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U.S. State Department calls out North on religious freedom

May 31,2018
The U.S. State Department lambasted North Korea in its annual report on religious freedom Tuesday, two weeks before U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could meet in Singapore, but the department equivocated on whether the issue would be on the summit agenda or raised during pre-summit meetings between working-level officials.

Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said religious freedom would be a “matter of discussion” between the United States and North Korea, but the department’s spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, later clarified that Brownback was trying not to get ahead of pre-summit meetings between U.S. and North Korean officials and declined to verify whether religious freedom would be discussed with the North.

“We have a lot of important matters to discuss with the government of North Korea, chiefly the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Nauert said. “Beyond that, I’m not going to get into any of the specifics. We’ll see how all of this goes.”

The State Department report came as Kim Yong-chol, director of North Korea’s United Front Department, which is responsible for inter-Korean relations, was on his way to New York for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss a possible summit between Trump and Kim on June 12 in Singapore.

Denuclearization is expected to be at the top of the agenda if Trump agrees to meet with Kim, but John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, told CBS News earlier this month that Washington would also discuss other issues such as “ballistic missile programs, their biological and chemical weapons programs, their keeping of American hostages, the abduction of innocent Japanese and South Korean citizens over the years,” a hint that human rights issues could be raised.

In its latest assessment of international religious freedom, the State Department said addressing human rights, including religious freedom, would “significantly improve” prospects for closer ties with North Korea. In a country that strictly revolves around the cult of Kim Jong-un, refusal to accept the leader as the supreme authority is regarded as opposition to national interest, which results in severe punishment, the report noted.

Last year, the North Korean government continued to deal severely with those who engaged in almost all religious practices through executions, torture, beatings and arrests, according to the report.

An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners are believed to be held in prison camps in remote areas under horrific conditions. Some of them are in prison for religious reasons, the report said.

Pyongyang officials have staunchly denied that they deal harshly with religious believers and perceive outside criticism of their human rights situation as a threat to the nation’s sovereignty.

Out of North Korea’s population of 25.4 million, estimates from the United Nations place the Christian population at between 200,000 and 400,000, though the country’s inaccessibility and lack of information makes it difficult to verify.

A separate report from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, which is based in South Korea, identified 1,304 cases of religious freedom violations last year. Charges included propagation of religion, possession of religious materials, religious activity and contact with religious practitioners.

Among these cases, North Korean authorities reportedly detained 770 people, restricted the movements of 133, killed 119, deported or forcibly moved 48 and physically injured 44. Eighty-seven people have disappeared.

The North reportedly has five state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang, including three Protestant, one Catholic and one Russian Orthodox, but they are essentially fronts to hide from international scrutiny and allow the regime to point to examples of religious freedom.

A 2017 report from the South Korean government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification said the churches are more or less “sightseeing spots for foreigners.”

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]