Between 80,000 to 120,000 people are trapped in North Korean gulags with many of them being imprisoned for their faith, the U.S. State Department has said.
On Tuesday, the agency released its congressionally-mandated 2017 International Religious Freedom report, an annual document describing the status of religious freedom in every country.
This year's report labels the Rohingya refugee crisis in Burma as "ethnic cleansing." It also places an estimate on the number of people subjected to North Korea's notorious system of prison camps.
Escapees over the years have shared the horrors of torture, forced labor and abuse they have experienced inside North Korea's prison camps. People are imprisoned in what the Kim regime likes to call "re-education camps" for crimes such as worshiping in a church that's not state-recognized or for defecting from the country.
"The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests," the report states. "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."
The State Department relied on the expertise of NGOs like Christian Solidarity Worldwide to state that a "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."
"Religious and human rights groups outside the country continued to provide numerous reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs," the report states. "According to the [Database Center for North Korean Human Rights], there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons who were found to be practicing religion within detention facilities. International NGOs and North Korean defectors reported any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps."
According to the report, one Christian who defected after spending eight years in prison for attending church in China for four months told a U.S.-based NGO that she was charged with "practicing Christianity" and learning of its "disgraceful nature."
"During her imprisonment, authorities told her up to a dozen times a day to repent of her past and try to 'wash' her mind," the report reads. "She reported six other women who were in prison for attending church were either beaten to death or died from diarrhea because they did not have access to medicine."
The report also states that Christians are "restricted to the lowest class rungs of the songun system" as they are seen as a "means of foreign, Western encroachment." The songun system classifies individuals on the basis of social class, presumed support of the Kim regime, religious views, family background and other identifiers.