Religious freedom does not exist in practice in North Korea. Indeed, according to the newly released International Religious Freedom Report, North Korea remains a country of particular concern for its severe abuses of religious freedom. As Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein said, "It is one of the worst violators of human rights in the entire world."
The North Korean government’s policy towards religion has been to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences, while suppressing internally all non-state-sanctioned religious activities.
Defector accounts indicate religious practitioners often conceal their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society for fear their activities will be reported to the authorities.
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the Human Rights Situation in North Korea found the government considered Christianity a serious threat, as it challenged the official cult of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside of the government. The report concluded that Christians faced persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practiced their religion outside the state-controlled churches.
The government-controlled press reported the arrest and imprisonment, and in some cases release, of several foreigners, some possibly in connection with religious activities. South Korean media also reported a South Korean Baptist missionary was sentenced to life in a labor camp. International press reported an Australian missionary was released after 13 days of detention and interrogation for distributing religious pamphlets.
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry released its final report in February 2014, which concluded that the North Korean government engaged in what may be crimes against humanity in suppressing religious freedom and other rights and called on the leadership of the country to be referred to international accountability mechanisms.
The United States continues to put pressure on North Korea to ease its restrictions on religious freedom and to release every prisoner of conscience – of whom there far too many. As Secretary of State John Kerry said, "No nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to practice, to hold, to modify, to openly profess their innermost beliefs."