What's Missing in U.S. Policy Towards North Korea?
Ryan Morgan, Regional Manager for Southeast Asia
International Christian Concern
Since 2006, U.S. policy towards the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (DPRK) has been focused almost entirely on attempting to deter the Kim family regime from developing nuclear weapons. While this is understandably a very serious concern, the exclusive focus of U.S. attention on this issue has drawn attention away from decades of human rights violations described last month by a United Nations commission as comparable to atrocities committed under the Nazi regime.
One of the often overlooked human rights issues facing North Korea's 24.7 million citizens is a complete ban on any semblance of religious freedom. While North Korea's constitution technically provides for religious liberty, in reality, adherents of various faiths are almost entirely repressed, with many facing imprisonment or execution for attempting to practice their faith. Open Doors, a U.S.-based non-profit that assists persecuted Christians, believes that anywhere from 50,000 - 70,000 of the DPRK's estimated 200,000 political prisoners are Christians arrested for their religious identity.
The globally unparalleled level of hostility demonstrated by the DPRK towards people of faith is partially explained by the governing ideology underpinning the Kim family regime, which has ruled since 1946.
This ideology, known as "juche," in essence deifies the members of the Kim family as the driving force behind social stability and progress. Religion, and especially Christianity with its focus on the preeminence of Christ, is considered a serious threat to this ideology and the regime itself.
Several incidents in recent years have also highlighted the North Korean government's deep suspicion of foreign religious workers and a willingness to detain or even attempt to murder these workers. A few, but not all, of these incidents include:
- August 21st, 2011 - South Korean Pastor Patrick Kim collapses on the streets of Beijing and is pronounced dead soon after. The Los Angeles Times reports his death is suspected to be the result of a poisoned needle attack carried out by North Korean agents, who also allegedly attempted to assassinate another South Korean missionary on August 22nd.
- November. 3rd, 2012 - Kenneth Bae, an American citizen and missionary leading a legal tour group in Rason, North Korea, is arrested by North Korean authorities. Despite several requests for his release from the State Department, Kenneth is sentenced to 15 years of manual labor for allegedly attempting to "overthrow" the North Korean regime.
- October, 2013 - Kim Jung-wook, a Baptist missionary, is arrested in North Korea and accused of spying for the South. On February 27th, Kim speaks at a news conference in Pyongyang and "confesses" to spying, a charge South Korean intelligence agencies flatly deny. Soon after, more than 30 North Korean citizens are arrested in connection with Kim's case and are said to be facing possible execution for "conspiring" with him to set up underground churches.
- February 16th, 2014 - John Short, a 75-year-old Australian missionary, is detained for passing out religious literature while on a legal tour of Pyongyang. He is interrogated daily for thirteen days until North Korean authorities force John to sign a confession apologizing for his "crimes." John was deported to Beijing on March 3rd.
These incidents, and a myriad of other cases, demonstrate the critical need for a comprehensive U.S. policy towards North Korea that encompasses not just human rights, but religious freedom. Future talks with the DPRK and any discussion of lifting of sanctions must not be allowed to focus exclusively on concessions made concerning North Korea's nuclear program.
While opinions differ on best practices, it appears that, in most cases, staunch and persistent advocacy by the State Department and members of congress is extremely helpful in securing the release of prisoners of conscience from the DPRK.
For interviews, contact Ryan Morgan, Regional Manager for Southeast Asia: RM-SEAsia@persecution.org
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