WASHINGTON -- North Korea continued to execute, torture and physically abuse its own people for their religious activities in 2022, the US State Department said in an annual report on international religious freedom, citing an earlier report by a nongovernmental organization that said the country's denial of religious freedom remains "absolute."
The report also noted the country especially persecuted Christians and followers of shamanism.
"The government reportedly continued to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals for their religious activities," the report said of North Korea.
"Officials principally targeted Christians and followers of Shamanism," it added. "NGOs and defectors said the government often arrested or otherwise punished family members of Christians."
North Korea was designated a state violator of religious freedom for the 21st consecutive year in 2021, along with 10 other states that were designated "countries of particular concern."
A senior state department official said the secretary of state will make countries of particular concern determinations later in the year based on the report released on the day.
"So for now, the report is focused on really laying out the religious freedom landscape in each country, in the world, and then we will get to the designation a few months from now," the official said in a telephonic press briefing, while speaking on condition of anonymity.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States will continue to advocate for religious freedom at home and abroad.
"We will keep advocating for religious freedom in countries where the rights are under attack, both publicly and directly in our engagement with government officials. We will keep working to defend and promote religious freedom here at home," he told a press conference.
"We defend the right to believe or to not believe, not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because of the extraordinary good the people of faith can do in our societies and around the world to promote peace, to care for the sick, to protect our planet, to expand opportunity for underserved communities and so much more," added Blinken.
The report noted there existed a small number of officially registered religious institutions, including churches, in North Korea.
They, however, operated "under tight state control and functioned largely as showpieces for foreigners," it said.
"There were reports of private Christian religious activity, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious networks remained difficult to quantify," it added.
The report said COVID-19 restrictions on travel to and from the country made details on cases of abuse "difficult to verify," adding the number of North Korean defectors entering South Korea has drastically fallen from 1,047 in 2019 to 67 last year.
"Along with the closure of many foreign diplomatic missions during the pandemic and the government's continued lack of engagement internationally on human rights issues, it remained difficult to gain a comprehensive understanding of conditions within the country and to verify the details of individual cases," said the report.
Still, the report insisted that Pyongyang made it "nearly impossible" to exercise freedom of religion in the country, citing a 2021 report by the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, which also noted that "Christians are categorized as a 'hostile class'."
Rashad Hussain, US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said the US report on religious freedom has served as an invaluable tool for anyone seeking to understand and address religious freedom conditions in any country over the past 25 years.
"We vow to redouble our efforts to ensure greater respect for freedom of religion or belief for everyone everywhere. We will continue to stand in solidarity everyday with all those who are seeking to exercise their beliefs," he told the press conference. (Yonhap)