SEOUL, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- The United States has designated North Korea, China, Myanmar, Pakistan and six other countries violators of religious freedom.
The U.S. State Department included North Korea on the list of countries that conducted "severe, ongoing, egregious, systematic violations of religious freedom" for 17 consecutive years, it said on Tuesday.
The U.S. has been designating countries with records of violations for religious freedom and human rights under the International Religious Freedom Act since 1998.
North Korean forbids any religious practices and considers religion a threat to the regime's existence, according to South Korea's unification ministry report on North Korea.
North Korea used to be one of the countries with access to diverse religions before the Korean War in the 1950s. In 1945, some 22 percent of its population held religious beliefs in Christianity, Buddhism, Catholic, or ethnic Korean Cheondogyo, according to a report by the Korea Institute for National Unification.
North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung banned any religious services, calling religion "essentially superstitious."
"In North Korea, the regime's approach toward religion and belief is among the most repressive in the world," said a policy update by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, released in November.
Many religious practices have been gone or conducted in secret since the 1960s.
In 1972, it reinstated several religious associations related to Christianity, Buddhism, and Catholic to facilitate inter-Korean talks and exchanges. Since 2000, North Korean religious groups have functioned to receive aid from South Korean religious groups through various exchange projects, according to the unification ministry.
North Korean religious prisoners, however, still undergo harsh treatment, according to a teleconference on Tuesday by the U.S. State Department on the designation of states as violators of religious freedom.
A North Korean lady was put in prison because she had a Bible and anyone with a link to a religious organization is given a harsh treatment at prison camps, according to Samuel Brownback, ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
He added that ongoing discussions between the U.S. and North Korea would make the situation improve in North Korea.