Christmas must be a time to consider persecuted Christians, and few are more persecuted than in North Korea, an Orwellian dystopia in which religious belief justifies brutality that is as routine as it is purposeful.
Over the last two years the human rights group Korea Future interviewed 217 North Korean defectors who had witnessed such abuses. Their dataset reveals a terrible reality. Those suspected of praying or even just of believing are tortured until they confess and name others.Beating with wooden clubs, suspension, forced positioning, feeding of polluted food and sleep deprivation are routine. Occasionally there is rape, waterboarding, fingernail needling, sometimes murder. Victims are not only Christians. Shamanism is North Korea’s most common belief system. When Shamanists confess they are detained in re-education camps for 1-3 years. It can be worse. Park Joo Ho, an escaped Army official, says his battalion’s Ministry of State Security officials executed a ‘god-touched’ shaman child. ‘We usually strike people in the head with a hammer. I have witnessed it countless times.’
But whilst Shamanism is considered dangerous superstition, Christianity is political crime. Shamanists endure public trials, but Christians are tried in secret. They also pray in secret, but the country is rife with informers. Nobody knows how many Christians there are but before 1948 2% of all Koreans were Christian. The dataset details violations against 91. After confession most enter forced-labour camps for political prisoners, usually for life, including families whose tiny children also receive whole-life sentences. Some don’t get that far. Ko Sun Hee said that at Onsong County Detention Centre, detainees suspected of Christianity had to stick their heads between the bars of a cell door to be struck ‘until blood spurted upwards.’ At least one died. ‘If you tell them that you went to a church and believed in Jesus, they would not stop at just beating you,’ said Lee Kang In. The report details witnessed abuse of multiple individuals: E98, a young woman, was kicked and beaten ‘until a large pool of blood formed on the cell floor’, then dragged away and never returned. E348 was beaten then subject to forced abortion when 5 months pregnant, her baby killed by injection. She was sent to Chongori re-education camp for several years then released weighing 27kg, unable to walk. Bible possession risks death. E4, who smuggled bibles in, was executed by firing squad, as were 21 identifiable others. Names of victims are recorded. 98 perpetrators are known by rank, place and name.
This is happening now, whilst we decorate our trees. Yet what can we do? Korea Future suggest we can do a lot. They seek targeted sanctions and help with disseminating information on accountability and justice into North Korea, to deter perpetrators and show survivors and families that they are not alone. More importantly still, they say they have evidence that ill-treatment reduces whenever there is international pressure on North Korea’s human rights record. So this Christmas, as you write your ecards, email your MP and ask them to read the report. You could make a difference.