RELIGIOUS DEMOGRAPHY
Population 26 million. It is officially an atheist country, but it is estimated that more than 1 per cent – around 300,000 – are Christian. The country is also home to small numbers of adherents of Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism and a local religious movement known as Chondoism.

APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020

The DPRK remains the world’s most brutally repressive state. The North Korean constitution nominally grants freedom of religious belief, but it also prohibits the use of religion for “drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State.”

The country is heavily isolationist and totalitarian in nature, subscribing to the ideologies of ‘’Juche’’ and ‘’Kimilsungism’’. The Party leader is the supreme authority. Thus any religious practice that undermines this authority is perceived as a significant threat to the regime. Christians are especially vulnerable because the government views them as susceptible to foreign influence. In 2019 there were reports that the Falun Gong movement, which originated in China, was spreading to North Korea, prompting authorities to initiate a crackdown against Falun Gong practitioners.

Any expression of religion outside the limited number of state-sponsored houses of worship, which fulfil merely propaganda purposes, happens in secret. Anyone caught practicing religion or even suspected of harbouring religious views in private is subject to severe punishment, including arrest, torture, imprisonment, and execution. The possession and distribution of religious texts remains a criminal offense under North Korean law.

The songbun system classifies citizens based on their perceived loyalty to the state; religious practitioners belong to the “hostile” class, which limits their access to educational and employment opportunities, as well as other state benefits. Religion is identified as a national security threat capable of disrupting the state’s social order.

North Korea has prison and labour camps housing an estimated 80,000–120,000 prisoners of conscience and other declared “enemies of the state,” many of whom are imprisoned because of their faith. As many as 50,000 of these prisoners are Christians. Religious prisoners typically undergo ‘’unspeakable atrocities’’ including torture, rape, starvation, forced abortion and extra-judicial killing. According to defectors, most Christians detained in prison camps were arrested by the Ministry of State Security because they possessed a Bible—which is treated as proof of a political crime. The government often apply a policy of guilt by association – if one person is found to be a Christian, all other members of their extended family may be arrested or executed.

Meanwhile, authorities on both sides of the Sino-Korean border have increased monitoring for North Korean refugees, to prevent “religious infiltration” from abroad. This has increased because of the COVID-19 global pandemic where increased security on borders aims to prevent outsiders bringing the disease into the country. Kim Jung Un claims there are zero cases. After the Hong Kong protests in June 2019, the Chinese government started scanning visitor identity cards and making it more difficult for South Korean missionaries and North Korean defectors to move around the border region. In addition, North Korean authorities monitor refugees and defectors deported from China for fear they have been exposed to religion or foreign missionaries while outside the country.

FCO Human Rights Report 2019

The DPRK Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, expression, speech, the press, demonstration, and association. In reality, DPRK citizens did not enjoy any of these freedoms. The DPRK remained top of Open Doors’ annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians experience extreme persecution.

APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019

The closed nature of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) means that it is difficult to obtain and confirm estimates of the religious demography. Nevertheless, despite being officially an atheist country, it is estimated that more than 1% of the DPRK population are Christian, roughly equating to as many as 400,000 people. The country is also home to adherents of Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism and a local religious movement known as Chondoism.

The DPRK remains the world’s most brutally repressive state, exhibiting a disregard for human rights standards unparalleled in the contemporary world. The country is heavily isolationist and totalitarian in nature. The system is predicated on the notion that the Party leader is the supreme authority. Subsequently, any religious practice that undermines this authority is perceived as a significant threat to the perpetuation of the regime. Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, is suffocated to the point of silence and invisibility, with any attempt to exercise independent thought and belief met with unprecedented state retaliation. In demanding that all citizens must participate in an all-pervading idol-worship of Kim Jong-Un, the state forces many believers to
abandon their religious doctrines or lose their lives.

The DPRK’s class system of “Songbun”, based on citizens’ political, economic and social background, places Christians in the lowest of three groupings: the hostile class. They are categorised with spies and political dissidents and face persistent and extreme persecution. The DPRK regime is incredibly wary of foreign infiltration and religion is seen as the prime medium through which such a destabilizing influence might be dispersed. Christianity is particularly associated with the western world, particularly the USA. Through such a lens, the religion is identified as a national security threat capable of disrupting the state’s social order. While there is evidence of a handful of staterun religious institutions, it is apparent that these fulfil merely illusory and propaganda purposes.

In recent years, increased technological surveillance has functioned hand in hand with the community monitoring program of ‘inminban’. Under this program, trusted appointees conduct unannounced inspections, monitor household budgets and report suspicious activities of local inhabitants. Consequently, all forms of religion have been driven almost totally underground.

As a direct influence of this surveillance, it is estimated that there are currently between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners in the DPRK, many of whom are imprisoned on the basis of their faith. As many as 50,000 of these prisoners are Christians. Religious prisoners typically reside in harsh labour camps undergoing ‘’unspeakable atrocities’’ including torture, rape, starvation, forced abortion and extra-judicial killing. Christians have also been hung on crosses over fire, crushed under a steamroller and herded off bridges.

Persistent intrusion, and the potential for severe brutality and torture, has led many DPRK believers and non-believers to flee into neighbouring China. In North Korea, defecting is a criminal offence and the possible punishments are extensive. Despite this, China has continually ignored the international principle of refoulement, cooperating with the DRPK regime to arrest and repatriate those refugees who had previously fled the regime. On their return, Christians and converts are vigorously questioned and prosecuted, where any apparent connection with missionaries in China warrants consequences of extreme severity. More recently, both DPRK and China have intensified their efforts to prevent defectors. This has resulted in a decrease in the number of Christians who are able to successfully defect from the country in the hope of escaping the regime’s religious persecution.

While reporting of violations against other religions or beliefs in the DPRK is rarely forthcoming, it is fair to assume that any other practise beyond Christianity would also be egregiously suppressed. For instance, some reporting has emerged that the DPRK authorities are threatening Chinese trade workers who are allegedly spreading Falun Gong practices with harsh punishment, as Pyongyang has reportedly seen a sharp increase in Falun Gong practices. This trend is yet to be widely verified.

In the UK Parliament, 2020

No questions asked.


USCIRF report 2020

US State Department International Religious Freedom report 2019



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