The freedom to practice and live one’s faith or belief is a fundamental human right, yet this basic liberty remains under threat in many parts of the world. Nowhere is this truer than in North Korea, where religious freedom is virtually non-existent. The gravity of this situation extends far beyond North Korea’s borders, serving as both a warning and a call to action for the global community.
The 2023 annual report published by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) consistently ranks North Korea among the worst offenders of religious persecution. This is not merely a matter of the state discouraging religious practices in North Korea; Human Rights Watch, in its reporting, explained how it involves extrajudicial killings, forced labor camps, and numerous other atrocities inflicted on citizens merely for their religious beliefs. For a country once home to a thriving Christian community – with Pyongyang once hailed as the “Jerusalem of the East” – such repressive measures underscore a grave regression in human rights.
The broader implication for the global community is twofold. First, North Korea serves as a stark reminder of the lengths to which authoritarian regimes can go to suppress freedoms when unchecked. Second, it highlights the interconnectedness of human rights. Religious freedom is anchored in the first principles that recognize every individual’s inherent dignity and worth, allowing them to pursue truth and live according to their convictions. By honoring the sanctity of conscience and personal belief, religious freedom underscores the foundational principle that any government does not grant human rights but is innate and universal.
Given the enormity of the challenge, here are ways in which the international community can respond:
- Raise Global Awareness: Governments and NGOs must prioritize awareness campaigns about the plight of religious minorities in North Korea. The power of international public opinion, shaped by media coverage and grassroots movements, can exert significant pressure on offending regimes.
- Prioritize in Diplomacy: Major world powers must ensure that human rights and religious freedoms are integral to their diplomatic engagements with North Korea. While nuclear disarmament is crucial, sidelining human rights issues sends a dangerous message.
- Leverage International Bodies: The U.S. Department of State, Office of International Religious Freedom, and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights are just two bodies that can play a pivotal role. Mechanisms such as the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and Universal Periodic Review can be used to hold North Korea accountable for its human rights record.
- Support NGOs on the Frontlines: NGOs like the Global Peace Foundation and the International Religious Freedom Secretariat have been instrumental in providing platforms to highlight, educate, and advocate for all who are victimized. Such support can amplify their impact around the globe.
- Sanctions and Accountability: Targeted sanctions against specific North Korean officials responsible for religious freedom violations can act as deterrents. The Global Magnitsky Act, which targets human rights abusers with financial sanctions, is an effective model.
- Protection for Defectors: North Korean defectors, many of whom have firsthand accounts of religious persecution, can be vital sources of information. Ensuring their safety and preventing their forced repatriation is crucial. The North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2023 will continue to aid victims by providing eligible North Koreans political asylum in the U.S., protecting North Korean refugees, helping those in need, and promoting the Human Rights of North Koreans.
The religious freedom crisis in North Korea is not just a North Korean issue – it’s a global one. It’s a testament to the price of silence and inaction. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The global community must rally, unite purposefully, and ensure that the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief is upheld everywhere, especially in the darkest corners of our world.