“A Prison without Bars” Released by the USCIRF

[imText1]The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported in an announcement on the 15th that North Korea remains one of the world’s greatest repressors of religious freedom and other human rights.

In its report, the USCIRF states, “The international community’s understandable focus on nuclear security should not diminish diplomatic efforts to also address human security in North Korea,” and urged that international pressure must be heightened in order to solve the problems concerning North’s oppression of religion and human rights and China’s forced repatriation of North Korean defectors.

The report, entitled “A Prison without Bars” was compiled through the testimonies and interviews of 72 North Korean defectors regarding the freedom of religion issue. At the press conference where the report was released, members of the U.S. Congress who have been actively raising the issue of North Korean human rights also criticized the North Korean government’s oppression of religious freedom.

Senator Sam Brownback, furnishing satellite images of political prisoners camps within North Korea, revealed up to now, over 400,000 people are believed to have died in North Korean prisoners camps, and stressed that the North Korean human rights issue must be included in the Six Party Talks agenda.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Ed Royce, who had presented a congratulatory resolution in honor of Lee Myung Bak’s presidential inauguration, announced that when President Lee Myung Bak visits the U.S. this coming Thursday, the government plans to request that an agreement be made that will put pressure on North Korea. He stated that the U.S. will request rights to emit radio broadcast signals across the boarder from South Korea

In regards to punishment of repatriated refugees for the practice of religion, the report maintains that “repatriated North Koreans are interrogated repeatedly about their religious affiliations and associations in China. If it is discovered that they have either converted to Christianity while in China or had contact with South Koreas – both of which are considered to be political offenses – they reportedly suffer harsh interrogation, torture and ill-treatment, prolonged detention without trial, and imprisonment.”

Furthermore, any meetings with South Koreans or Korean-Americans involved in humanitarian relief efforts in China, many of which are faith-based, is also a severely punishable offense. According to the report, “North Korean security agents are said to regularly employ torture and coercive interrogation techniques, including beatings and prolonged stress positions in order to induce the repatriated North Koreans to admit to such meetings.” Nine defectors interviewed in the USCIRF report testified that punishment issued for defection is enhanced following the forced confession. They believed this punishment to include the possibility of execution or having up to three generations of family members sent to political penal labor camps.

One North Korea defector affiliated with the National Security Agency testified to “increased police activity aimed at halting religious activities in the border regions with China,” and that “Agents are posing as ‘pastors’ or are setting up mock prayer meetings to gather information and entrap new converts in North Korea.”

The report also highlights that “Absolute reverence for the Kim family continues to be indoctrinated into every North Korean,” and that because Kim Jong Il regards all kinds of religious activity as a threat to the system, he intends to stop it using any means necessary.

One defector stated in an interview that the reason the North Korean authorities willfully oppress religion is that “Kim Jong Il is more afraid of his own people than of the U.S.,” and “The great god of North Korea is Kim Jong Il and if that changes to a real god, it can stir up the people.”

Another defector attested that “In North Korea, you can get away with murder if you have good connections. However, if you get caught carrying a Bible, there is no way to save your life.” He went on to explain that students are taught in universities that North Korea’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, however while the professors teach this, they urge the students not to pursue religion.

In conclusion, the USCIRF emphasized that “the international community can make a difference in preventing [the abuse of North Korean citizens] through concerted action to press China to stop repatriating North Korean refugees and provide increased protection for them as required by the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocols, to which China is a party. Such action should begin immediately as China prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.”