NASHVILLE (BP) — The Southern Baptist Convention’s adoption of a resolution this summer on “religious persecution and human rights violations in North Korea” has coincided with what the resolution’s originator calls a renewed international challenge to the nation.
North Korea — named by persecution watchdog Open Doors as the world’s worst persecutor of Christians for the past 13 years — has sent thousands of Christians to its political prison camps, estimated at 50,000-70,000 by Open Doors. The SBC resolution, meanwhile, notes that “an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Christians in North Korea remain at grave risk of persecution.”
Daniel Aum, a Southern Baptist who submitted the resolution’s initial draft to the SBC Resolutions Committee, told Baptist Press there has been “a tremendous momentum swing” related to North Korea among U.S. and foreign leaders. He said the SBC resolution has been presented to members of Congress as they consider legislation calling for investigation and sanction of North Korea’s human rights violations — the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2015 (H.R. 757).
“Discussion in the U.S. and around the world was primarily focused on the North Korean nuclear question,” said Aum, an attorney and fellow with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, an organization with offices in Washington, New York and Florence, Italy. But a 2014 report on North Korea by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry has “galvanized the U.S. government. It’s galvanized the South Korean government. It’s moved the international community,” Aum said.
Nine areas of human rights abuses, including torture and inhumane treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention and violations of the right to life, were documented in the Report of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is referenced in the SBC resolution.
The “landmark report,” Aum said, “elevated the North Korean human rights issue to a place where it can no longer be denied” or “discounted.” In its emphasis on human rights, Aum said the report has become “one of the more effective weapons to apply pressure to North Korea.”
North Korea exhibited a “dramatically new approach” following the report’s release by saying it “accepted” some previous U.N. human rights recommendations, according to 38 North, a website devoted to analysis of North Korea, which noted the nation’s prior refusal “to accept any of the proffered recommendations for improving human rights … made by other governments.”
Two Americans accused of anti-state crimes against North Korea — Kenneth Bae, who had been held for two years, and Jeffrey Fowle, who had been held for six months — were freed several months after the U.N. report’s publication.
A report by the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas called the U.N. report “a manifestation of the growing global awareness of the magnitude of human injustice in North Korea.” After decades of regarding human rights discussion as “at best, a distraction, or at worst, a detriment to denuclearization negotiations,” U.S. officials “should consider a Rights Up-Front approach in [their] negotiations with North Korea,” according to the Bush Institute report.
“Pressing on human rights may actually elicit cooperation from the North on the nuclear issue as a way for Pyongyang to deflect pressure,” the Bush Institute said.
SBC messengers, in the resolution adopted during the convention’s annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio, “appeal[ed] to [dictator] Kim Jong Un and the government of North Korea to respect and ensure human rights for all individuals as obligated both by biblical teaching and the international covenants to which it is a State Party.”
The resolution “urge[d] President Barack Obama and both houses of the US Congress to do all they can to pressure the government of North Korea to respect the dignity and religious freedom of all its citizens” and called for prayer “that God will turn the heart of Kim Jong Un to Himself and that President Kim might grant to all the people of North Korea the respect they deserve as God’s creation.”
Aum said North Korea’s torture of political prisoners has included pulling out their fingernails, pouring boiling water down their throats, burning them and forcing pregnant women to have abortions. Repeat offenders can face immediate execution by firing squad, he said.
Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean history at Columbia University, told BP in written comments, “Christians seem to be particular targets of oppression, not so much because the regime is anti-religion (although that is part of it) but because Christianity is closely associated with the American ‘enemy.'”
The North Korean constitution “guarantees freedom of religion, believe it or not, but this freedom is secondary to national security — and Christianity almost by definition is a national security risk, from the North Korean government’s point of view,” Armstrong, who was raised in a Southern Baptist church, said in written comments.
“This is especially ironic,” Armstrong continued, “because the founding leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, was raised in a devout Presbyterian household and Pyongyang was once the center of Protestant Christianity in all of Korea.”
Armstrong advocated support of relief organizations that deliver food and medicine to needy North Koreans. But “in the long run,” he said, “only a fundamental change in the political system can resolve the human rights problem.”
Paul Kim, Asian American adviser to the SBC Executive Committee, told BP he prays that the Christian missions movement can make strategic inroads as it shares the Gospel with lost North Korean citizens.
“There is no freedom, and there is persecution” in North Korea, said Kim, pastor emeritus of Antioch Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass. “That’s the reality of North Korea and China. There is always persecution. Christians are underground.”
Aum recommends that American believers concerned for North Korea raise awareness within their circles of influence, pray and ask their members of Congress to pressure North Korea to stop violating human rights.
Prayer “often gets lost even inside the faith-based human rights circles,” Aum said. “We spend a lot of time strategizing, planning, implementing. But we often forget that this battle is not merely a battle of flesh and bones but of the Spirit.”