A damning report by the US state department has condemned North Korea's record on religious freedom, accusing the country of 'systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations'.
Religious believers in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea face 'executions, torture, beatings, and arrests' at the hand of the state, according to the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report.
The 19th edition on the annual US report noted that the US does not have diplomatic with North Korea, and has cosponsored resolutions resolutions at the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council which 'condemn in the strongest terms' the country's human rights record, including its suppression of religion.
There are an estimated 200,000 and 400,000 Christians in North Korea, and the US report quoted research by Cornerstone Ministries International which suggested that between 10-45 percent of those imprisoned in detention camps are Christians.
Ownership of Bibles and other religious materials is reportedly illegal in the country, and punishable in some cases by execution.
The report wrote: 'The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions.
'Christian Solidarity Worldwide said a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning that the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs.'
As the report noted, North Korea's constitution guarantees 'the right of faith' to citizens but adds that 'religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order'. International NGOs, the survey said, have reported that 'religious activities conducted outside of those that are state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible' were punishable.
According to the UN Commission of Inquiry, Christianity is regarded as a threat to North Korea because it challenges the cult of personality surrounding leader Kim Jong Un. Government 'messaging' subsequently works to promote negative perceptions of the faith among citizens.
In 2016, the country was been re-designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the US secretary of state.