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No change in N. Korea's oppression of religious groups, U.S. gov't says
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, May 20 (Yonhap) -- North Korea shows no signs of averting its decades-long control of religious worship even under a young and Western-educated leader, the U.S. State Department said Monday.

   "The trend in the government's respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year," read the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the department. "In North Korea, the government severely restricted religious freedom, including discouraging organized religious activities, except those controlled by officially recognized groups."

   Violators face harsh punishment, including imprisonment in concentration camps, it said.

   The communist nation has been on the department's list of countries of particular concern for religious freedom since 2001.

   There is no indication of any notable change in the situation even after Kim Jong-un, reportedly in his late 20s and educated in Switzerland, took over power in December 2011.

   The State Department pointed out North Korea has been dominated by the Kim family's ruling philosophy and personal cult.

   "'Juche,' or self-reliance, remains an important ideological underpinning of the government, and the cult of personality of the late Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il (Jong-il) extends to Kim Jong Un (Jong-un)," it said.

   Some scholars claim that the “Juche” philosophy and reverence for the Kim family amount to a civil religion, it added.

   On South Korea, the department said the government generally respected religious freedom.

   But it took issue again with the practice of punishing "conscientious objectors for refusing to participate in mandatory military service."

   U.S. officials emphasized the importance of religious freedom in North Korea and other nations.

   "Freedom of religion is not an American invention. It's a universal value," Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters. "The freedom to profess and practice one's faith, to believe or not to believe, or to change one's beliefs, that is a birthright of every human being."

   Suzan Johnson Cook, ambassador at large for religious freedom at the department, said the updated report "provides a factual rendering of the status of religious freedom around the world," adding, "Religious freedom is essential for a stable, peaceful and thriving society."