In his State of the Union speech, President Bush pointed to North Korea as one of three countries that pose a grave threat because of their efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. As Mr. Bush prepares to travel to East Asia later this month, he is likely to focus even more attention on North Korea. Human rights advocates and humanitarian aid workers hope he will use the trip as an opportunity to express concern about the persecution of religious believers in North Korea.

The exact number of religious adherents in North Korea is impossible to determine. There are officially authorized religious associations, but observers say the only truly approved religion is the worship of the late ruler Kim Il Sung, who is revered as a God.

The head of a medical aid organization, Stephen Linton, who has traveled extensively through North Korea over the past two decades, said the largest officially sanctioned groups are a native Korean religion, called the Doctrine of the Heavenly Way (Chundokyo), and the Buddhist association. He said there are two smaller authorized groups - a Christian-Protestant federation and a Catholic association. "Protestants claim to have 10,000 people, 50 house churches, and they have two official buildings built by South Korean aid in Pyongyang. ... Catholics officially have 7,000 [believers], and, I don't know how many house churches they are supposed to have," he said.

In addition, Mr. Linton said, there are believed to be underground, or unauthorized, churches. But, he says, no one knows how many people participate in those groups. Mr. Linton, chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation, was among several witnesses at a recent meeting of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

German emergency doctor Norbert Vollertsen said he never saw any religious activity in North Korea when he lived there. "There was never any praying whatever," he says. "I lived there one-and-a-half years. Nearly every Sunday, I managed to go with my jeep. ... I managed to go around, all over the countryside. And this so-called church in Pyongyang is also a showcase. There was never any activity. On Christmas Eve, there was no activity, absolutely nothing."

North Korean refugee Lee Soon-Ok disagrees. Speaking through a translator, Mrs. Lee said many North Koreans practice religion, but only in their hearts. "There's a lot of people underground in North Korea, who are keeping their faith, and this is increasing in North Korea, as the North Korean regime tries to suppress such movement," she said. "From the outside, when you designate churches in North Korea as underground church, perhaps that definition should change. A church is not made up of three or more members, but one member makes it a church in North Korea."

Mrs. Lee, a former North Korean official, was sent to a labor reform camp in the 1980's where she witnessed the punishment of Christians. "Hundreds of people were imprisoned there. The only reason was that they were Christian. And every day, there were sessions. They were indoctrinating these Christians, saying, "if you declare that you are not going to be a Christian anymore, we're going to free you," she said through her translator. "We will save your lives, if you say you're going to believe in Kim Il Sung instead of Christ. We'll free you. But it was amazing that they did not reject God. They did not accept Kim Il Sung."

Mrs. Lee said North Koreans are trained to see Christians as political criminals, and to see Christianity as a drug, like opium. She said the United States should make religious freedom one of the conditions of removing North Korea from its list of terrorist states.

Stephen Linton said the government persecutes Protestants and Catholics more than Buddhists or adherents to the native Korean religion, because it sees them as a bigger threat to the state. "The Korean war has a lot to do with it," he said. "Protestants and Catholics, because Christians were accused of being American spies, and in some sense [they] have never been able to escape from that stigma. Catholicism is persecuted most. Why? Because Catholics are organizationally connected to a foreign entity, whereas Protestants can be self-ordained. ... It's the political component that's a problem."

Mr. Linton said in dealing with North Korea, the United States and South Korea should maintain a clear separation of government and religion. For example, he said, intelligence agencies should not use religious missionaries to collect information about North Korea. And he criticized South Korea for requiring missionaries to get government certification before engaging in humanitarian work in the North. He said those kinds of practices only make the North Korean government, which he calls a paranoid regime, even more suspicious of foreigners."

Yet Mr. Linton does not think Washington should add religious freedom to its list of pre-conditions for normalizing relations with Pyongyang, saying such pressure is not effective.

Other human rights advocates disagree, telling the Commission on Religious Freedom that North Korea does respond to pressure. Jack Rendler, vice chairman of a new U.S. human rights group that monitors North Korea, said President Bush should raise the issue during his upcoming trip. "I would like you to urge him to take this opportunity to express his concern for the plight of the North Korean people and his commitment to assisting in the restoration of their rights and their well-being. ... I think that North Korea has gotten off light from the world community, in terms of criticism by leaders, because it is considered too isolated, too weird, to talk to," he said. "The more we ignore them and treat them that way, the more it plays into their hands."

Mr. Rendler said it is time for the rest of the world to hold the North Korean government accountable for the repression of its people.