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North Korea Severely Punishes Religious Freedom


International Religious Freedom Senior Official Dan Nadel speaks at a news conference to announce the annual International Religious Freedom Report at the State Department in Washington, DC, on May 12, 2021.

The United States continues to be “deeply concerned about [North Korea’s] wide-ranging human rights abuses, including severe restrictions on religious freedom,” said Senior State Department Official Daniel Nadel.

North Korea Severely Punishes Religious Freedom
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The United States continues to be “deeply concerned about [North Korea’s] wide-ranging human rights abuses, including severe restrictions on religious freedom,” said Senior State Department Official Daniel Nadel.

According to the latest International Religious Freedom Report, the North Korean government reportedly continues to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continue to limit the availability of details related to individual cases of abuse. It also makes it difficult to estimate the number of religious groups in the country and their membership.

The nongovernmental organization Open Doors USA estimated that at year’s end, 50,000 to 70,000 North Koreans were in prison for being Christian. In May 2020, the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide estimated 200,000 individuals were being held in prison camps, many for being Christian. The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a South Korea-based NGO, citing defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until December 2019 and other sources, reported 1,411 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by North Korean authorities, including 126 killings and 94 disappearances.

In October 2020, the United Kingdom-based NGO Korea Future Initiative, or KFI, released a report based on 117 interviews with defectors who were survivors, witnesses, or perpetrators of religious freedom violations from 1990 to 2019. Investigators identified 273 victims punished for engaging in religious practice or having contact with religious persons, attending places of worship, or sharing religious beliefs. The KFI report said they were subjected to arrest, detention, prolonged interrogations, punishment of family members, torture or sustained physical abuse, sexual violence, forced abortion, execution, and public trials.

In 2020, for the 19th consecutive year, Open Doors USA ranked North Korea number one on its annual World Watch List report of countries where Christians experienced “extreme persecution.” NGOs and defectors said the government often applied a policy of arresting or otherwise punishing family members of Christians. According to Open Doors USA, “If North Korean Christians are discovered, they [are] deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot.”

The United States is intent on putting human rights issues at the center of its foreign policy, said Senior Official Nadel. That includes “promoting accountability for the perpetrators of those abuses” against religious freedom in North Korea.

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