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Murky future for human rights and religious liberty in North Korea

Some 80,000-120,000 persons are said to be held in four major North Korean political prisons, among them Catholics and other church members.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump meet at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12. (CNS photo/Kevin Lim, The Straits Times via Reuters)

On the eve of the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, Pope Francis led a crowd of 20,000 in St. Peter’s Square in prayer for a successful outcome of the talks. Many other people throughout the world also undoubtedly prayed for that result.

But whether all those prayers will be answered is something we may not know for months, possibly years. That is no less true of prayers that included the intention of bettering the horrendous situation of human rights and religious liberty in North Korea.

Shortly before the meeting of President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un, the Washington-based Religious Freedom Institute sent the White House a letter signed by foreign policy specialists, human rights activists and religious leaders urging Trump to raise those issues with Kim.

“For decades, North Korea has been in effect a national torture chamber. There is nowhere on earth more dangerous for dissenters of conscience, especially those who believe in God,” said the letter. Among the signers were Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee on religious liberty, Professors Robert George of Princeton and Steve Schneck of the Catholic University of America, and Miguel Diaz, former American ambassador to the Holy See.

In a post-summit news conference the president said he had done as requested and raised the rights question with Kim. But there was no mention of these matters in the brief, general joint statement bearing the two leaders’ names that was released after the meeting. The statement spoke instead of promises of “security guarantees” made by Trump to Kim and “complete denuclearization” made by Kim to Trump.

As always, of course, the devil is in the details. The statement said the details here would be worked out in “follow-on negotiations” by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a North Korean counterpart.

Let us hope—and pray—that the agenda of those talks includes an important place for human rights and religious freedom.

That the situation in North Korea is terrible almost beyond imagining seems tragically clear. A 2014 report by a United Nations commission of inquiry gave a thumbnail picture of abuses that included “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

Some 80,000-120,000 persons are said to be held in four major North Korean political prisons, among them Catholics and other church members whose so-called crime was to have engaged in religious practice. That number does not include those in ordinary prisons.

In the best of circumstances the release and peaceful reintegration of the unhappy souls in the prison camps into North Korean society seems to me improbable. Perhaps that is why the Religious Freedom Institute letter included among its recommendations not only the release of the prisoners but the setting of quotas for voluntary emigration by them and their families, to be administered by the UN high commissioner for refugees.

The longrange hope for North Korea is that it become a place where rights like the right to practice one’s religion freely will be recognized and respected. We are a long way from that happening.

The Singapore summit was—perhaps—a first step. Many more steps remain to be taken. On the eve of the summit Pope Francis spoke of “a positive path that assures a future of peace for the Korean peninsula and the whole world.” Keep on praying.

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About Russell Shaw 274 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. Please say a prayer that our loose cannon of a president will make it thru his only term! The church has thrown in with Trump because he said he was pro-life after being pro-choice. The only pro he really is is pro-Trump. On the North Korea summit, Kim got everything he wanted while a coddling Trump got nothing. How about human rights and religious freedom? Trump didn’t even try on these subjects.

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