Religious freedom does not exist in North Korea, according to the State Department’s 2015 International Religious Freedom Report. Indeed, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the Human Rights Situation in North Korea concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
In many instances the Commission of Inquiry, or COI, found that violations of human rights committed by the North Korean government constitute crimes against humanity.
Ownership of Bibles or other religious materials brought in from abroad is reportedly illegal and also punishable by imprisonment and severe punishment, including, in some cases, execution. The government of North Korea continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions.
Religious and human rights groups outside the country provided numerous reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, or killed because of their religious beliefs. International nongovernmental organizations reported any religious activities conducted outside of those that are state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, can lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps.
The COI found that the government of North Korea considers Christianity a serious threat, as it challenges the official cult of personality of the Kim dynasty and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside of the government. Christians face persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practice their religion outside the state-controlled churches.
Christians are restricted to the lowest, hostile class rungs of the songbun system, which classifies people on the basis of social class, family background, and presumed support of the regime based on political opinion and religious views. The songbun classification system results in discrimination in education, health care, employment opportunities, and residence.
In Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remarks during the release of the 2015 International Religious Freedom Report, he said, “Every country has an obligation to respect religious liberty and freedom of conscience…. No nation can fulfil its potential if its people are denied the right to freely choose and openly practice their faith.”