter how tough you are, torture will break you.”
All names and identifying details were changed in the report to protect the interviewees.
Several cases of people being executed for practicing Christianity within North Korea were also documented, based on the accounts of former security officials.
Kwon Eun Song and her grandson were killed by firing squad in 2011, with only a handful of security and law enforcement officials present. In another case, six Christians were executed and 40 others sent to a political prison camp for life in 2015.
“The campaign to exterminate all Christian adherents and institutions in North Korea has been brutally effective,” the report said.
The full scope of human rights abuses perpetrated by the authoritarian state are “without parallel in the contemporary world,” according to a 2014 Commission of Inquiry report by the United Nations, which documented crimes against humanity in North Korea.
Last month, a report produced by a group of British parliamentarians found that there had been no improvement in human rights in North Korea since 2014 and concluded that the government’s targeting of specific groups, including Christians, may “reach the threshold of genocide.”