North Korea has declined an invitation from Roman Catholic leaders in South Korea to send North Korean Catholics to Pope Francis’s mass in Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral. It also fired rockets timed to coincide with Pope Francis’s plane landing in South Korea.
The pope began a visit to South Korea on Wednesday that will go through next week. It is his first time in Asia as pope. Pope Francis will be leading a unique Korean reconciliation mass in Seoul on the last day of his trip. The overarching message of the Monday mass is expected to be “peace and reconciliation for the Korean peninsula.” As such, the church had invited North Korea to send some citizens to attend.
North Korea rejected this offer, however, with the state-run Korean Catholics Association citing the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military drill between South Korean and U.S. forces as the reason it would not be sending a delegation to the pope. The North Korean government routinely objects to the joint military action, claiming that it is “a rehearsal for nuclear war” against Pyongyang.
Unlike its southern counterpart which adheres to the principal of religious freedom, North Korea is considered “one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom” by the U.S. State Department and various international human rights organizations.
Ji-Man Kang, a North Korean defector, explained to The Guardian that “Even though the North Korean constitution officially states that it allows the freedom of religion, this freedom simply does not exist in the North.” North Koreans who choose to practice religion subject themselves to potentially dangerous consequences. Kang and other defectors claim that state-run religious groups, like the Korean Catholics Association, are merely a façade that help the government portray a false sense of religious freedom in the country.
The North is also notorious for imprisoning domestic and international religious advocates. Indeed, in recent years the DPRK has detained several foreign nationals for allegedly trying to promote religion to North Koreans. In February, for instance, the DPRK detained an Australian citizen for “distributing religious pamphlets promoting Christianity at a Buddhist temple” in Pyongyang; however, he was later released in early March.
The government has been less forgiving with American nationals it has detained. In April of this year, Jeffrey Edward Fowle, an American citizen, was arrested for “perpetuating hostile acts” when he left a bible in his hotel. He is still under detention. Similarly, in 2012, Kenneth Bae, an American citizen, was arrested and accused of “orchestrating a coup via religious activities.” He has since been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
In February of this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council published a ground breaking report outlining the DPRK’s gross human rights violations. The report touched on North Korea’s lack of religious freedom experienced, as well as the persecution religious North Koreans face if they are found to be practicing religion. According to the UNHRC, the North Korean government considers Christianity a “serious threat” because “it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the State.” The report also notes that “persons found to have been in contact with officials or nationals from the Republic of Korea or with Christian churches may be forcibly ‘disappeared’ into political prison camps, imprisoned in ordinary prisons or even summarily executed.”
Kelwin Choi is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat.