A bipartisan group, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, says freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief are essentially nonexistent in North Korea. Lisa Schlein in Geneva reports the group has presented the preliminary findings of a study on freedom of belief in North Korea based on interviews with North Korean refugees who managed to escape to South Korea.

The commission says all forms of religious belief are suppressed in North Korea. The only exception is North Korea's official ideology, known as "Juche." It is based on the personality cult of the regime's current leader, Kim Jong Il, and his late father, Kim Il Sung.

The study by the commission, which serves as an advisory body to the U.S. president and Congress, is based on new interviews with North Korean refugees, most of whom had fled to China to escape famine in the late 1990s. With the help of human rights advocates, the refugees made their way to South Korea.

The study's project manager, David Hawk, is a leading expert on human rights in North Korea. Based on interviews he conducted in Seoul, a picture emerges of a society where religious believers are persecuted, suffer discrimination and imprisonment.

Mr. Hawk says the North Korean refugees told him no churches or Buddhist Temples exist, except for a few churches in the capital Pyongyang that are used by foreigners. He says people who are caught in an act of religious worship are regarded as having committed a political offense.

He says many of these people have been sentenced for political crimes and sent to penal colonies. He says about 200-thousand North Koreans have been sent there without any judicial process whatsoever.

"No charges, no trial, no sentences. They are basically abducted by police forces and deposited in these labor camps which are located in the valleys of mountains in the northern parts of North Korea, where they will serve the rest of their lives at hard labor in mines or in timber cutting or a few of them are state farms."

Besides suspected dissidents, including religious leaders, Mr. Hawk says family members of prisoners also are sent to these repressive penal colonies.

Mr. Hawk says although the North Korean government has told the UN that there is freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief in North Korea, he says the eye-witness testimony the commission has gathered contradicts this.

The commission also points to a recent report by Amnesty International that those who practice religion are sometimes forcibly relocated to remote and desolate areas of the country, where they are systematically denied access to food and left to starve.