| Religious Freedom Ranking:
1 out of 5 stars: Serious Violations
The Constitution provides for religious freedom. However, the government harshly restricts religious activity. Only groups officially linked to the government are allowed some ability to practice their faiths. The government obstructs the individual’s right to choose a religious belief. It strongly suppresses the religious activities of unauthorized religious groups. A nongovernmental organization (NGO) including refugees and government traitors report that any religious persons proselytizing and communicating with foreigners or missionaries have been seized and subjected to cruel punishments. NGOs report that they witnessed the capture and possible execution of subversive Christian church members by the government from previous years. The government does allow foreigners to participate in government-sponsored religious services. It does not allow journalists or foreign delegates to verify societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.
The country has a population of 22.7 million. According to a 2002 UN Human Rights Commission report there are an estimated 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, and 800 Catholics. The Chondogyo Young Friends Party or Cheondongkyoists is a government-approved religious group with 15,000 followers. Pyongyang has four state-controlled Christian churches: two Protestant churches (Bongsu and Chilgol Churches), the Changchun Roman Catholic Church, and the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church. Many NGOs have reported no information about these churches. In 2009, the UPR reported the country has religious organizations such as the Korea Christian Federation, Korea Buddhists’ Federation, Korea Roman Catholic Association, Korea Chondoist Society and Korea Religionists’ Society. The Korean Catholic Association (KCA) is a government-established church that has no ties with the Vatican. Unification Church members from South Korea working in the tourist and automobile industry are allowed to conduct private religious services but not to invite members of North Korean public.
The UN Human Rights Committee reported in July 2002 that the government stated the existence of 500 “family worship centers;” however, according to the 2009 KINU White Paper, NGOs did not know of any such centers. Spectators stated that “family worship centers” could be part of the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation. The South Korean Dong-A Ilibo newspaper reported in July 2009 that there is an estimated several hundred thousand underground Christians in the country. NGOs reported that underground Christians are linked together through well-established networks. However, the government has not allowed for the confirmation of such claims. The KINU White Paper estimates 60 Buddhist temples. State-controlled press reported on various occasions that Buddhist services had been carried out in numerous locations.
It is reported that several state-sanctioned religious schools function in the country. There were three-year colleges for training clergies of Protestants and Buddhists. In 1989, the Kim Il-sung University opened up a religious studies program. The Chosun Christian League managed the Pyongyang Theological Academy. This is a graduate institution that instructed pastors associated with the Korean Christian Federation.
“Juche” is the ideological cult of Kim Jong-Il and his late father Kim Il-Sung. One of its stated purposes is to banish all “outside” religions, especially Christianity. In the mid-1990s, Kim Jong-Il administrated a “military-first” policy to eventually replace Juche. Any resistance to this system has been subjected to severe penalties. Possession of Bibles or other spiritual materials is illegal and liable to be punished by imprisonment or even execution. According to the 2009 UN Human Rights Council UPR there is a separation of state and religion. Due to food shortages, the government allowed a few overseas faith-based assist organizations to function inside the country to offer humanitarian assistance. However, they were not allowed to proselytize, and their actions were strictly supervised, with government escorts present at all times.
Members of underground churches have been arrested, brutally beaten, harshly tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 persons were thought to be held in political prison camps, mainly for their religious and human rights associations. Religious prisoners were usually treated worse than other inmates. NGOs have reported that individuals associated with religious activities and contacts with foreign missionaries were executed. Other individuals communicating with South Korean and Chinese humanitarian groups were subject to imprisonment or execution.
There have been no reports of forced religious conversion from one religion to another. However, a systematic program to force believers to adopt the state’s ideology is considered to be tantamount to a forced conversion to atheism. Actively religious citizens must conceal themselves from neighbors and coworkers in fear that their actions would be reported to the authorities.
U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom on Democratic People’s Republic of Korea