By all accounts, there are virtually no personal freedoms in North Korea and no protection for universal human rights. In pursuit of absolute control of all facets of politics and society, the government under dictator Kim Jong Il has created an environment of fear in which dissent of any kind is not tolerated. Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief remains essentially non-existent, as the government severely represses public and private religious activities and has a policy of actively discriminating against religious believers. There are a growing number of reports from North Korean refugees that any unauthorized religious activity inside North Korea is met with arrest, imprisonment, torture, and sometimes execution by North Korean officials. There is no evidence that religious freedom conditions have improved in the past year. The Commission continues to recommend that North Korea be designated a "country of particular concern," or CPC, which the State Department has done since 2001.

The humanitarian disaster caused by years of famine and food shortages in North Korea, coupled with the government's systematic and severe violations of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its people, constitute a threat to regional stability and a continuing source of friction with neighboring countries. The United States has taken the lead in establishing a multi-national forum, known as the Six-Party Talks, to address security issues on the Korean peninsula, including North Korea's reported development of nuclear weapons. At this point, the Six-Party talks have not addressed human rights issues, on the grounds that human rights and humanitarian issues cannot be combined with negotiations on security matters. Yet the same mistrust and megalomania that drive Kim Jong Il to develop nuclear weapons also drive his regime to perpetrate egregious human rights abuses, suggesting that complete security on the Korean peninsula cannot be assured until human rights and security issues are dealt with collectively.

In recent years, the government has formed several "religious" organizations to implement its policy of severely restricting religious activities in the country. For example, the Korean Buddhist Federation prohibits Buddhist monks from worshiping at North Korean temples. Similarly, the Korean Christian Federation restricts Christian activities. Three churches, two Protestant and one Catholic, were opened in Pyongyang in 1988, though it is believed that these churches operate primarily as showcases for foreign visitors. The absence of a priest at the Roman Catholic Church means that mass cannot be celebrated and most sacraments cannot be performed. According to South Korean pastors operating exchanges with the Korean Christian Federation, although some fraction of North Koreans who attend services at the Catholic and Protestant churches in Pyongyang may be genuine believers, the majority reportedly attend services to monitor and report to the government on church activities. In January 2004, a former official of the North Korean National Security Agency testified before the Commission that these churches are controlled and operated directly by that agency. A Russian Orthodox Church has been under construction since 2003 but remains unfinished, though two North Korean men have been sent to Moscow to train as Orthodox priests. There are also reportedly three Buddhist temples and a Chondogyoist shrine in Pyongyang. Government officials have claimed that Buddhist temples are cultural relics that need to be preserved. Although Kim Il Sung University boasts a department of religion, graduates and faculty of the department are reportedly involved in training security forces to identify new Christian practitioners.

While the North Korean government reports that some 500 house churches operate with government approval outside of Pyongyang for religious believers in rural areas, independent observers have questioned the existence of such facilities or gatherings. These observers cite consistent denials of repeated requests to visit them. The Commission has received information that there are underground Christians who meet in small groups and operate in complete secrecy inside North Korea. Researchers in South Korea have also reported on the existence of underground Christians, although there are no reliable estimates of the numbers of believers in these groups or the areas of the country in which they might operate.

Persons found carrying Bibles in public, distributing religious literature, or engaging in unauthorized religious activities such as public religious expression and persuasion are arrested and imprisoned. There continue to be reports of torture and execution of religious believers, including a January 2005 report of the execution of six religious leaders. Although the practice of imprisoning religious believers is apparently widespread, the State Department has been unable to document fully the number of religious detainees or prisoners. In the past year, refugees and refugee assistance organizations have reported a growing number of Christians in the prison system due to increased contact between refugees and South Korean and Chinese religious groups in the border regions. According to press reports, an estimated 6,000 Christians are incarcerated in "Prison No. 15," located in the northern part of the country. According to testimony heard at the Commission's January 2002 hearing on North Korea, prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs are treated worse than other inmates. For example, religious prisoners are reportedly given the most dangerous tasks while in prison. In addition, these prisoners are subject to constant abuse from prison officials in an effort to force them to renounce their faith. When they refuse, they are often beaten and sometimes tortured to death.

The North Korean government forcefully propagates an ideology, known as "Juche," based on the personality cult of the regime's current leader, Kim Jong Il, and his late father, Kim Il Sung. Korean law reportedly mandates that pictures of the "Great Leader" (Kim Il Sung) and the "Dear Leader" (Kim Jong Il) hang on the wall of every house, school room, and work place. There are credible reports that each village contains a "Kim Il Sung Research Center." Citizens are reportedly required to attend weekly meetings where they watch inspirational films on the Dear Leader's life and hold public confessions about political and moral failings.

North Korean officials have stratified society into 51 specific categories on the basis of family background and perceived loyalty to the regime. Religious adherents are by definition relegated to a lower category, receiving fewer privileges and opportunities than others in areas such as education and employment. An extensive report by Amnesty International in 2003 details evidence that persons in lower categories have, in some cases, been forcibly relocated to remote and desolate areas of the country and then systematically denied access to food aid and therefore left to starve.

As a result of the prolonged famine and the highly oppressive nature of the regime, up to 300,000 refugees have fled North Korea across the border to China in the past five to eight years. After the easing of the worst of the famine conditions, an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 refugees remain in China. According to an agreement with North Korea, the Chinese government considers all such refugees to be economic migrants who are subject to forcible repatriation. North Korean authorities consider a decision to leave the country tantamount to treason and all returnees are subject to arrest, imprisonment, and often torture. There are growing numbers of reports from North Korean escapees that all North Koreans repatriated from China are interrogated to determine if they have converted to Christianity or had contact with South Korean Christians. If they answer affirmatively to these questions they are subject to long prison terms with hard labor.

In September 2004, the Commission began work on a study of conditions of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in North Korea. The study focuses on all religious communities in the country, relying primarily on interviews with former North Koreans who have escaped their country and are now residing in South Korea. In October 2004, the Commission and the study's lead researcher met with Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, to discuss the study and other aspects of the Commission's work on North Korea. In March 2005, Commissioners accompanied the lead researcher to Geneva to present preliminary findings to delegations at the 61st Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Commission representatives in Geneva also met with the acting UN High Commissioner for Refugees to discuss the situation of North Korean refugees in China and further updated the Special Rapporteur on preliminary findings of the study.

In April 2004, the Commission met with North Korean defectors in Washington as a part of North Korea Freedom Day activities. In November 2004, the North Korea Human Rights Act was signed into law. The legislation cites Commission findings and includes provisions reflecting several Commission recommendations, including the expansion of programs to advance democracy and human rights in North Korea and increased funding for programs to promote access to information inside North Korea. The law also expresses the sense of the Congress that the human rights of North Koreans should remain a key element in future negotiations between the United States, North Korea and other concerned parties in Northeast Asia; that UN human rights mechanisms, including Special Rapporteurs, should be permitted to gather information and report on conditions in North Korea; and that the United States should explore the possibility of a regional dialogue with North Korea that is modeled on the Helsinki process, engaging all countries in the region in a common commitment to respect human rights. All of these provisions follow Commission recommendations.

In addition to recommending that North Korea continue to be designated a CPC, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:

  • work with regional and European allies to fashion a comprehensive plan for security concerns on the Korean peninsula – modeled after the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – as suggested in Sec. 106 of the North Korean Human Rights Act;
    • consider, with this model, expanding the Six-Party talks on nuclear security to include separate discussions on issues related to human rights and human security, using ongoing security negotiations to press North Korea for improvements in areas of mutual concern, including monitoring of humanitarian aid, resettlement of refugees, family reunifications, abductions, and other pressing human rights issues, including religious freedom;
  • as soon as possible, appoint a Special Envoy on Human Rights in North Korea, as mandated in the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004, and give the Special Envoy full authority to move forward on assistance to North Korean refugees, new human rights and democracy programming, and expanded public diplomacy programs;
  • urge the Chinese government to uphold its international obligations to protect asylum seekers, by (1) establishing a mechanism to confer at least temporary asylum on those seeking such protection; (2) providing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with unrestricted access to interview North Korean nationals in China; and (3) ensuring that any migrants who are being returned pursuant to any bilateral agreement are not potential asylum seekers refouled in violation of China's obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol;
  • in bilateral relations with China, Russia, Mongolia, and other regional allies, place a higher priority on working to provide safe and secure migration channels for North Korean asylum seekers;
  • promote further cooperation between the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, and regional allies, including South Korea, to resolve quickly the remaining technical or legal issues surrounding the resettlement of North Koreans in the United States and other countries;
  • urge the Chinese government to allow international humanitarian organizations greater access to North Koreans in China, to address growing social problems such as child and sexual trafficking, forced labor, and other crimes associated with the vulnerability of North Korean migrants in China;
  • encourage nations with diplomatic relations with North Korea to include religious freedom and other human rights in their talks with North Korea, and to urge the North Korean government to invite UN Special Rapporteurs and other mechanisms, as appropriate, to assess the human rights and humanitarian situation, to monitor the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and to recommend reforms and technical assistance programs;
  • continue to use appropriate international fora to condemn egregious human rights abuses in North Korea and seek protections and redress for victims, by
    • co-sponsoring and working for passage of a resolution on North Korea at the UN Commission on Human Rights; and
    • co-sponsoring and working for passage of a resolution that places human rights abuses in the context of regional and nuclear security at the First Committee of the United Nations, if North Korea continues to refuse cooperation with international monitors and declines UN technical assistance programs;
  • expand radio, television, Internet, and print information alternatives for North Korea, including expanding broadcasts on Radio Free Asia and Voice of America and producing video and other digital programming to accommodate growing DVD circulation and satellite dish technology in North Korea.

In addition, Congress should: (a) continue to appropriate funds authorized in the North Korea Human Rights Act for public diplomacy, refugee assistance, and democratization programs; (b) establish a congressional caucus to focus specifically on human rights and refugees and to explore new ideas for establishing an "Helsinki Option" for security talks on the Korean Penisula; and (c) if Congressional delegations visit North Korea, seek access for international monitors to North Korean prisons as promised by Vice-Premier Gew Yan-un to a visiting Senate Foreign Relations Committee delegation in 2004.


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