They are forced to “literally choose between life and death,” says a North Korean refugee.
No last-minute second thoughts. The much-awaited summit between American president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took place on Tuesday, June 12, in the city-state of Singapore. As scheduled, the two heads of state met at 9 a.m. local time at the exclusive Capella Hotel—a six-star establishment—on the island of Sentosa.
The historic face-to-face meeting, with the equally historic handshake, arrived after 65 years of nearly frozen relations between the two countries, and is destined to inaugurate a new phase in the relations between Pyongyang and Washington.
This meeting has already born its first fruit; the two leaders signed a document in which they declare that they will “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” The agreement between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea also vows to “work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Sant’Egidio and Pope Francis
The Community of Sant’Egidio has welcomed “with great satisfaction” the agreement signed in Singapore by Trump and Kim. “The decision to finally reach nuclear disarmament in this strategic region of Asia not only gives hope for a definitive end to the weighty inheritance left by the Cold War, but it is also important for peace in the entire world,” reads a declaration published on the web page of the Sant’Egidio Community, which has always been committed to the service of peace. Sant’Egidio, which speaks of a “significant step forward towards a more general reduction of arsenals,” is confident that the agreement can facilitate “greatly the progress and resolution of many difficulties,” starting with the most disadvantaged sectors of the North Korean population.
The Catholic world, and in particular Pope Francis, has waited for this moment with anticipation. On various occasions, the Pontiff has called for peace in the region. Just two days ago, on the occasion of the Angelus on Sunday, June 10, Jorge Bergoglio invited the faithful to pray for the success of the talks. “I want to send to the beloved Korean people a special thought in friendship and prayer. May the talks that will take place in the coming days in Singapore contribute to the development of a positive path, that can assure a peaceful future for the Korean Peninsula and for the entire world,” he said. “For this, we pray to the Lord. Let us all pray together to Our Lady, the Queen of Korea, that she may accompany these talks.”
In his heart, the Pope was surely thinking of the persecuted Christians in North Korea. The “Hermit Kingdom,” as it is often called due to its nearly hermetic closure to a great part of the rest of the world, has, in fact, a terrible reputation regarding human rights in general, and religious freedom in particular. For the past 17 years, North Korea has lead the annual list of the most difficult places in the world to be Christian, drawn up by the Christian missionary agency Open Doors.
A report published in 2008 by USCIRF, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, unhesitatingly defines North Korea as “a prison without bars.”
In 2013, the United Nations decided to institute the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or CoIDPRK, in order to “investigate systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in the country.
In its final report, made public in February 2014, the commission unhesitatingly accuses the Pyongyang regime of “crimes against humanity.” The document describes the North Korean situation as “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association” (No. 26).
The North Korean State, according to the report, “operates an all-encompassing indoctrination machine” (No. 27) and considers the spread of Christianity “a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the State” (No. 31).
“Apart from the few organized State-controlled churches,” the report continues, “Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted. People caught practising Christianity are subject to severe punishments in violation of the right to freedom of religion and the prohibition of religious discrimination.”
The “kwanliso” camps
Those who are caught—it’s enough to be in possession of a copy of the Bible, considered a particularly grave crime —risk ending up in a reeducation camp or in one of the infamous labor camps (kwanliso), which are “perhaps even worse” than the Nazi regime’s concentration camps.
This is the opinion of none other than a survivor of the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen, judge Thomas Buergenthal, who collaborated on drawing up the report of the International Bar Association War Committee on North Korean prison camps, published in 2017 under the title Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Political Prisons. “There is not a comparable situation anywhere in the world, past or present,” said another author of the report, South African judge Navi Pillay. “This is really an atrocity at the maximum level, where the whole population is subject to intimidation,” added Pillay, who formerly presided over the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Currently, between 80,000 and 130,000 North Koreans—Open Doors speaks of up to 250,000 prisoners, including 50,000 Christians—are being held in shocking conditions in these camps, according to the authors of this document, who have collected a great number of testimonies, including some from former prison guards and former prisoners who have managed to escape. “Christians are heavily persecuted and receive especially harshl treatment in prison camps,” says the report, because they are considered “reactionaries” and therefore to be “wiped out,” according to a former prison guard.
But, how many Christians are there (still) in the country? According to the file on North Korea drawn up by the well-known foundation of pontifical right Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the few statistics available regarding the number of religious believers in the country “are impossible to verify.”
According to the International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 of the U.S. State Department, the United Nations estimates that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 Christians in the country, and the non-denominational organization Cornerstone Ministries International (CMI) claims to be in contact with 37,000 practicing Christians.
The U.N. commission on North Korea estimates that the percentage of people who are adherents of a religion has dropped in that country from 24 percent around 1950, the year in which the Korean War broke out, to nearly zero, or 0.016 percent, in 2002.
Regarding the number of places of worship in North Korea, these sources say that there are five churches in the capital city of Pyongyang, all rigorously controlled by the authorities: three Protestant churches, one Catholic church, and lastly, one Orthodox church. In addition, according to the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), there are 60 Buddhist temples and 52 Cheondoist temples (Cheondoism is a syncretistic religion that brings together elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, shamanism, and even Christianity).
It is not, therefore, difficult to understand why, in 2001, the USA qualified North Korea as a “country of particular concern” (CPC). This unflattering term is given to countries that are guilty of particularly grave violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998.
Now, it remains to be seen if the Singapore summit will manage to change anything in Pyongyang’s policy towards believers in general and Christians in particular. The latter, under Kim Jong-un’s regime, must “literally choose between life and death,” according to a North Korean fugitive from a labor camp, quoted by Open Doors.
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