International Institute for Religious Freedom

Religious freedom violations in North Korea

The ability for constitutional freedoms to flourish and be respected is highly dependent on a nation’s political system.


By Naomi Eendragt

The ability for constitutional freedoms to flourish and be respected is highly dependent on a nation’s political system. It is no secret that democracies have a higher regard for constitutional freedoms and the promotion of human rights protection than authoritarian regimes.

North Korea is one of the longest-standing dictatorships in the world under the Rule of the Kim family. Their political system is a one-party state led by the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) supported by the military. Though their constitution guarantees the freedom of religious belief, in practice, citizens cannot appeal to the fulfillment of this right. Those who wish to practice their right more often than not face persecution. This was addressed in the webinar “Understanding religious freedom Violations in North Korea” held by KoreaFuture, an independent non-profit, non-governmental organization. Much of the information about the victims, the violations they endured, and their perpetrators were collected through a survey they conducted with former victims and escapees from North Korea.

In North Korea, the two most persecuted religious groups are Shamans and Christians. To date, Christians are the most systemically persecuted religious tradition in North Korea having experienced more than 70 years of persecution where their practices such as group devotions, facilitation, attendance of religious ceremonies outside of North Korean territory (mainly in China), and sacraments to religious objects such as bible or crucifixes pose a threat to their lives. Their religious practices are considered political crimes subjecting Christians to a more unfair due process and severe treatment where they are detained, sentenced or executed. Shamanism became an essential component of North Korea’s religious landscape following a period of famine and economic mismanagement known as the Arduous March in the 1990s. Individuals visit shamans (fortune tellers) for divination procuring magical healings. Because Shamanic practices are not considered political crimes, they experience a lighter, unfair still due process and treatment. Shamans are released from arbitrary detention more often than Christians. Their cases travel through the regular criminal justice system rather than a secret persecution system run by the ministry of state security. During detention, shamanic adherents reported having experienced one or more of the following violations: arbitrary deprivation of liberty, forced labor, denial of a fair trial, and torture or other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. Christian adherents reported similar violations but added refoulment and the denial of the right to life. They identified two organs as their main perpetrators: the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) and the Ministry of State Security (MSS).

Firstly, the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS). This state organization is subject to the workers of the Party of Korea’s control and to remove threats to the political system. e.g., God. As law enforcers, the criminal code legally obligates the MPS to arrest people conducting practices of shamanism (acts of superstition). In their criminal justice system, there is a denial of presumption of innocence, the absence of an independent judiciary, and the denial of access to legal aid, exacerbating the conditions of arbitrary deprivation of liberty. In the case of administrative penalties, Shamanic adherents were sentenced by non-judicial actors and without a trial. Individual public officials also commit violations, often physical, and conduct arrest without a warrant. The other organ is the Ministry of State Security (MSS), an intelligence agency entrusted with collecting information about potential domestic threats to the North Korean political system. They are purposely concerned with the identification and arrest of citizens who adhere to Christianity. They operate in secret, maintain a penal facility, prosecution department, a court system, and are commonly associated with North Korean political prison camps. Some foreign visitors through China experienced hostility at the sense of a Christian-like demeanor. There is no accountability from North Korea’s state organizations and public officials. North Korea is in clear violation of many international laws and conventions: the UDHR and convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, among others. However, it is difficult to bring a case before the international court due to Russian and Chinese influence in North Korea and the absence of their signature of the Rome statute. To the issue of accountability, KoreaFuture proposed the following recommendations:

  1. National governments (US, Canada, EU, UN) and grant-making organizations should support civil society with funding to disseminate information into North Korea. Concerning individual accountability for international crimes and human rights violations, including and the international community’s obligations to future justice.
  2. The paths to justice for North Korea must be varied to overcome the potential shutout of any one particular accountability mechanism.
  3. Prioritize the gathering and preservation of linkage evidence to a criminal law standard that can lay the legal foundation for a range of future efforts to hold perpetrators to account.
  4. Targeted sanctions should be imposed on individual perpetrators and state organizations who are responsible for serious human rights violations.