Pope Francis’ trip to South Korea provides a valuable opportunity to draw attention to the chronic human-rights abuses taking place in communist-led North Korea, Church rights’ activists say.

“He is in a unique position to speak for the voiceless people of the world’s most closed nation and to pray for peace, freedom and justice — and to draw the world’s attention to this tragic and often overlooked human tragedy,” Lord David Alton of Liverpool, a tireless campaigner on behalf of the nation’s citizens, told the Register.

The rogue state of 25 million people has long been in the spotlight for being one of the world’s worst human-rights abusers. But these abuses have only now come into sharp focus, thanks to a United Nations “Commission of Inquiry” published in February.

The damning report found the regime of Kim Jong-Il to be guilty of a “wide array” of “crimes against humanity,” even comparable to the Holocaust. The “gravity, scale and nature” of human-rights violations, it said, “reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

The inquiry, which drew on firsthand testimonies of more than 320 witnesses, listed crimes including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence,” as well as religious persecution, forcible transfer and disappearance of persons and starvation. It noted an “almost complete denial” of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or expression and association.

“The unspeakable atrocities” being committed in political prison camps, it said, “resemble the horrors that totalitarian states established during the twentieth century.” It pointed out that the North Korean regime has “for decades pursued policies involving crimes that shock the conscience of humanity,” a fact that “raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community.”

Benedict Rogers, East Asia director for the international human-rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said he hopes the Holy Father will speak about the suffering of all North Koreans, particularly Christians, and call for a “worldwide prayer” on their behalf.

Pope Francis visits South Korea this week to participate in two main events: Asian Youth Day and the beatification of 124 South Korean martyrs, mostly laypeople who gave their lives for the faith during decades of persecution in the 19th century.

Lord Alton said the beatification will present “a rare and vital opportunity to call for prayer for modern-day martyrs and those suffering for their faith in North Korea.” He believes the visit has the potential to be as effective as Pope John Paul II’s nine-day historic visit to Poland in 1979 that helped sow the seeds for the collapse of Soviet communism.
Just as that visit “changed the world and created a revolution of conscience,” he said, so Pope Francis “has the opportunity to express solidarity with the suffering Koreans of the North.”

Officially an atheist state, North Korea sees organized religious activity as a potential challenge to the nation’s leadership, and Rogers sees no sign of that changing. Along with Lord Alton, he recently visited four state-controlled Potemkin-style churches in Pyongyang: two Protestant, one Catholic and one Russian Orthodox.

“We have been told that the congregations for these churches are brought in on buses when foreign visitors come and that it is orchestrated and tightly controlled,” Rogers said. “Outside these churches, Christians worship in secret and in real fear.”

President Kim Jong-Il is known for his belligerence and outlandish threats, as are members of his regime. As recently as July 28, a top-ranking North Korean military official threatened a nuclear strike on the White House and Pentagon after accusing Washington of raising military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Is there a danger, therefore, that the regime might view any papal intervention as negative, potentially provoking a harmful backlash? Rogers stressed that, “clearly, we are not calling for him to speak in very political terms. We simply hope the Holy Father will draw attention to the situation and call for prayer.”

“As a spiritual and religious leader, and in the context of the beatification of Korean martyrs, it is very appropriate for him to highlight the suffering of modern-day North Korea,” Rogers told the Register. “The situation could not be much worse: It is the world’s most closed nation, with the world’s worst human-rights record, and the suffering has been compounded by the relative silence of the rest of the world.” 

CSW has been at the forefront of raising awareness of the atrocities taking place in the secretive Asian state. It was the first to call for a U.N. “Commission of Inquiry” and spent six years calling for one. It has also provided platforms for North Korean refugees to tell their stories. “We believe the situation in North Korea is so bad, and it is so closed, that we need to use every tool available to us to encourage openness, including pressure, accountability and public awareness, but also critical engagement and forms of academic and cultural engagement as well,” Rogers said.

In a House of Lords’ debate on the U.N. report in July, Lord Alton provided further documentation and some precise data on the abuses. North Korea’s “scant respect” either for its own people or the region has been underlined by its military expenditure and acts of aggression in the face of widespread starvation.

He said as many as 84% of North Korean households “have borderline or poor food consumption,” while in 2012, President Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-Il’s late father, “spent $1.3 billion on North Korea’s ballistic missile program, in addition to $300 million on leisure facilities and nearly $700 million on luxury goods, including watches, handbags and alcohol.”

Lord Alton added that, according to the U.N. report, the withholding of food by the North Korean state constitutes an “explicit policy of enforced and prolonged starvation” and contributed to the deaths of at least 1 million people in the 1990s.

“Detention, torture and execution are established tools of social control,” Lord Alton told the British parliament July 23. “The abduction of foreign nationals has been routine. Up to 120,000 North Koreans face starvation, torture, forced labor, sexual violence and execution in the country’s political prison camps.”

Many are hoping the Pope, chiefly through calling on all to pray, will help to bring a “miracle” to the peninsula, ending the abuses and bringing the two nations closer towards reunification.

“This is a ‘carpe diem’ moment to provide a voice for the voiceless, in the world’s most closed nation with the worst record of religious freedom,” said Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s chief executive, Mervyn Thomas. “We hope the Holy Father will seize this opportunity to pray for freedom.”

Image: Screenshot of official website: popekorea.catholic.or.kr