WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration said Tuesday that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are being held in prison camps in North Korea, most “under horrific conditions” in remote areas.
The numbers are included in the State Department’s annual report on international freedom. It says that at least some of the prisoners are being held for religious reasons, despite the fact North Korea’s constitution guarantees “the right of faith” to citizens.
In unveiling the report, which covers 2017, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was mum on prospects around the on-again, off-again summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.
He also would not say if releasing thousands of political prisoners in North Korea would be part of any future negotiations between the United States and Pyongyang.
According to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in South Korea, there were 1,304 violations of religious freedom on the peninsula last year. That’s a slight increase from 2016, when 1,247 violations.
Of the 1,304 violations documented last year, the center found 770 individuals were detained by authorities for expressing their religious beliefs while 133 were imprisoned. More than 87 were disappeared and 119 were killed. Dozens more were forcibly removed from their homes or physically injured.
Of nearly 12,000 North Korean defectors surveyed, the center found 99.6 percent claimed there was “no religious freedom in the country” and only four percent said they had seen a Bible at some point in North Korea while living there.
The State Department’s report also found “security officials imprisoned and executed citizens suspected of religious involvement,” including Korean-Chinese Christian pastor Han Choong Yeol in 2016. The Washington, D.C.-based North Korean Refugees in the USA, reported the imprisonment of at least six women. Kept in brutal conditions they were either “beaten to death or died from diarrhea because they did not have access to medicine,” the report states.
The details of their deaths were provided by a North Korean defector who was jailed for eight years after it was discovered she attended church in China during a four month stay in the country.
Anything beyond “state-sanctioned” religious practice, including prayer, singing hymns or reading the Bible can lead to punishment or death, the report states.
Sam Brownback, the State Department’s global ambassador for religious freedom, said Tuesday the recent release of Americans detained in North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang Duk, could bode well for the future.
He too would not say whether more releases, including those of non-Americans, was up for future negotiations.
“We know it is difficult and desperate there, particularly for people of faith,” Brownback said. “The president is doing an outstanding job on dealing with the issue. Back when I was in the senate, you couldn’t get anyone to act, but he’s taken it on.”
According to Pompeo, the U.S. “won’t stand by as spectators” but will “get in the ring and stand in solidarity for those who wish to enjoy their most fundamental rights.”
He said that stand is behind the department’s first-ever forum on advancing religious freedom around the world.
The forum will be held July 25-26 in Washington D.C. with dozens of foreign officials invited to attend, though he did not reveal which countries will be invited.
“It won’t just be another discussion group. It will be about action,” he said.
Pompeo took no questions from reporters Tuesday but when Brownback was asked if he believed Trump’s travel ban on several majority Muslim countries last year undercut U.S. calls to promote religious freedom, Brownback said it did not.
“We’ve put forward everything that is happening around the world and we report it without favor or analysis. The U.S. does not report on itself because statutory authority doesn’t allow us,” he said.
The State Department also confirmed that cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar continues despite U.S.-imposed sanctions. Roughly 680,000 people have fled Myanmar to nearby Bangladesh to escape the violence. Refugees there live in squalor, Brownback noted.
Bangladesh is now headed into its rainy season. During a recent visit, Brownback was informed 38 children died of diphtheria recently. Mostly all of the children he spoke to while there said the witnessed direct or close family members killed or be badly wounded, he added.
July’s forum will allow “like-minded” foreign leaders to be “more aggressive about following up on our statements here today,” the ambassador added.
“We seek a world with less terrorism and more economic growth. You get both with religious freedom,” he said, noting that at the forum, emphasis would be placed on those countries who sign treaties promising not to oppress individual rights but do so anyway.
It is uncertain if representatives from U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia will attend the forum.
Previous secretaries of state have issued waivers against sanctions on Saudi Arabia for their treatment of non-Muslim religious practitioners in the country; non-Muslims are barred from practicing their faith in public, he said.
“I note what is taking place in Saudi Arabia today and I’m hopeful we can work to see more religious freedom taking place there and elsewhere,” Brownback said.