A new U.S. government report says North Korea's denial of religious freedoms continues to be widespread and brutal. As VOA's Kent Klein reports from Washington, U.S. officials are calling for global pressure on Pyongyang to change its behavior.
The report is titled A Prison Without Bars. The chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Michael Cromartie, says researchers talked with 32 North Korean refugees and some former security agents. Those interviews paint a grave picture of how North Korean asylum seekers are treated when they are forcibly returned from China to North Korea.
"It's a hard report to read. These atrocities are so atrocious, if you will, so ghastly, that having further documentation of it only adds to the urgency of the issue," he said.
Cromartie says the report describes increased police efforts to stop religious activity along the border with China. Agents reportedly set up mock prayer meetings to entrap new converts in North Korea, and train security agents in Christian traditions and practices for the purpose of infiltrating churches in China.
"Security agents target refugees believed to have visited Chinese churches for food aid or other forms of immediate assistance. Refugees who admit under intense interrogation to having had contact with Christians while in China often receive particularly harsh punishments," he said.
Those punishments can include a life sentence in one of North Korea's prison camps.
Former guards identified pictures of the notorious Camp 22, where U.S. Senator Sam Brownback says chemical experiments are alleged to have taken place, and from which no prisoners are known to have left alive.
"The former guards we contacted were able to identify its electrified fences and moats. They were able to point out the huts where its prisoners live, the coal mines where men are worked to death, and the forests and fields where the dead are discarded," he said.
The report is being released just before South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak comes to Washington this week to meet with President Bush. Mr. Lee has promised to take a harder line toward the North than previous South Korean governments. And commission members are hopeful that South Korea and Japan will join with the United States in linking human rights issues to the six-party talks on stopping Pyongyang's nuclear activities.
The report also comes out as international pressure is increasing on China to improve its human rights record, several months before Beijing hosts the Olympic Games. Senator Brownback says China plays a role in North Korea's repression of religious rights by forcing refugees to go home.
"China's role as an enabler of human rights abuses being done by North Korea, but it doesn't end there. It's Tibet, it's North Korea, it's Burma, it's Darfur. China's hands are all over those human rights abuses for what they are doing to enable that in those various countries around the world," he said.
The commission's report says elements of Buddhism, Christianity and traditional folk beliefs continue to exist in North Korea, despite the repression.
But it says Kim Jong-Il's government sees any new religious activity as a security threat to the country.