BANGKOK - Former police and security officers in North Korea told a U.S. government body that their superiors had instructed them to play the role of Christians and infiltrate "underground" prayer meetings in order to incriminate, arrest, imprison and sometimes execute believers in North Korea.
Interviewed for a report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom , the six officers were tasked - before they fled North Korea - with finding and eliminating small groups of Christians.
They said the North Korean government considers religion - and Christianity in particular - to be the primary threat to national security, according to the report, released April 15. Four of the six security agents had worked with the National Security Agency , two with the People's Security Agency and another for the Korean Workers' Party.
They also had meted our severe punishment to refugees repatriated to North Korea who admitted having contact with Chinese or South Korean Christians.
The six security agents said there were increased attempts to halt religious activities along the border with China, including setting up mock prayer meetings to trap refugee converts, and basic theological training for security agents to enable them to infiltrate churches in China and search for North Koreans in attendance.
The agents described their detention and interrogation of North Korean refugees as "counter-intelligence work," since the government believed South Korean missionary involvement in the refugee crisis was nothing short of espionage.
One refugee held at a PSA detention center in Saetbyeol, North Hamgyeong province, was told directly that if she had carried the Bible of God into North Korea, she would be "sent to the and they would kill her there."
Border police sent another refugee to the PSA detention center in North Hamgyeong province and later to the NSA's prison at Onseong. "They … asked whether I had contact with Christians. I was kicked and struck severely. I had to stand all day long and I was not permitted to move or speak … When they asked again whether I had heard of Christianity, I admitted that I had."
If repatriated refugees have had little or no contact with religious groups, border police hand them over to the PSA for short-term detention. If religious contact is discovered, however, they are handed over to the NSA for possible torture, sentencing to prison labor camps, or execution.
"There are no preliminary hearings when religious people get caught," one agent said. " regard them as anti-revolutionary elements. When such an offender is caught in North Korea, the NSA officers surround the person and kick and beat the person severely before interrogating."
Still another agent confirmed that, "The most important question asked to the repatriated is whether they have met South Korean missionaries or evangelists or encountered or experienced religion. If they confess that they have met missionaries or deacons…then without any further questions, they will be sent to the NSA and they are as good as dead. However, only a small number of cases involve religions."
Both the PSA and the NSA play an important role in "counter-intelligence" operations. The PSA is a more general police force, while the NSA is the North Korean counterpart to America's Federal Bureau of Investigation or Central Intelligence Agency. The PSA gathers information on every citizen for a dossier that is kept on file and used by the NSA to "decide whether to arrest a person," according to one former NSA officer.
A Strange Intelligence
The spread of Christianity in North Korea is regarded as a deliberate conspiracy between South Koreans and the United States to undermine or destroy the North Korean government.
"We arrest political offenders after securing evidence our informants," one agent said. "Things like possessing religious books, sharing one's faith with others, or preaching cannot exist because they undermine the Kim Jong Il regime."
He continued, "All we need is one bit of evidence such as the Bible with someone's name on it. If the Bible is found, leaves it until the real owner shows up."
Another agent explained that there were four groups of surveillance teams - "the NSA, the PSA, the Party, and the neighborhood unit. give instructions to the neighborhood unit and the Primary Party Committee to watch people. We tell them to watch them closely and report people who visit them. We are to be informed once every 15 days."
For example, "There were lots of religious people in Jeongju, Gwaksan, Unjeon, and Namsinuiju, so people in that area are still prohibited from moving to other places and no executive party members are selected from that area. People there are closely watched throughout their entire lives."
Agents are rewarded with medals, an increase in wages or promotions for identifying and arresting religious offenders, according to the report, entitled, "A Prison Without Bars." Some security agents become "desperate because if they don't catch two or more cases, they cannot get promoted and they might get kicked out ," one agent explained.
A graduate from the National University of Security and Defense said the NSA selected some students to study religion in order to "ferret out religious people." He also said the NSA had samples of Bibles in all languages for use in such training. Another interviewee said professors taught courses on religion at Kim Il Sung University "because there are missionaries and pastors in North Korea."
NSA officers also learn skills and techniques for interrogating religious people. One NSA informant said he was taught to look for "a person who remains silent with closed eyes and meditates, or when habitual smokers or drinkers quit smoking or drinking all of a sudden."
These people were "enemies of the state" and should be watched closely, according to NSA instructors.
According to one former agent, "We learn that because a religion is a drug, it can be spread in a second." Another said, "In a way. all threats are related to religion."
One agent who worked for 20 years in a Political Offense Concentration Camp - where Christians are often sent - said he witnessed secret executions where "the digs the hole to be buried" before being executed. Other agents however said that public executions of political offenders - including Christians - had decreased in recent years due to negative reactions from the public.
According to one agent, punishment varies according to the person's activity - "whether he was active or in hiding. The fact that a person keeps a Bible means that this person plans to believe in a religion in the future … The most severe punishment is applied to those who are engaged in the activity: those who carry the Bible from China and those Christians who help North Korean refugees in China."
As one refugee testified, "My relative by marriage was caught while giving away a Bible, so the entire family was taken to Prison 22. They were taken there under the category of religious spy."
One repatriated refugee was sent to an NSA prison in North Hamgyeong province for 15 months. He described his prison experience as being "an animal without a name. It's up to the condition of the guards. Because killing a prisoner will do no harm for them."
It seems, however, that strict surveillance and compulsory allegiance to the system may have begun to backfire. Both security agents and general refugees interviewed for the report talked of widespread disillusionment. As one former agent said, "The reason why the North Korean system still exists is because of the strict surveillance system."
When disillusion sets in, more people may turn to faith - the very thing dictator Kim Jong Il fears the most.
As one former prisoner in a labor camp testified, "It seemed like in my cell about 10 people were believers. kept praying. So I started to pray with them."