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A former North Korean prison guard tells Human Rights Watch how religious practice worsens punishment for those caught trying to flee the country. If refugees met with reporters, "or wrote articles, or attended church," the former guard says, they "would be secretly killed."

In communist North Korea, only one religion is permitted: the worship of the late dictator Kim Il Sun and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, before whose statues Koreans are coerced to bow. But other religious practice is severely punished. Hence an estimated 100,000 "political prisoners" in various camps and prisons are suffering starvation, torture, or execution for their belief in Christ. In one prison, according to the HRW report, authorities hang the returned refugees from the walls by their hands, tied behind their backs, for one to seven days.

Often the extended families of these prisoners go with them into the inhumane conditions. "When our family moved there [prison]," one former inmate told HRW, "we were surrounded by 100 people and beaten. The police led people to beat us—newcomers must be broken in spirit this way."

Authorities also employed "professional beaters," he said. "Officials beat so harshly that many of those people became disabled, or their legs were paralyzed, or they died."

Former inmate Soon Ok Lee testified before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in January 2002. Confirming that North Korean authorities treat believers as political criminals, she said Christians are regularly singled out for the most extreme punishment, such as solitary confinement in small cells that prevent prisoners from standing.

Some activists fear that North Korea's nuclear program has pushed human rights off the agenda for U.S. talks. ...

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July 2003

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