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Activists say N. Korean woman executed for distributing Bible

By Kwang-Tae Kim
Associated Press / July 25, 2009

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SEOUL - A Christian woman accused of distributing the Bible, a book banned in communist North Korea, was publicly executed last month for the crime, South Korean activists said yesterday.

The 33-year-old mother of three, Ri Hyon Ok, also was accused of spying for South Korea and the United States, and of organizing dissidents, a rights group said in Seoul, citing documents obtained from the North.

The report by the Investigative Commission on Crime Against Humanity included a copy of Ri’s government-issued photo ID and said her husband, children, and parents were sent to a political prison the day after her June 16 execution.

The report could not be independently verified yesterday, and there has been no mention by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency of her case.

But it would mark a harsh turn in the crackdown on religion in North Korea, a country where Christianity once flourished and where the capital, Pyongyang, was known as the “Jerusalem of the East’’ for the predominance of the Christian faith.

According to its constitution, North Korea guarantees freedom of religion, but in reality, the regime severely restricts religious observance, with the cult of personality created by national founder Kim Il Sung and enjoyed by his son, current leader Kim Jong Il, serving as a virtual state religion.

Those who violate religious restrictions are often accused of crimes such as spying or antigovernment activities.

The government has authorized four state churches: one Catholic, two Protestant, and one Russian Orthodox.

They cater to foreigners only, however, and ordinary North Koreans cannot attend the services. Still, more than 30,000 North Koreans are believed to practice Christianity in hiding - at great personal risk, defectors and activists say.

The US State Department said in a report last year that “genuine religious freedom does not exist’’ in North Korea.

“What religious practice or venues exist . . . [are] tightly controlled and used to advance the government’s political or diplomatic agenda,’’ the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a May report. “Other public and private religious activity is prohibited, and anyone discovered engaging in clandestine religious practice faces official discrimination, arrest, imprisonment, and possibly execution.’’

The report cited indications that the North Korean government had taken “new steps’’ to stop the clandestine spread of Christianity, particularly in areas near the border with China, including infiltrating underground churches and setting up fake prayer meetings as a trap for Christian converts.

Ri reportedly was executed in the northwestern city of Ryongchon, near the border with China.