North Korea’s Religious Freedom Crisis: A Global Call to Action

Global Peace Foundation
September 18, 2023

GPF Vice President Addresses Religious Freedom Summit in Taiwan

“The freedom to practice and live one’s faith or belief is a fundamental human right, yet in many parts of the world, this basic liberty remains under threat,” Global Peace Foundation Vice President for Religious Freedom Initiatives Dr. Paul Murray told human rights advocates at the 2023 International Religious Freedom Summit in Taipei on September 6, 2023.

A group of people sitting on chairs at a conference addressing North Korea's religious freedom crisis.

Dr. Paul Murray addresses the International Religious Freedom Summit in Taiwan.

The IRF Summit-Taiwan brought together parliamentarians, activists, and survivors of persecution from around the world  and highlighted Taiwan’s role as a leader in the region for religious freedom. The Summit held discussions addressing the ongoing crises in Nigeria, Inner Mongolia, India, China, and North Korea.

Religious freedom is virtually non-existent in North Korea, Dr. Murray said, with implications that extend far beyond North Korea’s borders. A 2023 annual report published by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom ranks North Korea among the worst persecutors of religious believers. Human Rights Watch reported that extrajudicial killings, forced labor camps, and numerous other atrocities were inflicted on citizens merely for their religious beliefs.

Affirming that freedom of faith and conscience were fundamental human rights, Dr. Murray said religious freedom ”is anchored in the first principles that recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every individual, allowing them to pursue truth and live according to their deeply held convictions. By honoring the sanctity of conscience and personal belief, religious freedom underscores the foundational principle that human rights are not granted by any government but are innate and universal.”

North Korea, however, serves as a “stark reminder of the lengths to which authoritarian regimes can go to suppress freedoms when unchecked.” Dr. Murray urged the international community to respond to this threat with coordinated efforts, including:

Raising Global Awareness: Governments and NGOs must prioritize awareness campaigns about the plight of religious minorities in North Korea. The power of international public opinion, shaped by media coverage and grassroots movements, can exert significant pressure on offending regimes.

Prioritizing Human and Religious Rights in Diplomacy: Major world powers need to ensure that human rights and religious freedoms are integral components of their diplomatic engagements with North Korea. While nuclear disarmament is crucial, sidelining human rights issues sends a dangerous message.

Leveraging International Bodies: The U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights are just two bodies that can play a pivotal role. Mechanisms such as the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and Universal Periodic Review can be used to hold North Korea accountable for its human rights record.

Supporting NGOs on the Frontlines: NGOs like the Global Peace Foundation and the International Religious Freedom Secretariat have been instrumental in providing platforms to highlight, educate, and advocate for all who are victimized. Such support can amplify their impact around the globe.

Enforcing Sanctions and Accountability: Targeted sanctions against specific North Korean officials responsible for religious freedom violations can act as deterrents. The Global Magnitsky Act, which targets human rights abusers with financial sanctions, serves as an effective model.

Protecting Defectors: North Korean defectors, many of whom have firsthand accounts of religious persecution, can be vital sources of information. Ensuring their safety and preventing their forced repatriation is crucial. The North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2023 will continue to aid victims by providing eligible North Koreans political asylum in the U.S., protecting North Korean refugees, aiding those in need, and promoting the Human Rights of North Koreans.

“The religious freedom crisis in North Korea is not just a North Korean issue—it’s a global one,” Dr. Murray concluded. “As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ The global community must rally, unite in purpose, and ensure that the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief is upheld everywhere, especially in the darkest corners of our world.

The International Religious Freedom Summit – Taiwan was hosted by the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, ChinaAid, and the IRF Secretariat.

Read the full text of Dr. Paul Murray’s address to the IRF Summit.

U.S. Department of State Recognizes North Korea Freedom Week
Matthew Miller, Department Spokesperson
September 17, 2023

As we observe the 20th annual North Korea Freedom Week, we recognize the courage of the North Korean defector and human rights community, which continues to speak on behalf of the millions of North Koreans suffering abuses who are unable to advocate for themselves. The DPRK continues to exploit its own citizens, including through mass mobilizations of school children and forced labor, and divert resources that could benefit them to build up its unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.

We remain deeply concerned about the plight of North Korean asylum seekers, including some 2,000 North Koreans detained in China who are at risk of repatriation to the DPRK. North Koreans forcibly repatriated are reportedly commonly subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, forced abortion, other forms of gender-based violence, and summary execution.

The international community must act to promote accountability for those responsible for the DPRK’s human rights violations and abuses. Addressing the DPRK’s egregious human rights situation remains a priority for the United States, and we continue to work with the international community to highlight abuses and violations, promote accountability and increase access to independent information into, out of, and within the DPRK.

Learn more about GPF’s Freedom of Conscience and Religion initiatives.

Related Articles