updated 7/24/2009 5:06:58 AM ET 2009-07-24T09:06:58

North Korea publicly executed a Christian woman last month for distributing the Bible, which is banned in the communist nation, South Korean activists said Friday.

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Ri Hyon Ok, 33, was also accused of spying for South Korea and the United States and organizing dissidents. She was executed in the northwestern city of Ryongchon near the border with China on June 16, according to a report from an alliance of several dozen anti-North Korea groups.

Ri's parents, husband and three children were sent to a political prison camp in the northeastern city of Hoeryong the following day, the report said, citing unidentified documents it says were obtained from North Korea. It showed a copy of Ri's North Korean government-issued photo ID.

It is virtually impossible to verify such reports about secretive North Korea, where the government tightly controls the lives of its citizens and does not allow dissent.

On Thursday, an annual report from a state-run South Korean think tank on human rights in the North said that public executions, though dropping in number in recent years, were still carried out for crimes ranging from murder to circulating foreign movies.

North Korea claims to guarantee freedom of religion for its 24 million people but in reality severely restricts religious observances. The cult of personality surrounding national founder Kim Il Sung and his son, current leader Kim Jong Il, is a virtual state religion.

Citizens barred from churches
The government has authorized four state churches, one Catholic, two Protestant and one Russian Orthodox, but they cater to foreigners and ordinary North Koreans cannot attend. However, defectors and activists say more than 30,000 North Koreans are believed to practice Christianity secretly.

The U.S. State Department reported last year that "genuine religious freedom does not exist" in North Korea.

"North Korea appears to have judged that Christian forces could pose a threat to its regime," Do Hee-youn, a leading activist, told reporters, claiming public executions, arrest and detention of North Koreans are prevalent.

Another woman said arrested, tortured
The Investigative Commission On Crime Against Humanity also alleged in its report that in March, North Korean security agents arrested Seo Kum Ok, 30, another Christian, in a city near Ryongchon and tortured her. The agents alleged she was attempting to spy on a nuclear site and hand over the evidence to South Korea and the U.S.

The report said it remains unclear whether she survived. Her husband was also arrested and their two children disappeared, it said.

The commission said it was seeking to try to take North Korean leader Kim to the International Criminal Court over alleged crimes against humanity.

Activists claim that such atrocities — including murder, kidnap, rape, extermination of individuals in prison camps — cannot take place in North Korea without Kim's knowledge or direction as he wields absolute power.

"Let's file a suit against Kim Jong Il to the International Criminal Court," the activists chanted.

More on: North Korea

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