By Courtney Mares
A prisoner held in a cell in North Korea for two months noticed a distinctive pattern of behavior among some of the fellow detainees who called themselves Christians.
They “would pray in the corner of the cell that was hidden from the CCTV camera … They would escape a beating if their prayers went undetected by the correctional officers, but they would be beaten if they were caught,” the former prisoner testified.
“On one occasion when they were caught praying, they were beaten every morning for 20 consecutive days,” the witness said.
This is one of many eyewitness accounts of Christian practice and persecution in the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea documented in a new report published on Oct. 27.
The report by Korea Future is the result of interviews with North Korean defectors conducted between November 2019 and August 2021.
It offers details on the detention and torture of North Korean Christians in the past decade, including documented human rights violations that occurred as recently as 2019.
The NGO found multiple cases where a person was arrested for being in possession of a Bible.
In one case, a young woman arrested for having a Bible was “beaten with a wooden stick until a superior intervened after hearing the victim screaming,” while in the custody of the North Korean Ministry of State Security Central Command.
Another victim, a woman in her 50s who was a member of an underground church, was beaten so severely in 2019 while in detention that she later died from her injuries, according to the report.
North Korea has long been identified as the worst country in the world for Christian persecution, yet the closed-off nature of the country has made it difficult to get concrete data on the existence of underground Christian practice.
The Korea Future report, and accompanying database, documents 167 serious human rights violations perpetrated against 91 Christians between 1997 and 2019.
In particular, it details 34 people detained in North Korea for possessing religious items, 23 held for having practiced religious activities in China, and 21 people seized for religious practice in North Korea itself.
“Where it could be established that detainees had been associated with Christianity, their crime was considered to be ‘political,’ and they were transferred from city or county-level detention centers to provincial or national-level detention centers or internment camps run by the Ministry of State Security,” it said.
The researchers found that multiple North Koreans were first exposed to Christianity while in China.
This was the case with Kim Gap-ji, a North Korean who was arrested in China along with a Christian pastor. China repatriated Kim to North Korea, where he was investigated for nearly five months and experienced forms of torture as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
Kim was eventually sentenced to three years in Chongori re-education camp. After his release, Kim said that he secretly preached the Gospel in North Korea until 2017, when he escaped after learning that a person he had preached to was an informant for the Ministry of State Security.
The human rights report accused the Chinese government of violating the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the repatriation of an individual when there are grounds for believing that they would be at risk of harm upon their return.
The researchers also documented cases of Chinese public officials stamping the files of North Koreans detained in China as having associated with Christianity before deporting them to North Korea.
In total, the report documents 456 human rights violations against religious adherents of North Korean Shamanism and Christianity from 1987 to 2019.
It contains testimonies from Christians who were detained in North Korea, as well as accounts from eyewitness detainees and prison guards.
“In 28 cases, we documented forms of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment being perpetrated by agents of the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of People’s Security against Christian adherents,” it said.
“Evidence demonstrates that victims were subjected to physical beatings with objects, fists, and feet; to the ingestion of polluted food; to positional torture; to sleep deprivation; and to forced squat jumps.”
“Furthermore, the broader experience of detention was one where cruel and inhuman treatment was enabled by poor conditions of detention that incited further harm, including overcrowded cells.”
North Korea is believed to have one of the world’s worst human rights records. A United Nations investigation in 2014 produced a 372-page report documenting crimes against humanity, including execution, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, forced abortions, and knowingly causing prolonged starvation.
Pope Francis recently received an invitation to visit North Korea when South Korean President Moon Jae-In visited the Vatican on Oct. 29.
In July, the director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said that he had been working with Church leaders to make a papal trip to North Korea possible, although a South Korean archbishop has said that “in reality, there are many steps to take” before this could feasibly happen.
According to Park Kyung-mee, the South Korean president’s spokesperson, the pope responded that he would be willing to go if he received an official invitation from North Korea.
President Moon also gave Pope Francis a cross made from barbed wire from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides North Korea and South Korea.
It is one of 136 crosses created from melted-down barbed wire from the DMZ to represent the 68 years that the Korean peninsula has been divided.
In contrast with North Korea, Christianity in South Korea has experienced rapid growth in recent decades, according to Pew Research Center. In particular, the Catholic population in South Korea has increased by nearly 50% in the past 20 years.