Koreans have traditionally had an inclusive view toward religion rather than an exclusive one. They lived by Confucianism, were healed by Shamanism, and were buried with Buddhist rites, but many are Christians today. Because of this it is hard to do survey of religion that reflects the layered nature of Korean religion.

From another perspective South Korea is not a very religious society. According to the CIA World Factbook (2015): Protestants makes up 19.7 percent of the population, followed by Buddhists 15.5 percent and Catholics 7.9 percent, with 56.9 percent saying they have no religion. A few people identify themselves as Confucian (0.4 percent); Won Buddhist (0.3 percent); Ch'ondogyo (0.1 percent), and others (0.7 percent). By one reckoning there are at least active 300 cults in South Korea.

Religious freedom is one of the tenets of Korean law. Confucianism has a strong hold on the Korean psyche but is not really a religion. It is a philosophy and way of life that has a strong influence on Korean thought, relationships and family rituals, A prime component of Confucianism is ancestor worship. Shamanism, incorporating the exorcism of evil spirits, is still practiced in some rural area of Korea. Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way) is a native mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism that originated in 1860). Fortunetellers are sought out. Feng shui (geomancy) is used when laying out homes, building and tomb sites.

AFP reported: Religious devotion is widespread in technologically advanced South Korea, with 44 per cent of people identifying themselves as believers. Most belong to mainstream churches, which can accumulate wealth and influence with tens of thousands of followers donating as much as 10 per cent of their income. But fringe groups are also widespread – experts say around 60 people in the country claim to be divine – and some have been implicated in fraud, brainwashing, coercion, and other behaviour associated with cults worldwide. [Source: Agence France-Presse, November 22, 2018]

Different Religious Groups in Korea

According to the 2016 census conducted by the Korea Statistical Information Service, of the 44 percent of the population espousing a religion, 45 percent are Protestant, 35 percent Buddhist, 18 percent Roman Catholic, and 2 percent “other.” The census counts members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church, Moonies) as Protestants. Followers of “other” religious groups, including Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Jeongsando, Cheondogyo, Daejonggyo, Daesun Jinrihoe, and Islam, together constitute less than 2 percent of the population. According to the only rabbi in the country, there is a small Jewish population of approximately 1,000, almost all expatriates. The Korean Muslim Federation estimates the Muslim population at 135,000, of which approximately 100,000 are migrant workers and expatriates mainly from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan. One expert on the Muslim diaspora in the country stated the population could be more than 200,000 because many migrant workers enter the country without proper documentation. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

Of those that say that practice a religion roughly half are Christian and half are Buddhist and 42 percent say they are active religious services on a weekly basis; 27 percent said they were active only around once a year.. Christians make a little more than a quarter of the population Roman Catholicism was introduced in the late 18th century and Protestantism in the late 19th century). Catholicism is regarded as the fastest-growing religion in South Korea.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “Protestant denominations include Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican, and the Korean Gospel Church Assembly. Other religions with significant popular followings include Taejongyo, based on the worship of a trinity of ancient deities, and Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect of Japanese origin. There are also practicing Muslims, members of the Unification Church, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Lack of Religion and Difficulty Quantifying It in South Korea

According to the CIA World Factbook (2015) 56.9 percent of South Koreans say they have no religion but some of them engage in some religious practices. Because of this, it is difficult for anyone to give an accurate religious census of Korea. The number of South Korean with expressed religious belief increased in the late 1990s and early 2000s. According to a report by the National Statistic Office, 25.17 million people held religious beliefs in 2005, about 53 percent of the population. This compared with 22.56 million, or 50.7 percent of the population in 1995. [Source: AFP, November 2008]

Koreans are traditionally pragmatic and eclectic in their religious commitments. Their religious outlook is not conditioned by a single, exclusive faith but by a combination of indigenous beliefs and creeds, such as Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. In North Korea today, the state officially discourages the practice of religion, regarding it as unscientific, superstitious, and a vestige of the feudal past. Therefore Any discussion of religion in Korea therefore is confined almost entirely to South Korea, where religious belief and practice flourish and a wide variety of denominations, sects, and cults have developed without significant government control. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005;“Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Religious statistics in South Korea are inexact but most observers agree that approximately 25 percent of the population is Christian, another 25 percent are Buddhist, perhaps 2 percent identify themselves as Confucianist, and another 2 or 3 percent belong to one or another of the Korean newly rising religions. However, while many Koreans feel compelled to pick one or another label when they are surveyed, in fact many do not belong to any single tradition but think of themselves as belonging to several at once, being comfortable with a mix of symbols and rituals that would seem incompatible to a Westerner. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“For example, most Koreans in their family lives are highly influenced by Confucianism — reverence for ancestors, respect for elders, and a consciousness of the mutual duties and obligations to relatives. Some may also feel deep affinity for the beauty and serenity of Buddhist temples and worship and may even visit Buddhist temples to pray. Korean Christians, having joined a religious tradition that is less tolerant of other faiths, might shun Buddhism but they are much less likely even to be aware that they are guided throughout their lives by Confucian rules and understandings. But there are also Christians who have thought a lot about the mixture of Western religion and their own identity and conclude that their beliefs contain elements of shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity all at the same time. In fact, there is a vibrant discussion in Korea concerning this very thing: the "Koreanization" of Christianity.

Diversity of Religions in Korea

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: The South Korean constitution guarantees freedom of religion. “There is a wide range of religious beliefs, from shamanism, Confucianism, and Buddhism to Christianity, Islam, and other religions. Indigenous folk beliefs and shamanism have co-evolved, sharing a fundamental belief in the existence of a myriad of gods (such as the mountain gods, the house gods, and the fire god) and spirits of the dead, all of which may influence people's fortunes. Korean Buddhism has both doctrinal and meditative traditions. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“ Buddhists believe that human suffering is caused mainly by desire. Thus, some Buddhists try to obtain enlightenment by cultivating an attitude of detachment, while others seek to fulfill their desires by offering prayers of requests to Kwanum, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Confucianism is a political and social philosophy that emphasizes the virtues of in , usually translated as "human-heartedness," and hyo or filial piety, which is expressed through ceremony such as ancestor rites. The Confucian concept of heaven is an impersonal yet willful force in nature and society, and is beyond human control.

Religious affiliation is spread among a great variety of traditions including Buddhism (25 percent), Christianity (25 percent), Confucianism (2 percent), and shamanism. These numbers should be treated with some caution, however, as (with the exception of Christianity) there are few if any meaningful distinctions between believers and nonbelievers in Buddhism and Confucianism, which is more of a set of ethical values than a religion. The cultural impact of these movements is far more widespread than the number of formal adherents suggests. A variety of “new religions” have emerged since the mid-nineteenth century, including Ch’4ndogyo. A very small Muslim minority also exists.

History of Religion in Korea

Polytheistic shamanism, beliefs in a world inhabited by spirits and other animistic notions s appear to be the oldest forms of religion in Korea, dating back to prehistoric time. Taoism and Buddhism were introduced from China around the fourth century A.D. Buddhism was the predominant religion during the Silla Dynasty (668-935) and reaching its height during the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392). Ancient kings in the Silla Dynasty were regarded as shaman as well political rulers. Yeongsanjae is a form of Buddhist ritual for the deceased. Silla created the ritual since Buddhism was introduced to the peninsula and spread rapidly, briefly becoming the official religion of all three kingdoms.

Taoism, which focuses on the individual in nature rather than the individual in society, along with Buddhism, entered Korea from China during the Three Kingdoms period (fourth to seventh centuries A.D.). Taoist motifs are seen in the paintings on the walls of Koguryo tombs. Confucianism also was brought to Korea from China in early centuries, but it occupied a subordinate position until the establishment of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910)and the persecution of Buddhism carried out by the early Chosun Dynasty kings. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Buddhism suffered a decline, however, and Buddhists were persecuted to some extent during the Chosun Dynasty. For the average Korean in late traditional and early modern times, the elaborate rituals of ancestor veneration connected to Confucianism were generally the most important form of religious life. Korean neo-Confucian philosophers, moreover, developed concepts of the cosmos and humanity's place in it that were, in a basic sense, religious rather than philosophical. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

In 1785 the first Christian missionary, a Roman Catholic, entered Korea. The government prohibited the propagation of Christianity, and by 1863 there were only some 23,000 Roman Catholics in the country. Subsequently, the government ordered harsh persecution of Korean Christians, a policy that continued until the country was opened to Western countries in 1881. Protestant missionaries began entering Korea during the 1880s. They established schools, universities, hospitals, and orphanages, and played a significant role in the modernization of the country. Before 1948 Pyongyang was an important Christian center; one-sixth of its population of about 300,000 residents were converts.

Another important religious tradition is Chondogyo. A new religion that developed out of the Tonghak (Eastern Learning) Movement of the mid- and late nineteenth century, Chondogyo emphasizes the divine nature of all people. A syncretic religion, Chondogyo contains elements of shamanism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Catholicism.

Religion and Neo-Confucianism in the Chosun Dynasty

According to the Asian Society: “Buddhism flourished until the Chosun dynasty (1392 – 1910), when Neo-Confucianism became the state ideology. Buddhism, however, remained a spiritual force in Korean society, and private devotional objects and works for monasteries and temples continued to be made throughout the centuries. Large-scale banner paintings, for example, were popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Buddhism was more widespread, in part because of the loosening of government prohibitions against it. The size and iconography of this painting suggest that it came from a worship hall of the highest level of sanctity, that is, one that enshrined an image of Shakyamuni Buddha. “ Shamanism remained alive in the Chosun dynasty. The king had his own private shaman who used the Big Dipper to perform a ritual of well being for him.

Confucianism — or more precisely Neo-Confucianism — was the mandatory state religion for over 500 years under the Yi dynasty during the Chosun period (A.D. 1392-1910). The Yi dynasty, wrote Pico Iyer in Smithsonian magazine, "set up a new and more systematic brand of Confucianism. Previously, Buddhism had always been regarded as a compliment of to Confucianism, concentrating not on society but self, not on this world but the next. Yi's new Confucianism, however, saw Buddhism's notions of individualism and meditation as threats to social harmony. Monastery lands were confiscated, Buddhist cremations were replaced by Confucian ancestor worship and reverence for authority. By 1425 all but 18 of the country's Buddhist temples were shuttered."

According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: “Neo-Confucianism, which interpreted Confucian doctrine through the teachings of the Chinese scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200), was a socially activist and reformist philosophical movement that began to become influential on the Korean peninsula late in the Koryo period. Pak Ch’o (1367-1454) was a member of Koryo’s National Academy during the reign of its last king, Kongyang (ruled 1389-92). He expresses hostility towards Buddhism typical of Neo- Confucian scholars at the end of Koryo, but contrary to the relatively tolerant attitude of most scholars and officials earlier in Korean history. During the Chosun dynasty, which began in 1392 following a coup led by General Yi Songgye (1335-1408), Neo-Confucianism would further gain influence to become the central state ideology and a blueprint for social reform — and Buddhism would be increasingly driven to the margins.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ^^^]

Religion in South Korea in the 1980s

According to government statistics, 42.6 percent or more than 17 million of South Korea's 1985 population professed adherence to an organized religious community. There were at least 8 million Buddhists (about 20 percent of the total population), about 6.5 million Protestants (16 percent of the population), some 1.9 million Roman Catholics (5 percent), nearly 500,000 people who belonged to Confucian groups (1 percent), and more than 300,000 others (0.7 percent). Significantly, large metropolitan areas had the highest proportions of people belonging to formal religious groups: 49.9 percent in Seoul, 46.1 percent for Pusan, and 45.8 percent for Taegu. The figures for Christians revealed that South Korea had the highest percentage of Christians of any country in East Asia or Southeast Asia, with the exception of the Philippines. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Except for the Christian groups, who maintain a fairly clearcut distinction between believers and nonbelievers, there is some ambiguity in these statistics. As mentioned above, there is no exact or exclusive criterion by which Buddhists or Confucianists can be identified. Many people outside of formal groups have been deeply influenced by these traditions. Moreover, there is nothing contradictory in one person's visiting and praying at Buddhist temples, participating in Confucian ancestor rites, and even consulting a shaman and sponsoring a kut. Furthermore, the statistics may underrepresent the numbers of people belonging to new religions. Some sources have given the number of adherents of Ch'ondogyo as over 1 million.

Given the great diversity of religious expression, the role of religion in South Korea's social development has been a complex one. Some traditions, especially Buddhism, are identified primarily with the past. Buddhist sites such as the Pulguksa Temple and the Sokkuram Grotto in Kyongju and the Haeinsa Temple near Taegu are regarded by most South Koreans as important cultural properties rather than as places of worship. Confucianism remains important as a social ethic; its influence is evident in the immense importance Koreans ascribe to education. Christianity is identified with modernization and social reform. Many Christians in contemporary South Korea, such as veteran political opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, a Catholic, have been outspoken advocates of human rights and critics of the government. Christian-sponsored organizations such as the Urban Industrial Mission promote labor organizations and the union movement. New religions draw on both traditional beliefs and on Christianity, achieving a baffling variety and diversity of views. It has been estimated that there were as many as 300 new religions in South Korea in the late 1980s, though many were small and transient phenomena.

Government and Religion in South Korea

The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion in South Korea. It also stipulates the separation of religion and politics. It therefore follows that the President, Cabinet ministers, lawmakers and civil servants should maintain religious neutrality. This is not always necessarily the case. For example,in 2008 Buddhist monks complained that the administration of President Lee Myung-bak had a pro-Christian bias.

The South Korean constitution states all citizens have freedom of religion, and that there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life because of religion. Freedoms in the constitution may be restricted by law only when necessary for national security, law and order, or public welfare, and restrictions may not violate the “essential aspect” of the freedom. The constitution states religion and state shall be separate. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

According to regulation, a religious group that has property valued at over 300 million won (US$260,000) may become a government-recognized religious organization by making public internal regulations defining the group’s purpose and activities, meeting minutes of the group’s first gathering, and a list of executives and employees.

To obtain tax benefits, including exemption of acquisition or registration taxes when purchasing or selling property to be used for religious purposes, organizations must submit to their local government their registration as a religious and nonprofit corporate body, an application for local tax exemption, and a contract showing the acquisition or sale of property. All clergy are taxed on earned yearly income. Clergy are exempt from taxation on education, food, transportation, and childcare expenses. Individual laypersons are eligible for income tax benefits upon submitting receipts of donations made to religious organizations.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools. Private schools and religious schools are free to conduct religious activities. Students at these schools may opt out of religious instruction. The law provides government subsidies for preservation and upkeep of historic cultural properties, including religious sites.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MCST) Religious Affairs Division works with the seven members of the NGO Korea Conference of Religions for Peace (KCRP) – the National Council of Churches of Korea (NCCK), the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the Catholic Church, Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Cheondogyo, and the Association of Korean Native Religions – on interfaith solidarity and is the primary government contact for religious organizations.

Conscientious Objectors and Exceptions Made for Religion in South Korea

South Korean law requires active military service for virtually all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 40 (in the army for 21 months, the navy for 23 months, or the air force for 24 months), followed by reserve duty training. In December 2019, the National Assembly passed legislation outlining alternative service options for conscientious objectors, although individuals who refused to serve or undertake alternative service continued to face up to three years imprisonment. The government ceased detaining, charging, or imprisoning new cases of conscientious objectors, but prosecutors continued to appeal “not guilty” verdicts of some Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been tried previously, and cases against 935 conscientious objectors whose trials began before the court’s decision were still pending at year’s end. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

The December 2019 legislation allows conscientious objectors to work for 36 months as government employees at correctional facilities in lieu of mandatory military service and reserve duties. President Moon pardoned 1,879 conscientious objectors who had been barred from becoming government officials because they had been convicted of refusing military service. The new law did not address the question of active duty service members wishing to switch to alternative service on the grounds of conscientious objections. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

The government ceased detaining, charging, or imprisoning conscientious objectors to military service immediately after a Constitutional Court’s decision in June 2018, but prosecutors continued during the year to appeal “not guilty” verdicts, arguing the beliefs of some Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been acquitted were insincere because they played violent video games or did not routinely attend church. According to Watchtower International, in February authorities released from prison the last prisoner detained for conscientious objection; however, 935 conscientious objectors whose trials began before June 2018 were still on trial at year’s end, including 63 who fulfilled the mandatory active duty service but refused to participate in reserve duty.

In January the Supreme Court ruled that Han Ji-man, a Seventh-day Adventist medical student, could take university exams outside Sabbath hours, overturning a lower court ruling. According to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, when Han began his studies as a first-year medical student, he learned several of his exams were scheduled on Saturday. The Church stated that he filed the lawsuit after speaking with professors and school administrators and after appeals to the NHRCK did not resolve the issue.

Religion, Politics and the Media in South Korea

Religious groups in South Korea have traditionally been very active in politics. Buddhist monks staged protests during the Japanese occupation and Christian churches played a high-profile roll in pro-democracy demonstrations in the 1980s. In June, 1995, police raided a Catholic church and a Buddhist temple to nab fugitive labor leaders that have been seeking refuge inside.

South Korea has its own 24-hour Buddhist cable network with monks leading chants and prayers and lecturing about Buddhist doctrine. Other religious radio and television broadcasting companies include Christian Broadcasting System (CBS), operated by evangelical Protestants; the Peace Broadcasting System (PBS), run by Roman Catholics; and the Buddhist Broadcasting System (BBS).

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) investigates complaints, issue policy recommendations, train local officials, and conduct public awareness campaigns, sometimes related to religion. The NHRCK can make nonbinding recommendations but does not have authority to implement policies or penalize individuals or agencies that violate human rights. The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

Religious Discrimination and Conversion Issues in South Korea

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) reported 13 cases alleging religious discrimination in 2019, compared with 21 in 2018. The NHRCK did not provide details on cases under investigation. According to media, in January 30,000 persons from civil society organizations and religious groups gathered in Seoul to demand the Christian Council of Korea (CCK) be shut down for corruption and for running coercive religious conversion programs. In July a group of NGOs and scholarly organizations sent an open letter to President Moon Jae-in calling on him to put an end to coercive conversion in the country. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

The Korean Falun Dafa Association said government-affiliated performance venues in Seoul and Busan blocked a Falun Gong-affiliated performance troupe from performing to avoid conflict with the Chinese government. Muslims, particularly Yemenis who arrived in 2018 as asylum seekers, continued to report incidents of discrimination, including in employment. Some critics of President Moon used derogatory words associated with Islam to denigrate him and his supporters.

According to media, on January 27, 30,000 persons from civil society organizations and religious groups gathered in Seoul to protest “unconstitutional actions” by the CCK and demanded the council to be shut down. The Global Citizens’ Human Rights Coalition organized the protest. Protestors accused the CCK – which maintains an alliance relationship with the World Evangelical Alliance – of corruption and of running coercive religious conversion programs. The coalition called for “enactment of a special law against coercive conversion programs to enhance freedom of religion.”[Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

In July 2019 a group of NGOs and scholarly organizations specializing in research on religious pluralism sent an open letter to President Moon calling on him to put an end to coercive religious conversions in the country. According to these groups, individuals, often parents, took those they wished to convert against their will to specialized “counselors” or “deprogrammers,” often pastors of established churches. The letter stated the “deprogrammers” then attempted to forcibly convert the children from whatever religion they deemed unorthodox back to the religion of their parents.

Yonhap News Agency reported that in August the Seoul Immigration Office rejected the refugee application of an Iranian man, claiming his conversion to Catholicism was not sincere and therefore he did not qualify under the law. The father arrived in the country with his then-six-year-old son, Kim Min-hyuk, in 2010 and both converted to Catholicism five years later. Kim received refugee status in 2018. In August the MOJ granted the father a one-year extension to his humanitarian stay permit to allow him to remain in the country with his minor son. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

Religious Tolerance and Division in South Korea

Prominent religious leaders have regularly met on a panel to promote religious freedom, mutual understanding, and tolerance. The panel was funded by the government but functioned independently from it. The NGO Korea Conference of Religions for Peace (KCRP) — comprised of seven religious groups: the National Council of Churches of Korea (NCCK), Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the Catholic Church, Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Cheondogyo, and the Association of Korean Native Religions — has hosted religious leaders from multiple faiths at religious events including seminars, exhibitions, arts and cultural performances, and interfaith exchanges to promote religious freedom, reconciliation, and coexistence. Islam is not one of the seven religious groups represented in the KCRP, which but Muslims were often invited as observers. In March 2019, the sole rabbi in South Korea opened the country’s first Jewish mikveh (bath used for ritual purification) in Seoul. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

Tensions between Buddhists and Christians

AFP reported: “Tensions between Buddhism and the Christian Church have deep roots in South Korea. Historically the dominant religion, Buddhism has been eclipsed by Christianity which grew at an incredible pace in the 20th century, especially after the 1950-53 Korean War. Thirty per cent of the population describe themselves as Christian, making South Korea one of the most Christian countries in Asia, ranking third after the traditionally Catholic Philippines and East Timor. Buddhists now comprise a little over 20 per cent, and there is some resentment in the Buddhist community over South Korea's embrace of a particularly evangelical style of Christianity that places a strong emphasis on proselytising and missionary work. [Source: AFP, December 17, 2012]

In 2011, on the rather benign issue of tourists lodging at Buddhist temples, “the Korean Association of Church Communication issued a statement arguing that there was "room for conflict" in the government subsidising a program associated with one particular religion. "There clearly is a problem with financially supporting missionary events by specific religion," it said. The official Templestay website stresses that the program is mainly aimed at providing a cultural experience, rather than an effort to promote religious belief.

In 2008 Buddhist monks complained that the administration of President Lee Myung-bak had a pro-Christian bias. AFP reported: “Then of thousands of South Korean Buddhists rallied in central Seoul yesterday in protest at the alleged pro-Christian bias by the Government of President Lee Myung-bak. A crowd estimated by police at about 55,000, including thousands of grey-robed monks, packed the City Hall plaza for the rare protest, which began with the beating of a giant drum. Organisers said Buddhist temples across the country simultaneously rang bronze bells.

“Buddhists have been uneasy over what they see as Christian bias since Mr Lee, a Presbyterian church elder, came to power. They were unhappy when he included members of his church network in his first cabinet. An online map published by two ministries, showing Seoul's churches but not major Buddhist temples, also sparked anger. Earlier, seven activists wanted by police following protests against US beef imports took refuge in Seoul's Jogyesa temple. Tensions grew late last month when police stopped a car carrying Jigwan, head monk of the Jogye Buddhist order, outside the temple and searched the boot. President Lee apologized but Buddhists were not appeased.

South Korean Buddhist Monks and Christian Ministers Fake Their Academic Credentials

Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post in 2007: “A university credential in South Korea could even enhance the perceived holiness of a Buddhist monk — and attract hordes of followers to his meditation centeVenerable Ji Gwang, 57, who presides over a large and prosperous meditation center in an upscale area of Seoul, said as much last month when he admitted that he lied on a long-ago résumé. It falsely said he had attended Seoul National University, this country's top-rated public college. "People swarmed in because they heard that a monk who had gone to a distinguished university was teaching the scriptures in English," Ji Gwang said at a news conference last month. [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, September 4, 2007]

“His meditation center has grown phenomenally since the mid-1980s, from a handful of members to more than 250,000. In a reluctant interview this week inside the center, the monk said his résumé problems occurred when "I was still in the secular world." He falsified his résumé when applying for a newspaper job in the 1970s. "This is now irrelevant for me as a practicing monk," he said in the interview, which came after he had delivered a long lecture on ecological responsibility to a hall packed with attentive middle-age women. He said he expected his scandal to blow over: "I am just waiting for time to pass." For his followers at the meditation center, it seems enough time has already passed. During the interview, several expressed anger at questions about the degree and repeatedly asked the reporter to leave.

“The passage of time, though, is unlikely to help others in the diverse religious worlds of South Korea. There are rumblings here of widespread fraudulent academic credentials among Christian ministers. "Credentials are a big, big problem," said Rev. Joseph Shino Park, a director of the Christian Council of Korea, an umbrella group for the churches of a nation where about 30 percent of 49 million people are Christian. "It may soon be revealed that very famous, high-ranking church officials have faked their credentials."

For ministers, there are financial, as well as social, incentives to pump up college achievements. Successful churches, together with their senior ministers, can become wealthy, drawing on the tithing of prosperous congregations whose members value the wisdom of preachers with college credentials.

Even among those who have faked degrees, the abiding desire in Korea for college credentials does not necessarily disappear. Ji Gwang, the monk who falsely dressed up his résumé decades ago, has since earned a master's degree in religion. "Right now," he said proudly, "I am a doctoral candidate in the graduate school at Seoul National University." That's the school he did not manage to attend in his younger days.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.