A controversial spiritual movement with recent origins in China is reportedly spreading in the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang, even as North Korean and Chinese authorities have launched crackdowns to eliminate it, sources say.
Founded in 1992 in China's northeast, the Falun Gong spiritual movement gained increasing influence as the fastest growing religion in the PRC and overseas over the next seven years. In 1999 the Chinese government at the orders of then President Jiang Zemin began a harsh and sometimes deadly crackdown on the sect, dragging practitioners from their homes and sending them to detention centers.
Outside of China, the movement continued to flourish and is often cited as an example of religious persecution, with practitioners and allied religious freedom advocates holding protests in major cities to bring attention to the situation faced by Falun Gong believers in the PRC.
Sources within North Korea have said that authorities in Pyongyang have begun a crackdown on Falun Gong as the city has seen a sharp increase in the number of followers within its population.
"The judicial authorities are struggling because the spread of Falun Gong among citizens of Pyongyang has surged beyond their expectations," said a source from Pyongyang in an interview with RFA's Korean Service on May 11.
The source said that the authorities began their crackdown last month.
"In early April, the police issued a proclamation ordering citizens to voluntarily report their status as believers in Falun Gong. They threatened to impose harsh punishments on those who don't turn themselves in, but are found after the reporting period," the source said.
Government action against Falun Gong appears to have backfired according to the source, as the negative publicity for the religion seems to have made it more popular.
"After the proclamation and subsequent crackdown, people are suddenly very interested in Falun Gong, which had already been spreading in [Pyongyang's] underworld. Falun Gong is known here as a religious practice that combines meditation and physical exercises, so people are now approaching it with curiosity," said the source.
While there is no official record of how Falun Gong entered North Korea, the source said it was introduced by trade officials in Pyongyang.
"The headquarters of the central trade organizations are concentrated in Pyongyang. As North Korea-China trade relations have become more active recently, Falun Gong began spreading in Pyongyang through trade workers," the source said.
According to the source, during the first round of crackdowns, 100 Falun Gong followers were arrested in Pyongyang-a number that is a lot higher than they expected.
"Many Falun Gong followers were arrested in other districts [of Pyongyang] and they will be sentenced to hard labor or correctional labor depending on the severity of their crimes," added the source.
The source said that the crackdown has increased tension in the police department because so many practitioners were caught in the early crackdown.
"They can't predict how many more Falun Gong followers they will arrest and since [the religion] is spreading among high-ranking government officials and their families, it is becoming more than a troubling issue for them," the source said.
Another source, also from Pyongyang likened the crackdown on Falun Gong to a war on the religion, and compared the situation to how North Korean authorities have persecuted followers of other religions in the past.
"The Central Committee [of the Korean Workers' Party] say that Christianity is like opium or drugs and have harshly punished [Christians]. Now that Falun Gong is here, people are watching closely to see how the authorities will respond," the second source said.
The second source believes that the religion has many features that North Koreans are quite curious about, leading to its rapid spread.
"Faun Gong has spread [here] because everyone wants to get martial arts training and exercise, and they [like] the magical spiritual ability to control the human soul," the second source said.
While the rapid spread might be alarming to the regime, the second source believes that the religion will not be easy to quash.
"Even the Chinese government did not win [their battle] against Falun Gong, and now it's spreading in Pyongyang, the heart of a historic hereditary dictatorship," said the second source.
The second source also believes that Falun Gong is popular because the people live in oppression, and because followers of the religion make fantastic claims, giving them hope.
"[It's] like a rainfall during a drought because the citizens have no hope for the future. People in Pyongyang say absurd things like that Falun Gong followers will not die or dry out if they were hanged for 80 days. So many people believe this is true," said the second source.
The Pyongyang crackdown on Falun Gong is the first ever action by the government against the movement in North Korea. The 100 people arrested for following Falun Gong were caught only in Pyongyang's Songyo district, one of 18 districts in the city.
North Korea's constitution allows for freedom of religious beliefs, but true religious freedom does not exist within its borders and all churches and temples are state operated.
The website of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) says that organized religion is perceived by the regime as a threat, and besides token churches and temples built to give the appearance of religious freedom, North Koreans must practice their religions in secret or risk a stint in a prison camp or worse, execution.
The website notes that "thousands of Buddhists and Christians have been purged and persecuted throughout the history of North Korea."
A 2014 United Nations report cited North Korean government figures showing that the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
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