North Korea: Christians Suffer as Political Prisioners

Friday, January 10, 2003

By Elizabeth Kendal
Special to ASSIST News Service

NORTH KOREA (ANS) -- Hwang Jang-yop was once a spokesman for late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il. He has lived under the protection of South Korean intelligence since becoming the most senior defector from the North in 1997. AFP quotes Hwang as saying, "The suffering and pain of the North Korean people under the current dictatorial regime are much more severe and tragic than what we experienced during the 36 year colonial rule by the Japanese or what we went through during the Korean War."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a report entitled "The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People's Republic of China," November 2002. The HRW report makes no mention of religious freedom or religious persecution. Presumably HRW assumes that all readers understand that religious belief and expression is a serious political crime in North Korea.

The HRW report, particularly sections II. "The Migrant's Story: Contours of Human Rights Abuse," and III. "A Well-founded Fear: Punishment and Labor Camps in North Korea," is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the suffering of Christians in North Korea. It is estimated that some 100,000 Christians are political prisoners in this nation that was once a land of revival, whose capital, Pyongyang, was once known as "the Jerusalem of the East."

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report covers all areas of experience, from escaped prisoners, defecting guards, and starving economic migrants. Through testimonies, it exposes the intolerable oppression and suffering in North Korea, the horrific, inhumane conditions in prison camps, the dangers involved in escape (such as the trafficking of women), the risks involved in assisting escapees (such as imprisonment), and the consequences for escapees who are caught and returned (imprisonment, torture and death). The report also looks at the responsibilities of China and the International community and offers recommendations.

When North Korean refugee Soon-Ok Lee testified before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on 24 January 2002, she made it very clear that Christians were regarded as "political criminals". Soon-Ok Lee said that hundreds of the 6,000 inmates in the prison camp in which she was held were there because they were Christians. She said that guards would tell the Christians they could save their lives and be freed if they would refuse to worship God and instead worship Kim Il Sung, the deceased founder of the Marxist regime. She also said that Christians were regularly singled out for the most extreme treatment and toughest punishments. It was the love, grace and steadfast faith of North Korean Christian prisoners in the midst of the most extreme suffering that drew Soon-Ok Lee to Jesus.


From the testimony of a former prison guard: (page 22)
"They investigated whether the repatriated people had any relationship with South Korea. If a person met South Koreans or reporters or wrote articles, or attended church or escaped after committing a crime in North Korea, they would be secretly killed, without even God knowing."

From the testimony of a refugee: (page 24)

"When we (HRW) asked if he had learned anything (about China or South Korea) from broadcasts, he denied watching foreign programs: 'Even watching Chinese television can be punished if discovered. If a person is found listening to South Korean broadcasting, he could be punished in a political prison or executed.' He recalled that such an execution had happened to a worker in his prefecture."

From the testimony of a former prison guard in a political prison:
(pages 24,25)

"The basic diet was soy sauce, a little fat, cornmeal, some salt water, and perhaps some kimchee (fermented cabbage). Men and women are separated, sometimes with 300 to 400 people sleeping crowded into one room, unable to stretch their legs.

"Those who attempted to escape were held in a separate place. They were often hung on the wall all day long. Sometimes their hands were tied behind their back and they were hung on the wall for three to seven days.

"If it was a political prisoner, his hands would be broken right after he was sent to the prison of the National Security Office. They would then be interrogated. During this, they would not be able to move at all. I witnessed these types of atrocities quite often."

From the testimony of a former prisoner: (page 25)

"It was a savage's life, even though people there still had the minds of human beings. I cannot tell vividly enough how it was to be beaten. When our family moved there (prison), we were surrounded by one hundred people and beaten. The police led people to beat us -- newcomers must be broken in spirit this way. There are also professional 'beaters' at the town hall. They bring people there to be beaten who disobeyed the rules. Officials beat so harshly that many of those people became disabled, or their legs were paralysed, or they died.

"In these places, there are no human rights at all for women. What they call sexual harassment in South Korea is nothing. What was going on was beyond description. Everything is exposed; it was nothing to have sex openly. It may be better when a man is married, but as for women, they can't protect themselves in that situation."

From the testimony of a former imprisoned official: (page 27)

"The 606 camp was designated for officials charged with economic and political crimes. Conditions were harsh and inmates were treated much like to political prisoners, with no visitors allowed. He gave the following chilling account:

'During my stay there, 1,200 people were sent to the facility and I saw only seven people who left without physical injury or harm. Many people died because of an epidemic, and many others were shot to death. The facility generally released people when they believed that the person would no longer survive. Many of the detainees suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis or other diseases.

'There were about three hundred people in the camp, with a group of thirty in each room. About one hundred people were sent each month, and about ten people were dead every day. If someone didn't receive one meal per day, he would be so weak from starvation that he could not move properly. Since there were no coffins, they put the bodies on a plank and carried them to a hill and buried them.

'I cannot describe the situation properly. Can you imagine expecting the person next to you to die, and when the person dies, taking the corpse's clothing off and wearing it? Since the roof leaks on rainy days, the mattress is always wet. Lice are crawling all over the corpses, but the inmates use the blankets of dead people as soon as they die.'"

From the testimony of a woman who escaped North Korea, became a Christian in China, and then returned to North Korea to find her daughter in order to bring her out. According to HRW she "broke down several times as she related the ordeal": (page 10)

"I knew that after leaving North Korea and living in China, every step was dangerous. I was almost captured several times while staying at the hotel, being assisted by the church. I came to realize that God or some divine power existed after experiencing life [in China], even though it was not a very long period. So without that belief, I could not have gone back. When I crossed (the Tuman River), the water came up to my neck! I don't swim very well, and I was scared -- the water was black from flooding. Miraculously, someone came up in front of me and helped me across."


1. "North Korean defector savages Kim Jong Il regime" AFP 4 December 2002

2. Human Rights Watch -- "The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People's Republic of China," November 2002, Vol.14, No. 8 (C)