U.S. Team Says North Korea Suppresses Religion

Robert Evans

North Korea represses religion and has an official ideology that is a form of secular humanism, a U.S. government agency said on Thursday.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said interviews with North Korean refugees showed a pattern of arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution for public expressions of religion.

“Any reappearance of Christianity, possibly permeating from northern China to where many thousands of North Koreans fled from famine in the 1990s, is rigorously repressed,” USCIRF North Korean researcher David Hawk told a news conference.

Only two active churches, with one more to be built, and one Buddhist temple were known to exist — all in the capital, Pyongyang, and apparently serving the foreign diplomatic and business community there.

USIRC vice-chair Felice D. Gaer said a full report on the findings from interviews with some 30 ordinary North Koreans among some 6,000 who have escaped to South Korea since 2000 would be published later this year.

Information, published in part by USIRC last summer, would be a useful contribution to debate at the current session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, where North Korea is under fire from mainly Western countries, she said.

The 53-member Commission narrowly agreed in 2004 for the first time to appoint a special investigator for North Korea — Thai jurist Vitit Muntarbhorn. The government in Pyongyang has refused to cooperate with him.

A similar resolution — proposed last year by the European Union with U.S. backing — is expected at the Commission next month after Vitit has presented his own report.

Hawk was asked if the North Korean attitude toward secular humanism was any different to its stance on theistic religion. Secular humanism is a widespread philosophy that aims to promote human cooperation and morality without reference to a deity. North Korea’s official ideology is called Juche.

“Juche thought is a form of secular humanism,” he said, referring to the North Korean system of strict obedience to the national leader — currently Kim Jong Il, son of the country’s first communist chief Kim Il Sung. Secular humanism, which emerged from the 18th century European Enlightenment and inspired some early U.S. leaders, is currently under assault in the United States from Christian evangelicals who have the ear of President Bush.

Officials of secular and humanist organizations accredited to the UN and to the Human Rights Commission have long complained that religious freedom issues are privileged there at the expense of the freedom to reject religion.

Roy Brown, President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, said a report to the Commission on “defamation of religions” by a Senegalese rights investigator appeared to suggest that secularists were a danger to religious freedom.


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