Arrested for possessing a bible, fed on soup containing nothing more than water and sand, tortured using an electrified cage, and shot in front of their fellow inmates.
These are just a few of the horrifying tales of abuse suffered by religious prisoners in North Korea, where worshipping anyone other than Kim Jong-un is strictly outlawed.
Interviews with survivors of prisons and ‘re-education’ camps reveal how three-year-old children were arrested and subjected to body cavity searches, women were forced to undergo abortions or have newborn babies killed, and others were worked to death in forced labour camps.
While the prisons are designed to punish all religious believers, former inmates recalled how the harshest punishments were reserved for Christians.
A horrifying report has detailed the torture methods that North Korea uses on its religious prisoners, with the harshest punishment reserved for Christians (file image)
The gruesome details are contained within a new report from the London-based Korea Future Initiative, which helps rescue people from the isolated nation.
Staff interviewed 117 exiled North Koreans about their experiences of religious persecution within the country, dating from 1990 until 2019.
They recounted hundreds of cases of people being punished for their beliefs, including public executions, beatings, imprisonment, torture, and sexual violence.
In one case, a man who had converted to Christianity was forced into a metal cage that measured just 3ft high by 4ft wide.
‘There were steel bars on all four-sides that were heated with electricity,’ he said
‘Usually prisoners lasted only three or four hours in the cage, but I sat there for 12 hours and prayed. I kept praying to God to save me.’
The man said he eventually soiled himself and passed out. When he woke up, he found guards had removed him from the cage and beaten him while unconscious, leaving him with severe injuries to his face and right leg.
Female prisoners were also subjected to horrifying treatment, including forced abortions that took place in North Hamgyong province.
The person recalled how women would be forced into labour using injections, and give birth to live babies.
The babies would then be smothered by guards using sheets of plastic and cloth sacks, before their bodies were stored away in a cleaning cupboard.
While most of the punishment took place inside North Korea, the report also documented abuse of North Koreans in China – usually before they were deported back to their home country where they were tortured further.
One Christian was put in a 4ft by 3ft cage that was heated using electricity and kept there for 12 hours until he soiled himself and passed out, before being beaten while unconscious
Other torture methods include pouring water laced with pepper up prisoner’s nostrils (left) and forcing people to sit still for up to 12 hours a day (right)
In one incident, a witness recalled how a 33-year-old victim was tied to a chair with a backrest made of corrugated iron with a metal rod placed across their face.
Held in place like that, the victim was interviewed for three days without sleep before being transferred to a prison where they were held for a further three months, with their legs and arms bound.
That person was then returned to North Korea, where the witness said he was forced into stress positions by guards during further torture sessions that were so extreme they left his spine deformed.
The prisoner was eventually sent to a political prison camp – an effective life sentence where large numbers of people die from forced labour.
Other methods of torture documented in the report include strangulation, sleep deprivation, the use of stress positions and pouring water laced with pepper down prisoner’s nostrils.
One female prisoner recalled: ‘Men were beaten like dogs. Even in the cell. They screamed like crazy because they hurt so much.
‘Even though women were beaten less, I was hit in the face and my skin ruptured and I bled a lot. [Officers] told me to wipe the blood, so I cleaned it.
‘I wept a lot when they hit me again. Blood and discharge ruptured during my next pre-trial examination. They hit me again because I wept.’
Some recalled how prisoners were tied to a wooden stake and then shot by a five-person firing squad for offences as trivial as owning a bible.
Others recalled how harsh punishments, including life prison terms, were doled out in public to terrify people into compliance, with public executions also common
Others were killed for smuggling bible pages into the country from China, so that people could make their own prayer books.
One person recalled being so close to the executed person that ‘I saw their flesh fall off. That is how close I was.’
Christianity was relatively common in the Korean Peninsula before the Soviet Civil Administration took control in 1945, along with other religions including Buddhism and spiritual beliefs including shamanism.
Religious repression began under the Soviet administration, which taught loyalty to the state above all else.
Following the Korea War – which ended in a stalemate, separating North and South Korea – the Kim dynasty replaced religion with a cult of personality based around their family.
As one prisoner recalled, the ideology stated: ‘There is no religion in the world and Kim Jong-il [Kim Jong-un’s predecessor] is God.’
All religious worship is now outlawed in North Korea, while possession of religious items such as crosses and prayer books is strictly forbidden.
Underground networks of Christians do still exist in the country, praying in secret and congregating in underground churches.
North Korea uses networks of informants – typically arrested Christians who have agreed to spy for the state to escape punishment – and undercover officers.
Others recalled how prisoners were worked to death in force labour camps and their bodies burned with the ash used as fertilizer (file image of a North Korean work camp)
The state also encourages citizens to act as informants – with parents sometimes turning in their children, or partners informing on their significant others.
Often, in the case of family informants, those who are informed upon simply disappear, with their fates never revealed to their loved ones.
In the case where families are informed upon by outsiders, whole households including children often disappear into prisons or re-education camps.
Il-lyong Ju, exiled human rights advocate who helped put the report together, said: ‘The cruel actions of the privileged few in North Korea who take our lives and control our thoughts must be prevented.
‘North Korean officials, whose crimes evoke thoughts of Auschwitz, must be identified and held accountable.
‘And we must not forget the testimonies of the survivors in this report who have overpowered death in North Korea.
‘This is the least that we, the free North Koreans, and you… who has been granted freedom at birth, can do as our collective act of humanity.
‘We have freedom. The North Korean people do not.’