The freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right. The ERLC consistently upholds its commitment in the Southern Baptist Convention’s summary of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message, that “A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.” The right to believe, practice, and live according to one’s own religious faith is an innate human right of all people. While nearly all modern societies reflect this foundational truth of conscience freedom, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea does not.
International law upholds the importance of freedom of religion and belief. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 18, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” In addition to this important declaration, numerous other international treaties provide similar protections for religious freedom such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea does not afford its citizens the freedom of religion and belief. Although there are three Protestant churches, one Catholic church, and one Russian Orthodox church in the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang, they are little more than a state-sponsored façade. The reality of religion in the DPRK is best seen in Kim Jong-un’s demand for total allegiance to himself from the North Korean people. The DPRK constitution does not allow religious freedom because the constitution bars any religious ideology from posing a threat to the political status quo. In practice, DPRK government officials completely suppress the religious beliefs of their citizens.
Christians and other religious believers in North Korea face the most severe persecution of any religious minorities in the world. The government does not tolerate those who lead a spiritual life or practice a religion other than total allegiance to its own governing authority. Christians face especially severe punishment because this faith practice is seen as a subversive tool for foreign intervention. Christians are socially and economically ostracized by propaganda efforts and denied access to education, food, and healthcare.
Prayer, worship, congregating, and possessing sacred texts are severely penalized with torture and imprisonment. One news agency estimates there are between 200,000 to 500,000 Christians in the country, of which 50,000 to 70,000 are imprisoned in labor and concentration camps. North Korean defectors testify to the appalling, violent torture endured by Christians from the hands of government authority. The torture of Christians and other religious minorities is routine and ongoing, as is their execution at the hands of the regime for practicing their religious beliefs.
The international community must prioritize the opposition of the egregious religious freedom violations propagated by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea government. Religious freedom is a right that goes to the very center of what it means to be human. While other rights like freedom of expression and assembly protect religious freedom, the oppression of this fundamental right denies the North Korean people the opportunity to pursue the answer to life’s most fundamental questions. Various human rights groups, journalists, and North Korean defectors witnessed and testified to the heinous violations of human rights, especially the abuse of religious people across the DPRK. The ERLC affirms “the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men,” as stated in the Baptist Faith & Message. The international community must continue to stand firm in favor of this right everywhere, and specifically in North Korea.
The ERLC is committed to seeing an end of all persecution in North Korea and will work to prevent the Kim regime from persecuting Christians. The messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention spoke to this critical moment in the 2019 SBC Resolution, “On Religious Persecution And Human Rights Violations In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Protecting the religious freedom of all Koreans as well as other basic human rights are top priorities of the ERLC. We will continue to collaborate with United States government leaders as well as the international community to end the egregious oppression of religious freedom and the violations of human rights in North Korea.