New Report on Religious Persecution in North Korea Demands Immediate Action from Biden, Says Rep. Smith
The senior member of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee said Tuesday that the newest report from the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) “makes it absolutely clear” that there has been no improvement in the human rights situation in North Korea and that the Biden administration “must take immediate action.”
“With citizens of North Korea living in some of the most brutal and oppressive conditions in the world, the Biden administration must take immediate action and appoint a Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) in statement, referring to a position mandated by the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 that has been vacant since 2017.
In the latest report by USCIRF, titled “Freedom of Religion, Thought, and Conscience in North Korea,” the commission highlighted how North Korea’s ongoing religious freedom violations are driven by the highly organized efforts of the country’s ruling party to enforce an ideology centered on its past “Supreme Leaders” — the late Kim Il-sung and the late Kim Jong-il.
The report, released last Friday, draws on evidence from different sets of interviews conducted from late 2019 to early 2022 with survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators of religious freedom violations in North Korea. In particular, the most recent set of interviews conducted early this year sought to understand the role of propaganda and state-sponsored coercion in the perpetration of systematic and ongoing violations.
Among the highlights of the new report:
- In lessons at school, students are taught about the “evils” of religion and superstitions, and this messaging is reinforced through a multitude of materials, including stories and movies.
- In higher education, instruction on the North Korean state’s ideological system, referred to as “Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism,” continues through twice-weekly study sessions and lectures on the words and teachings of North Korea’s “Supreme Leader.” Warnings against religious belief are delivered during these meetings through presentations of case studies featuring individuals arrested for engaging in “Acts of Superstition.”
- Penalties for noncompliance can result in a forced labor sentence or more severe forms of penal sanction, but an apparent lack of ideological fervor is a sufficient early warning sign that is met with punitive measures.
“USCIRF has done a great job exposing the extent to which the North Korean regime forces people to essentially treat Kim Jong-un like a god,” remarked Arielle Del Turco, assistant director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Religious Liberty, referring to North Korea’s current “Supreme Leader.” “The regime’s enforcement of Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism is a grave assault against the North Korean people’s human rights and against their human dignity.”
Del Turco noted how difficult it is to get news out of North Korea, where the internet is simply not available to citizens and access by foreign news media is severely restricted.
“And the challenges seem so insurmountable there that it can be easy to overlook the situation there,” she told The Washington Stand. “But for Christians, we know these people are made in the image of God and many of them are suffering due to their faith in Christ. It is our duty to remember them in prayer and demand that our elected representatives remember them when crafting foreign policy.”
According to the persecution watchdog group Open Doors USA, the North Korean government views Christians as the most dangerous political class of people, and any North Korean caught following Jesus Christ is at immediate risk of imprisonment, brutal torture, and death. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians are imprisoned in North Korea’s notorious system of prisons and labor camps. For more than 20 years, North Korea has been at or near the top of the Open Doors’ annual World Watch List of top countries where it is most difficult to follow Jesus. This year, it ranks No. 2.
“The government of North Korea is a totalitarian, Stalinist regime whose dictator Kim Jong-Eun demands idolatrous reverence and brainwashes citizens into following a cult of personality,” stated Smith, who serves as co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and as the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Global Human Rights.
Smith said it is encouraging to see neighboring South Korea’s recent appointment of an ambassador-at-large on North Korean human rights issues. Lee Shin-hwa, a political science professor at Korea University, was appointed envoy for North Korean human rights on Thursday, filling a post that had been vacant for nearly five years.
Since March 2021, Smith and some of his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives have been urging the Biden administration to fill the role of the U.S. Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights Issues — a position that was established by the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. Filling the position is among the items included in the North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2022, which was introduced in the House this past March. The bipartisan bill, HR 7332, would reauthorize, update, and improve the North Korean Human Rights Act. The bill is being sponsored by Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.) and co-sponsored by Smith, Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), and Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.).
Kenneth Chan is Director of Communications at Family Research Council and serves as an editor at The Washington Stand.