by TONY KIM
North Korea staunchly denied the veracity of a U.S. State Department report that criticized the isolated country for its “absolute prohibition of religious organizations” and “harsh punishments for any unauthorized religious activities.”
Though the U.S. report assessing international religious freedom is more than a year old, the North’s state-run news agency just this week launched into a tirade against the U.S. for its “hypocrisy” and insisted that North Korean citizens enjoy constitutional rights to practice religion freely.
The U.S. Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, released in April of 2013, didn’t mince words about what it characterized as North Korea’s oppressive restrictions on religious activities, alleging that citizens affiliated with missionaries are severely punished and even executed.
But in response, North Korea’s government on Tuesday went as far as uploading a video to its state-controlled YouTube channel Uriminzokkiri that profiled the newly renovated Chilgol Church, which Pyongyang claims allows Christians to freely worship. A minister surnamed Baek says in the video, “Many Christians come from South Korea and overseas to come to Chilgol Church. We have become a church that does good deeds for the reconciliation and unification between both Koreas.”
North Korea goes on to state how America has acted as a deterrent to religious freedom because its military bombed over 1,900 churches during the Korean War. It also accused the U.S. of fabricating such allegations in an attempt to damage North Korea’s reputation.
“Innumerable are the crimes committed by the U.S. in violation of religions in different parts of the world,” KCNA, North Korea’s state news agency, reported. “Former U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other reactionary ruling quarters of the U.S. worked with blood-shot eyes to crack down on Islam and bring down the social systems in Islamic countries under the pretext of ‘war on terror,’ not content with describing Islam as fascism.”
In the same broadcast, the North pledged to severely punish those committing “crimes against the law of the DPRK under the mask of religion.”
This statement seemed to apply to recent cases involving foreign missionaries like Kenneth Bae and John Short, who have been detained in the North for attempting to proselytize within the country. Short, an Australian, was released in March, but Bae, a Korean American Christian missionary from Washington state, is serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor after being convicted of allegedly planning to “bring down the government” through religious activities. He has been detained there for two years.
While North Korea’s constitution apparently guarantees religious freedom, Ji Min Kang, a North Korean escapee and contributor to the U.S.-based website NK News, said it’s quite another story in reality. “The basic principles of North Korean socialism are strongly opposed to and incompatible with religious beliefs,” he wrote in an article for NK News.
Kang goes on to state that while the presence of internationally prevalent religions like Islam and Christianity is very limited, folk religion and fortune telling are ingrained into their culture. Despite limited effort through propaganda to discourage fortune-telling activities, they are still very popular and even rumored to have drawn North Korean leaders also to participate.
Kang concludes, however, that although shamanism and folk religion may be prevalent in North Korea’s society, the one religion that citizens are obligated to follow is the ideology of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-Sung.
Photo of Chilgol Church in North Korea, via NK News.