Remember the “Jerusalem of the East”

By Greg Scarlatoiu
Executive Director
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)

This is a flash-lit photo taken at the regular weekly prayer meeting in Pyongyang, where the average attendance was about 500 persons in 1908/1922.

On April 25, 2018, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2018 annual report, recommending that 16 countries, including North Korea, be designated "countries of particular concern" (CPC). In the press statement announcing the report release, USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark urged the Trump Administration to "build on stated commitments to elevate religious freedom as a priority in our foreign policy," to "prioritize seeking the release of religious prisoners of conscience abroad," and to work closely with international partners in efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief for all."

On April 27, 2018, the two Koreas will hold a historic summit meeting. In late May or June, we may witness the first meeting between a US president and a North Korean leader. North Korean nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and military provocations have often been addressed at the expense of human rights. But the plight of the North Korean people has been on the agenda of the Trump Administration. President Trump extensively addressed North Korean human rights in his November 2017 speech before the South Korean National Assembly. Disabled North Korean escapee activist Ji Seong-ho attended President Trump’s State of the Union address, as the US leader once again addressed the abysmal state of human rights in North Korea. Three days after the State of the Union, President Trump met with a group of eight North Korean escapees from all walks of life, including Mr. Ji. Vice President Pence met with North Korean escapees in South Korea, on the sidelines of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Both critics and supporters of the Trump Administration may agree that, of all human rights issues, religious freedom has ranked among its highest. On May 4, 2017, the Trump Administration issued a Presidential Executive Order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” From May 19 to May 27, 2017, President Trump embarked on his first international trip. The destinations included Saudi Arabia, Israel, Rome, and Vatican City, home to the Holy Sites of three major religions.

The United States continues to stand for both national security and values we share with trusted friends, partners, and allies such as South Korea. South Korea is home to Asia’s second largest Christian population. South Korea’s most prevalent religion is Christianity (19.7 percent Protestant, 7.9 percent Catholic). Respect for human rights, in particular respect for religious freedom, lies at the very heart of the fundamental values we share with our Korean friends. And faith can provide an avenue of communication with our Korean allies. After all, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is a Catholic, one of many Catholic Koreans who cherish the miracle of the birth, survival, and growth of the Korean Catholic Church.

In North Korea, the Kim regime has continued to oppress human rights, in particular religious freedom, for seven decades. Nineteen years after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Kim regime has not only managed to survive, but also to accomplish two hereditary transmissions of power, from grandfather Kim Il-sung to son Kim Jong-il in July 1994, and from son Kim Jong-il to grandson Kim Jong-un in December 2011. One possible explanation for the longevity of the Kim regime is that it is the result of the fusion of four totalitarian political systems. All North Koreans have known for the past six centuries has been totalitarianism: five hundred years of the feudal Chosun dynasty; forty years of Japanese imperial occupation from 1905 to 1945; Stalinist communism; and the Kim family regime’s kleptocratic tyranny.

As the tragedy of Korean separation continues after seven decades, one remembers that the northern half of the Korean peninsula was once the cradle of the Korean Presbyterian Church. Prior to the communist takeover, the capital city of Pyongyang used to be known as the “Jerusalem of the East.” In North Korea, Christianity was once a way of life. Two churches on the same street corner were a common sight. However, in 1946, the North Korean People’s Committee forced the closure of churches with congregations that did not meet a certain predetermined number of attendees. The Committee began to forbid Protestant and Catholic in-house assemblies, and made Sunday a workday and Monday a rest day. Under the pretext that the sound of religious songs disturbed public life, the same Committee asked churches to relocate. Communist party agitators were inserted into Christian communities and church assemblies. They began criticizing the sermons as being “unprogressive.”

In North Korea, religious freedom went from restriction to suppression to violent obliteration. In a 1962 speech before the People’s Safety Agency, the North Korean secret political police, Kim Il-sung said:
“We cannot move towards a communist society with religious people. That is why we had to put on trial and punish those who hold positions of deacons or higher in Protestant or Catholic churches. Other undesirables among the religious people were also put on trial. Believers were given the choice to give up religion so they can get away with labor work. Those who did not were sent to prison camps.”
Soon after the establishment of the DPRK in 1948, according to the 1950 North Korean statistical yearbook, 22.2 percent of North Koreans were religious. In the second national human rights report submitted by the North Korean delegation to the UN Human Rights Council for review in July 2001, the delegation said that there was a total of about 38,000 religious believers in North Korea, including 10,000 Protestants, 3,000 Catholics, 10,000 Buddhists, and 15,000 Chondoists, a total of 0.2 percent of the population. It is estimated that there are about five Russian Orthodox churches as well. The cataclysmic drop from 22.2 to 0.2 percent happened swiftly. Over just a few years, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, North Korean Christians were imprisoned, executed, driven into exile, and Christianity almost went extinct. Violent repression of suspected underground Christians continues today. Even 0.2 percent official Christians is likely doctored data. The North Korean regime claims that a small percentage of Christians officially exists just to pay lip service to freedom of religion, for the consumption of audiences outside the country. In truth, Christianity has only survived underground, despite mortal danger. The Kim regime tries to appear before the international community as tolerating religion and guaranteeing religious freedom, while in reality it suppresses religion internally. Through this duplicitous policy, the Kim regime aims to deflect international criticism and seek economic aid. Such aid comes in particular from well-meaning Christian groups that often fail to understand the true nature of the Kim regime and its policy of human rights denial.

In truth, freedom of religion does not exist in North Korea, although Article 68 of the DPRK Constitution, revised on April 9, 2012, allows it on paper. The people of North Korea are not allowed the opportunity to read their own constitution. They do not have access to international human rights treaties that protect freedom of religion, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which North Korea acceded to in 1981.

According to the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), 99.6 percent of the North Korean escapees it interviewed responded that there was no religious freedom in North Korea. Fifty-five percent suffered detention in political prison camps as punishment for religious activities and responded that many of those detained were reportedly executed publicly.

Like other communist leaders before him, Kim Il-sung rejected religion as “the opium of the people.” Religious persecution was a common thread in the atheist ideology of Feuerbach, Marx, Engels, and in the policies of Lenin and Mao. But it is the Kim family regime that has taken religious persecution, in particular the persecution of Christians, to a level perhaps on a par with Nero’s Rome as well as the Assyrian, Greek, and Armenian genocide perpetrated during World War I.

In deceitful displays of “Potemkinism,” foreign visitors and residents of North Korea will be taken to so-called “Protestant” churches whose doors are chained on Easter Sunday and so-called “Catholic” Mass devoid of Holy Communion, holy water, or Catholic prayer. Dutiful soldiers of the regime will masquerade as ministers, priests, and parishioners, saying so-called “prayers” for Kim Jong-un and his regime and blasting American “imperialism.”

In North Korea, anyone suspected of being a Christian, of having a Christian family member, of associating with Christians, or even just of being exposed to the Christian faith is harshly punished. When North Korean escapees are arrested in China and forcibly repatriated to North Korea, in direct violation of China’s obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, they are aggressively interrogated, beaten, and tortured. North Korea’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) and Ministry of Public Security (MPS) ask them two questions, over and over and over again: “Did you come across any Christian missionaries while outside the country? Did you come across any South Koreans along the road of defection?”

Why does the Kim regime fear and resent Christianity so much? The answer lies in the nature of the regime. Kim Jong-un sits at the top of a post-communist, kleptocratic dynasty. The Kim family regime is a criminal organization masquerading as a sovereign state. This is not a criminal cartel. This is a regime that holds absolute crmonopoly on political power through oppression unparalleled in the contemporary world: indoctrination, information control, a policy of human rights denial, and prioritizing its apocalyptic weapons programs over the welfare and human security of its citizens. There are no challengers at home. The regime Kim Il-sung established in the late 1940s is a dark tyrannical apostate that discriminates against its own people based on their perceived degree of loyalty to the supreme leader.

There is a father, Kim Il-sung, a son, Kim Jong-il, and an unholy ghost, Kim Jong-un. There are even ten unholy commandments. The lives of North Koreans are guided by the“Ten Great Principles of the Monolithic Ideology System.” Once a week, every North Korean must participate in a “saeng-hwal-chong-hwa” mandatory self-criticism session. This dreadful practice involves confessing one’s perceived “sins” to others, denouncing others for their faults, and pledging unwavering loyalty to the regime of Kim Jong-un. The most loyal, the core class, are allowed to live in the capital city of Pyongyang, which looks like paradise when compared to the rest of the country. Suspected wrong-doers, wrong-thinkers, those who are suspected of having engaged in wrong associations or possessing wrong knowledge, especially those suspected of being Christian or having Christian leanings, are sent to the Kim regime’s inferno, its “kwan-li-so” political prison camps, where 120,000 men, women, and children, often times members of three generations of the same family, are imprisoned together, pursuant to “yeon-jwa-jae,” a system of guilt-by-association of feudal extraction. The remaining North Koreans remain trapped in the country’s “purgatory,” overwhelmed by chronic food, health, economic, environmental, personal, political, and community insecurity.

Christianity and free, democratic, prosperous South Korea constitute the only challenges to the Kim regime’s absolute monopoly on power. Christianity offers an alternative way of life that delegitimizes tyranny and transcends oppression. Despite mortal danger and overwhelming coercion, control, surveillance, and punishment, underground churches have been growing in North Korea, with the help of outside missionaries and churches. The underground church provides a venue for the free exchange of ideas. Its members desperately endeavor to escape the overwhelming control of North Korea’s three internal security agencies, their 270,000 agents, and their omnipresent informer networks. Underground North Korean Christians are now in the range of tens, if not hundreds of thousands. This is a small number for a population of 25 million, but Christianity is still surviving tyranny.

Public discourse and advocacy on North Korea have been focusing on markets and information. And those are true agents of transformation, slowly but surely eroding the regime’s grip on power. Yet, there is one more agent of change, and that is the growing underground church of North Korea. Brought to Korea by Catholic missionaries, kept alive by Korean Catholic laity, and dramatically expanded by American missionaries beginning in the 19th century, Christianity defined the identity of Korean people living in the north prior to the Soviet takeover in 1945. Ahead of their summit meetings with the North, Presidents Moon and Trump must remember that the oppressed people of North Korea deserve an opportunity to retrieve the identity taken from them seven decades ago. Just like the Colosseum, where Roman Christians were martyred, one day, the political prison camps of North Korea, where Christians have been starved, tortured, and slaughtered, must become holy sites after their liberation and dismantlement. Ahead of their summit meetings, the presidents of the United States and South Korea must remember that Pyongyang was once the “Jerusalem of the East.”

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