The communist government of North Korea, routinely identified as the most repressive regime in the world, launched a campaign last month to eradicate the growing Falun Gong movement, according to reports circulating Monday.
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo, citing a report in Radio Free Asia (RFA), claimed that the spiritual movement’s growing popularity in the officially Marxist atheist country has forced dictator Kim Jong-un to enact mass arrests of over 100 suspected practitioners. One such arrest last month, RFA reported, triggered even more interest in Falun Gong from those who had not heard of it before the police action.
Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, is a spiritual movement originating in China that combines Buddhist and Taoist teachings into mental and physical exercises to achieve peace. According to its website, “assimilation to the highest qualities of the universe—Zhen, Shan, Ren (Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance)—is the foundation of practice.” As Falun Gong encourages individual development and disregard for the earthly, it rapidly became a threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), which routinely persecutes practitioners.
Falun Gong followers recently celebrated “World Falun Dafa Day,” which they observe every May 13 by spreading awareness of their practice and the human rights abuses perpetrated against their members by the Chinese communists – including, according to multiple reports, the use of Falun Gong practitioners to harvest organs.
RFA reported last week that Falun Gong has seen a surge in popularity in North Korea, first after being introduced to the country through trade with China.
“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,” an unidentified source told RFA. Observing growth in the number of practitioners in the country, North Korean police issued a decree in Pyongyang ordering all Falun Gong practitioners to identify themselves to the government. Police arrested over 100 people and threatened more severe action against those found after the “grace period” to identify themselves had elapsed.
As Chinese officials reportedly brought the practice to North Korea, the first to adopt it were members of the highest castes in the North Korean social system. North Korea uses a caste system known as songbun that separates the country into categories roughly described as “core” (those who run the communist Workers’ Party of Korea), “base” (rank and file party members), and “hostile” (Christians, those possessing foreign media, and other dissidents). Songbun is hereditary – one dissident will turn the whole family “hostile” for three generations – and determines where families live. Only those of highest songbun are allowed in Pyongyang.
“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 unidentified source told RFA. “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 Kim regime is struggling not just with who they would need to repress to keep people from practicing Falun Gong, but who is growing interested in it. According to the source, “after the proclamation and subsequent crackdown, people are suddenly very interested in Falun Gong … Falun Gong is known here as a religious practice that combines meditation and physical exercises, so people are now approaching it with curiosity.”
Another anonymous source explained to RFA that the appeal of Falun Gong appears to be its use of physical exercise for spiritual improvement.
“Falun 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 source is quoted as saying. Reports from defectors have revealed that North Koreans have returned in large numbers to traditional spiritual practices like Korean fortune-telling, which is illegal but, given its status as native to Korea, receives less severe punishment than Christianity. In April, reports circulated that Kim ordered the public execution of two fortune tellers in front of thousands of people in an attempt to depopularize the practice.
News of North Korea’s crackdown on the practice follows organized events last week for World Falun Dafa Day, organized to condemn human rights abuses against the group by the Chinese communist regime. In New York City, Falun Gong practitioners organized their 20th annual parade, attracting thousands. Falun Gong organizational leaders cite a variety of human rights abuses, most commonly the illegal arrest and torture of suspected practitioners, as a threat to their existence in China.
While founded in China in 1992, former Communist Party head Jiang Zemin banned Falun Gong in 1999 and branded it an “evil cult.” According to the Epoch Times, a publication with ties to the Falun Gong movement, China has killed over 4,300 practitioners since 1999. The newspaper previewed the publication of a documentary using footage secretly recorded in Chinese labor camps, where guards torture Falun Gong practitioners with “electric shocks, cages, and other forms of torture,” according to survivor Yu Ming.
Falun Gong practitioners also claim that their fellow believers are among the thousands of people China is believed to have used for organ harvesting. Multiple NGO reports have revealed evidence of the systematic use of political prisoners for organ transplants without their consent. In 2016, one study estimated China had conducted between 50,000 and 90,000 organ transplants without documenting them the year before, with no record of where the organs for those surgeries came from.