North Korea's town Kaesong is seen from the Dorasan Observatory in the Civilian Control area near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in Paju, South Korea, on May 2, 2023. Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI | License Photo
May 28 (UPI) -- North Korea once sentenced a toddler to life in a prison camp because the baby's family had been caught with a copy of the Bible, according to a new report from the U.S. State Department.
While the incident happened in 2009, it was highlighted in the State Department's Report on International Religious Freedom: Democratic People's Republic of Korea for 2022 published earlier this month.
"The entire family, including a two-year-old child, were given life sentences in political prison camps," the report reads.
The report, based on the accounts of defectors who fled the brutal regime between 2007 and 2020, also documented the tales of other Christians who have been imprisoned or have faced the death penalty under the reign of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un.
Open Doors USA, a non-governmental organization that documents the persecution of Christians worldwide, estimates that there are around 400,000 Christians in North Korea -- just 1.5% of the national population -- of which an estimated 70,000 are in "horrendous" prison camps.
The North Korean government also particularly targets Shamanism and Cheondoism, also known as Cheondogyo, a modern religious movement based on a 19th-century Korean neo-Confucian movement.
"The government ruled by the Kim family views Christians as the most dangerous political class of people, and the persecution is violent and intense," according to Open Doors.
"North Korean parents often hide their faith from their children. Churches of more than a few people are non-existent and most worship is done as secretly as possible."
The State Department said in its report that there are a small number of registered religious institutions that include churches but that they operate "under tight state control" and are mostly "showpieces" for foreigners visiting the exclusive country.
The punishments for religious practices largely fall under two provisions in the country's legal code, one which makes it illegal to possess or distribute media "that reflect decadent, carnal, or foul contents" and another that bans "superstitious activities in exchange for money and goods."
"There were reports the government continued to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities," the report reads.
The COVID-19 pandemic also exacerbated the problems faced by Christians and people of other faiths in North Korea, a dominantly atheist country, according to U.S. officials.
Border restrictions levied during the pandemic resulted in "further reductions in the flow of escapees" which has made it difficult for the world to grasp the extent of the problems within North Korea.
The State Department report cited another report from 2021 released by Korea Future, a non-profit organization whose mission is to investigate and document human rights violations in North Korea.
According to that report, women and girls made up more than 70% of victims of religious persecution in North Korea.
"[Officials] worked us hard without feeding us properly," one victim said.
"I suffered from malnutrition and was sure I would not survive. I kept having diarrhea, even when I only drank water, and I weighed just 35 kilograms [77 pounds]. Today I weigh 60 kilograms [132 pounds], so I was like a skeleton back then."
The report came as Jung Young-lim, a North Korean official, issued a statement praising the Arab League of Nations for considering "taking joint action to reject foreign interference in the region" which the regime believes shows the "catastrophic consequences" of the "U.S.-driven Arab Spring" in 2011.
The Pew Research Center estimated in 2011 that the population of Muslims in North Korea was just around 3,000. There is only one mosque in North Korea.