WASHINGTON (BP) — A bipartisan panel has urged the Obama administration to place religious liberty and other human rights at the center of its relations with North Korea as the brutally repressive regime transitions to new leadership.
The appeal came barely a week before North Korea’s communist dictatorship was named Jan. 4 by the organization Open Doors as the world’s worst persecutor of Christians for the 10th consecutive year.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) made its appeal to the administration in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The letter from USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo called on the federal government to promote “an agenda that gives a prominent place to the protection of human rights, including the freedom of religion and belief, as well as the provision of humanitarian assistance and the protection of North Korean refugees.”
The Dec. 27 letter came 10 days after the death of Kim Jong Il, whose 17-year rule was marked by a reign of terror against the North Korean people, especially Christians. Kim Jong Eun, who is reportedly in his late 20s, has succeeded his father, who apparently had been grooming the youngest of his three sons to take over for little more than a year.
In his letter, USCIRF’s Leo urged the United States to demonstrate to North Korea that “measurable, significant progress” on religious liberty and other human rights is a vital part of relations between the countries. He also called for the Obama administration to speak “publicly and consistently” about not only religious liberty but refugee and humanitarian issues. The letter also encouraged the U.S. government to ensure North Koreans know this country and others are burdened about their rights.
North Korea is not only communist, but it is dominated by a personality cult surrounding the Kim family. The late Kim Il Sung and his now-deceased son, Kim Jong Il, ruled over the country for a combined 63 years, and North Koreans are expected to worship them.
The Kim family, the military and an elite class have prospered while most North Koreans have suffered through a severe famine since the mid-1990s. It is estimated 2 million or more North Koreans have starved to death while the regime developed a rogue nuclear program and built up its military.
Leo included the following in recommendations to the Obama administration at a time he described as “an important opening for clear U.S. leadership”:
— It should make clear to North Korea that “future political, diplomatic, or economic” incentives will be based on improving human rights and nuclear security.
— It should “strongly urge” China to stop forcing North Korean refugees to return to their home country, where they face abuse and imprisonment.
— It should seek to use technologies that can reach North Koreans with the message that the U.S. and others “will work on behalf of the North Korean people’s desire for security, peace, and freedom.”
Former North Korean refugees have testified that secret religious practice — as well as the government’s attempt to suppress it — is increasing, Leo said. “Anyone discovered engaging in clandestine religious activity is subject to discrimination, arrest, arbitrary detention, disappearance, torture, and public execution. At least three public executions have occurred during the past year,” he wrote.
North Korea has become known as the world’s most closed country and likely its most repressive regime. It also could be the most vicious in its persecution of Christians.
As many as 200,000 North Koreans reportedly are in prison camps, and an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 are Christians, according to Open Doors. Both Open Doors and the U.S. State Department report that religious adherents generally are treated worse than other prisoners. Extreme forms of torture and execution, as well as forced abortion and infanticide, have been reported in the camps, according to USCIRF.
Yet, the church is growing in North Korea, with about 400,000 followers of Jesus among its 20 million people, according to Open Doors, which serves the persecuted church worldwide.
“How the death of [Kim Jong Il] last month and the coming to power of his son [Kim Jong Eun] will affect the status of Christians in North Korea is hard to determine at this early stage,” Open Doors USA President Carl Moeller said in a written statement. “Certainly the situation for believers remains perilous. Please pray with me that the Lord will open up North Korea and there will be religious freedom to worship the One, true God, not the gods” of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
After North Korea, Open Doors’ top 10 list of countries where Christians are most severely persecuted consists of Islamic-majority ones: 2) Afghanistan, 3) Saudi Arabia, 4) Somalia, 5) Iran, 6) the Maldives, 7) Uzbekistan, 8) Yemen, 9) Iraq and 10) Pakistan.
USCIRF is a nine-member commission that advises the White House, State Department and Congress on the status of religious freedom overseas. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a USCIRF member.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.