Panel: No Religious Freedom in N. Korea

Washington, USA - There is no freedom of religion in North Korea although there are four churches in the capital of Pyongyang, where some elderly people worship, an independent federal commission reported Tuesday.

All religion was suppressed a half-century ago by founding ruler Kim Il Sung, whose son and successor, Kim Jong Il, has made worshipping his father a quasi-religious cult, said David Hawk, a human rights advocate and author of the report.

A report issued by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was based on interviews with 40 North Koreans who left the country between 1989 and 2001.

Expanding on the report, Hawk said in an interview that religious worshippers were subject to execution in the 1990s but the commission has been unable to corroborate that North Koreans jailed for their observances were executed since then.

Pyongyang has two Protestant churches, a Catholic church and a new Orthodox church, the only ones in the country, for elderly people who were Christian believers before the end of World War II or for family members who can meet and sing, Hawk said.

Education and outreach programs and religious publications are not permitted, he said.

The report said, meanwhile, it was not possible to corroborate claims there is a substantial underground church movement in North Korea. About half of the 40 North Koreans who were interviewed said they had never encountered underground churches while two said they were aware of such a network.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House human rights subcommittee, said President Bush in his talks in Asia should make the point that North Korea "pays not the slightest attention to the needs, interests or rights of its own people."

"North Korea's human rights abuses are a nightmare of epic proportions," Smith said in a statement.