Korea has traditionally been shamanist, Buddhist and Confucianist, with some Christian and syncretic Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way). Chondokyo is a religion unique to Korea that combines elements of Buddhism and Christianity. Autonomous religious activities are now almost nonexistent; government-sponsored religious groups exist to provide illusion of religious freedom. In place of convention religion. the personality cult of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong-un and the philosophy juche have been elevated to the position of a religion. Juche is a a state ideology which espouses self-reliance and national identity. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Cities of the World , The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Confucianism, which has traditionally included ancestor worshipers and incorporates a hierarchical system with respect for authority, has been integrated into North Korean, personality-cult-style worship. Three hundred Buddhist temples exist and in some cases have been restored but they do not function. A handful of Christian churches are open but is not clear if they have any congregations. Religion in general is regarded with traditional Marxist distastes as bourgeois. Ceremonies and rituals used by organized religious have been merged into the personality-cult worship of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong-un.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ Some North Koreans seem to view organized religion as a foreign intrusion. "There used to be foreign missionaries in this area, and they robbed people and stole cultural relics," said Kim Song Gun, 37, a guard at Mt. Kumgang. These days, foreign religious organizations in North Korea only provide food and development aid. South Korean religious groups, mostly Catholic and Buddhist, have been at the forfront o delivering humanitarian aid to North Korea as they are able to get around the ban on international aid to North Korea imposed by Seoul and Washington [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 2, 2005]

“A handful of... houses of worship are under construction in North Korea. During his trip to Siberia in 2001, leader Kim Jong Il was reportedly so impressed by the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches that he approved the building of one in Pyongyang.” It was scheduled to open in 2006 “to serve the small Russian business and diplomatic community there. The Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, which has invested heavily in the North, is believed to be building an interfaith religious center in Pyongyang. But experts believe that such projects are the exception rather than the rule. "The conditions are ripe for a religious revival. The ideology of Kim Il Sung has lost much of its heavenly mandate because of the collapse of the economy and there probably is an ideological vacuum," David Hawk told the Los Angeles Times. "But I'm sure the regime is aware of that and making sure it doesn't happen." Hawk is a human rights expert who has been studying North Korea for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an agency funded by Congress.

Lack of Religious Freedom and Personal Religious Beliefs in North Korea

In North Korea, there is little freedom of faith. Doug Wallack wrote in the Huffington Post: “Its constitution formally grants citizens religious freedom, but in reality, religious practice is punishable by public execution or banishment to the nation’s kwan-li-so prison camps. [Source: Doug Wallack, Huffington Post, October 22, 2014]

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Religion is theoretically permitted in North Korea, and a visitor may meet a Buddhist monk or nun. But North Koreans hardly have freedom of religion. The monks and nuns that tourists meet may not have any public followers; indeed, they themselves may be loyal followers of the leader. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Describing part of a conversation with his guide and minder during a tour of North Korea, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: ““Do you believe in God?” my minder suddenly asked me as we sat on the bus. It was a surprising question — North Korea is an officially secular state, where religion is severely restricted. “Not really,” I replied. “Do you?” He paused, and smiled. “I believe in Juche revolutionary ideology,” he said, referring to Kim Il Sung’s ideology of self-reliance. I laughed, and he laughed too. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2017]

Practicing Religion in North Korea

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “In North Korea today, the state officially discourages the practice of religion, regarding it as unscientific, superstitious, and a vestige of the feudal past. A certain number of North Korean citizens continue to practice Buddhism, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, and the Korean religion called Ch'ondokyo, but they have to belong to state-sponsored religious organizations that are closely monitored by the government. Religious practice outside the bounds of these organizations is regarded as subversive and the practitioners run serious risks. It is also much harder for an avowed religious believer to advance in North Korean society, since careers are generally open only to those who support the regime and, in many cases, those who are active members of the ruling Korean Workers Party. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

There are several schools for religious education, including three-year religious colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy. In 1989 Kim Il Sung University established a religious studies program, but its graduates usually go on to work in the foreign trade sector. Although the constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, in practice the government severely discourages organized religious activity except as supervised by the aforementioned officially recognized groups. Constitutional changes made in 1992 allow authorized religious gatherings and the construction of buildings for religious use and deleted a clause about freedom of antireligious propaganda. The constitution also stipulates that religion “should not be used for purposes of dragging in foreign powers or endangering public security.” [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

North Koreans are taught that religion is like opium; Jesus is “an imperialist invasion tool” and believing in God is a sin. In a short discussion about religion, a North Korean guide told one visitor, "There are two things in the Bible that I can never understand. 'Turn the other cheek' and 'Love your enemy." I will never turn my cheek! I will fight back tenfold! And I will never love my enemy—I will always hate him!" Buddhism is tolerated more than Christianity at least partly because it doesn’t place so much emphasis on converting others.

Religious Followers in North Korea

By some estimates North Korea has the world’s lowest religious adherence rate. Besides a small number of practicing Buddhists (about 10,000, under the auspices of the official Korean Buddhist Federation), North Korea also has some recognized Christians (about 10,000 Protestants and 4,000 Roman Catholics, under the auspices of the Korean Christian Federation) and some 2.7 million indigenous Ch’ondogyo (Heavenly Way) adherents.Buddhist temples are considered museums and cultural artifacts not active places of worship. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

According to the International Religious Freedom Report North Korea 2017 by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: “Given the country’s extremely closed nature, figures for religious followers are outdated and difficult to confirm. The United Nations (UN) estimates that less than 2 percent of North Koreans are Christian, or somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 people. The World Encyclopedia published by Oxford University Press breaks down followers of religion in North Korea in this way: 1) traditional beliefs: 16 percent; 2) Chondogyo: 14 percent; 3) Buddhism: 2 percent; Christianity: 1 percent. The “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices” breaks down followers like this: 1) Juche: between 20 and 70 percent; 2) nonreligious between 20 and 70 percent; 3) Cheondogyo, Buddhist, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Folk Religionist less than 0.2 Percent

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “ Before North Korea was separated from South Korea in 1945, More than half of all the Christians on the Korean Peninsula lived in what is now North Korea. Cheondogyo, a religion founded in Korea in the nineteenth century, had more than twice as many believers in the northern half of the peninsula than in the south. Though there are still a few Christians, Buddhists, and followers of Cheondogyo in North Korea, they are far outnumbered by believers in Juche, a political philosophy with religious overtones promoted by the Communist government of the north. The exact percentage of the North Korean population that believes in Juche is unclear. Close to 20 percent of the population are members of the Korea Worker's Party, which is open only to believers in Juche. Because the government heavily promotes Juche in schools and the media, outside observers assume that more than half of nonparty members may believe in Juche as well. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006. Baker was a professor in Korean History and Civilization at the University of British Columbia]

History of Religion in North Korea

North Korea first appears in historical records in 108 B.C.. The Manchurian-based kingdom of Goguryeo overran Pyongyang in A.D. 313 and moved its capital there in 427. The Goguryeo court, which controlled northern Korea until 668, borrowed Buddhism from China and made it the official religion. Later what is now North Korea was absorbed by Goryeo (935–1392), the first kingdom to bring almost all of the Korean Peninsula under one government. Goryeo adopted Buddhism as its official religion but also sponsored rituals honoring local deities and promoted Confucian scholarship. The Chosun dynasty (1392–1910), which replaced Goryeo, withdrew official support from Buddhism and folk religion and made Confucianism the official ideology of the country instead. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006].

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: When Confucianism was challenged by the birth of a Roman Catholic church in Korea in 1784 and the rise of Donghak (now called Cheondogyo), Korea's first indigenous organized religion, in 1860, the Chosun government responded with bloody persecutions. By the time the first Protestant missionaries arrived in Korea in the 1880s, however, the Chosun dynasty had grown too weak to engage in any more religious violence. Japan absorbed Korea into its colonial empire in 1910, ending the reign of Confucianism. When Japan was forced off the Korean Peninsula in 1945, the peninsula was split in two for the first time in almost 1,000 years.

“Until 1945 the major difference between northern and southern Korea was that Koreans in the north were more likely to be a Christian or an adherent of Cheondogyo (an indigenous new Korean religion) than were Koreans in the south. In fact, before 1945 almost 60 percent of Korea's Protestants and 50 percent of Korea's Roman Catholics lived in what is now North Korea, as did more than 70 percent of Cheondogyo believers, even though the population of the northern half of the peninsula was much less than the population of the south. Buddhism and shamanism, on the other hand, were underrepresented in the north. Only about a third of Korea's shamans, and less than 15 percent of Korea's Buddhists, lived in the north. Nevertheless, it is estimated that there were a total of 400,000 north Koreans with a religious affiliation in 1945

“That changed with the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948. Under pressure from their Communist government to renounce existing religions, almost all of those in the north who had regularly participated in religious activity either fled south or abandoned any public display of their religious beliefs. The result was a sharp drop in the number of people willing to be recognized as religious to less than 40,000.

Traditional Religion Hangs on in North Korea

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Before 1945, North Korea “was home to a vibrant and pluralistic religious culture. More than half of all the Christians on the Korean Peninsula lived in what is now North Korea. Cheondogyo, a religion founded in Korea in the nineteenth century, had more than twice as many believers in the northern half of the peninsula than in the south. Buddhism, on the other hand, was much stronger in the south. Nevertheless, there were at least 400 Buddhist temples and about 1,600 monks north of Seoul before 1945. “Though there are still a few Christians, Buddhists, and followers of Cheondogyo in North Korea, they are far outnumbered by believers in Juche, a political philosophy with religious overtones promoted by the Communist government of the north. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Christianity played an important role in organizing anti-Japanese resistance during the colonial period. Similarly, the Ch'ondo religion that emerged in the nineteenth century as an indigenous Korean religion was strengthened in the process of anti-Japanese resistance. In fact, many Ch'ondo leaders were included in the initial state-building of North Korea. Decades of Kim Il Sung worship transformed the religious plurality, though; with the leader's ascendancy, non-Juche ideas came to be regarded as heterodox and dangerous, or as bourgeois and capitalist. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Korean culture has an age-old Confucian tradition, although this heritage does not exist in today's North Korea as it did in the past. Rather, its form and direction changed due to the intervention of leader-focused socialism. Kim Il Sung often is depicted in a paternalistic manner, personified as a benevolent father (and at times, father-mother, asexually or bisexually) who looks after the whole population as children and disciples. Kim Il Sung created the notion of a family state with himself as the head of the nation. Indeed, a popular North Korean children's song includes this refrain: "Our Father is Marshal Kim Il Sung/ Our home is the bosom of the party/ We are one big family/ We have nothing to envy in the whole wide world."

By some estimates Buddhists make up about two percent of the North Korean population. Practicing Buddhists include about 10,000 members of the official Korean Buddhist Federation. Buddhist temples are considered museums and cultural artifacts not active places of worship. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

In the late 1980s, it became apparent that North Korea was beginning to use the small number of Christians remaining in the country to establish contacts with Christians in South Korea and the West. Such contacts are considered useful for promoting the regime's political aims, including reunifying the peninsula. In 1988 two new churches, the Protestant Pongsu Church and the Catholic Changchung Cathedral, were opened in Pyongyang.

“Other signs of the regime's changing attitude toward Christianity include holding the International Seminar of Christians of the North and South for the Peace and Reunification of Korea in Switzerland in November 1988, allowing papal representatives to attend the opening of the Changchung Cathedral in October-November of the same year, and sending two North Korean novice priests to study in Rome. Moreover, a new association of Roman Catholics was established in June 1988. A North Korean Protestant pastor reported at a 1989 meeting of the National Council of Churches in Washington, D.C., that his country has 10,000 Protestants and 1,000 Catholics who worship in 500 home churches. In March-April 1992, American evangelist Billy Graham visited North Korea to preach and to speak at Kim Il Sung University.*

North Korean State Take Over and Control of Religion

Between 1945, when Soviet forces first occupied the northern half of the Korean Peninsula and the end of the Korean War in 1953, many Christians, considered "bad elements" by North Korean authorities, fled to South Korea to escape the socialist regime's antireligious policies. The state co-opted Buddhism, which had weakened over the centuries. Pyongyang has made a concerted effort to uproot indigenous animist beliefs. In the early 1990s, the practices of shamanism and fortune-telling seem to have largely disappeared. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Different official attitudes toward organized religion are reflected in various constitutions. Article 14 of the 1948 constitution noted that "citizens of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea shall have the freedom of religious belief and of conducting religious services." Article 54 of the 1972 constitution, however, stated that "citizens have religious liberty and the freedom to oppose religion" (also translated as "the freedom of antireligious propaganda"). Some observers argued that the change occurred because in 1972 the political authorities no longer needed the support of the much-weakened organized religions. In the 1992 constitution, Article 68 grants freedom of religious belief and guarantees the right to construct buildings for religious use and religious ceremonies. The article also states, however, that "No one may use religion as a means by which to drag in foreign powers or to destroy the state or social order. North Korea has been represented at international religious conferences by state-sponsored religious organizations such as the Korean Buddhists' Federation, the Christian Federation, and the Ch'ndogyo Youth Party.*

Many churches and temples have been taken over by the state and converted to secular use. Buddhist temples, such as those located at Kmgang-san and Myohyang-san, are considered "national treasures," however, and have been preserved and restored. This action is in accord with the juche principle that the creative energies of the Korean people in the past must be appreciated.*

Religious Aspects of North Korean Socialism

Many if not most observers of North Korea would agree that the country's official religion is the cult of Kim Il Sung. North Korean Christians attending overseas conferences claim that there is no contradiction between Christian beliefs and the veneration of the "great leader" or his secular juche philosophy. This position does not differ much from that of the far more numerous Japanese Christian communities before and during World War II, which were pressured into acknowledging the divine status of the emperor. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “What most characterizes North Korean socialism is its leadership, built on the basis of the cult of personality of Kim Il Sung. Through the state-engineered education system, Kim and his family are introduced as role models for men and women, young and old. By the time they are in kindergarten, children can recite stories from Kim's childhood. Moral ideological education in North Korea is allegorically organized, with Kim Il Sung and his pedigree as protagonists. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Kim Il Sung's name is ubiquitous in North Korea. For example, if one is asked how one is, the model answer would be "thanks to the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, I am well," and the North Korean economy is remarkably strong "thanks to the wise guidance of Marshal Kim Il Sung." The ideology that represents the leader cult is called the Juche idea. Juche literally means "subject" and is often translated as self-reliance. In North Korea, slogans such as "Let us model the whole society on the Juche idea!" are heard daily.

“North Korea's official history claims that Kim Il Sung first established the Juche ideology in 1927 when he founded the Anti-imperialism Youth League in Jilin in northeastern China. The Juche idea is quite unlike Marxist historical materialism. Rather, it is a sort of idealism, placing emphasis on human belief; in this sense, it resembles a religion rather than a political ideology. Under the ideology of Juche, North Korea achieved many remarkable goals, including the economic recovery from the ashes of the Korean War. In the name of loyal dedication to Kim Il Sung, national unity was accomplished and national pride instilled North Korean citizens.”

Religious Aspects and Influences on North Korea’s Cult of Personality

Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker: Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong-un “are worshipped as divinities, in a peculiarly Korean mixture of native animism and pseudo-Christianity. Martin writes about the Party congress of 1980, when Kim Jong Il, then still the young dauphin, was elected to the five-person presidium of the politburo. The Party newspaper, in a pre-Christmas editorial, offered the Kims as a replacement for the Father and Son in the Holy Trinity. “People of the world, if you are looking for miracles, come to Korea!” it went on. “Christians, do not go to Jerusalem. Come rather to Korea! Do not believe in God. Believe in the great man.” After the son's ascent to the presidium, the newspaper reported, there was “an explosion of our people's joy, looking up at the star of guidance shining together with the benevolent sun.” [Source: Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, August 22, 2005]

“Even though Kim Il Sung had stamped out all independent religious activity in North Korea, the Christian influence is visible in the Kim cult. Apart from the Philippines, Korea has long been the most Christianized country in Asia. In the South, about thirty per cent still belong to various Christian denominations, not including all the followers of pseudo-Christian evangelists, of whom there is a rich variety. Unlike Filipinos, however, the Koreans were originally converted not by Western conquerors but by missionaries, many of whom were Korean themselves. The attraction of Christianity may have been partly political, a means of resisting both the Korean gentry and alien oppressors, especially the Japanese, who ruled Korea between 1910 and 1945. Like the Poles and the Irish, many Koreans believed that the church would help deliver their country from foreign domination.

“A model for this mixture of nationalism, social protest, and Christianity was the Taiping Rebellion, in mid-nineteenth-century China. A young scholar named Hong Xiuquan believed that he was Christ's younger brother, whose God-given mission was to destroy the demonic Manchu rulers and establish a heavenly kingdom on earth. His failure, after fourteen years of struggle, cost more than twenty million lives. In Korea, at about the same time, the Eastern Learning (Donghak) school was founded by a Korean mystic named Choe Che-u, who believed he had received divine instruction to deliver the world from evil; his followers rebelled against the government, and later against “Japanese dwarfs and Western barbarians.” This uprising, too, ended in a costly defeat, but the vision of Korea as the cradle of a new utopia remained.

“Kim Il Sung, the son of pious Christians, was a great admirer of the Eastern Learning school. Like Hong Xiuquan, Choe Che-u, and, indeed, Chairman Mao, Kim Il Sung wanted to be seen as a messiah and not just a Stalinist dictator. Becker convincingly places the Kim cult in a Sino-Korean tradition of millenarian priest-kings, autocratic sages, and holy saviors. It's a tradition in which the source of power is also the source of virtue, spiritual wisdom, and truth—hence the total intolerance of any heterodoxy or dissent. The same idea prevails, in a milder form, in South Korean, and Japanese, corporate life, where workers must learn the “philosophies” of their company founders. It has also spawned such cults as the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

“Animism is perhaps an even more important ingredient than Christianity in the spiritual and ideological mélange of Kim worship. Kim Jong Il was born in 1941 or 1942 in Siberia, where his father served in the Soviet Army. But the myth is very different: in North Korea's official histories he was born in a log cabin on Mt. Paektu, the country's most sacred mountain, the place where the Korean people's divine ancestor, the son of a sky god and a bear, was born, more than four thousand years ago. Kim Jong Il, the reincarnation of the divine bear-man, as it were, could not have come into this world on a more auspicious spot. Before his sacred birth, a double rainbow was seen, and the sky was lit up by a shining star.

“Myths and legends are scarcely unique to North Korean politics. What makes the Kim cult especially disturbing—but also appealing to many Korean nationalists, even some of those living in the South—is its xenophobia. Koreans, having endured centuries of foreign domination, often use two phrases to describe their “national character”: han, impotent rage that can be relieved only by collective action, and sadaechuui, the habit of pandering to foreigners. The Korean élites have tended to fall into warring factions, often allied to different foreign powers. To cover up the fact that Kim Il Sung served in both Chinese and Soviet armies during the Second World War, and was put in charge of North Korea by his Soviet minders, the Kim cult is quick to denounce its enemies, especially in South Korea, as “flunkies.” And han—directed at Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans, as well as all “class enemies” or “factionalists” at home—is the abiding sentiment in North Korean propaganda.”

Cheondogyo, Shamanism and Folk Religion in North Korea

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Cheondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way) is the strongest surviving non-Juche religious organization in North Korea. Founded in 1860 as Donghak (Eastern Learning), Cheondogyo is the oldest of Korea's indigenous new religions. Constructed from local Confucian, shamanistic, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, and Taoist elements, Cheondogyo has no links with foreign religious organizations and thus has been viewed more favorably by Communist authorities than have "imported" religions, such as Buddhism and Christianity. Moreover, Cheondogyo is identified with the Donghak peasant rebellion against the Joseon dynasty in 1894, giving it the image of a religion for the oppressed masses. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“The official Cheondoist Association boasts 15,000 members and 800 meeting halls, and a Cheondogyo political party, the Cheong'u (Young Friends) Party, fills several seats in the North Korean parliament as a junior partner to the ruling Worker's Party. Twice in recent years, in 1986 and again in 1997, leaders of Cheondogyo in the south have been drawn by the greater visibility of Cheondogyo in the north to defect and assume leadership positions in both the Cheondoist Association and the North Korean government. The Cheondoist Association has tried to establish links with another new religion in the south, Daejonggyo, which worships Dangun, the legendary ancestor of the Korean people. Given that there are no representatives of Daejonggyo in the north, the Cheondoist Association has since 1995 been leading the rituals honoring Dangun at the site of what North Koreans claim to be Dangun's tomb.”

Folk religion “was the dominant religious orientation of the entire Korean Peninsula before 1945. Shamans are the ritual specialists in the folk religion, as well as being its most visible manifestation. Before 1945 shamans in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula were more conspicuous, though fewer in number, than those in the south because northern shamans tended to go into a trance and become possessed by spirits of gods and ancestors during a ritual, while most southern shamans did not. Now, though shamanism thrives in South Korea, no shamans are allowed to perform their rituals in North Korea.

“Despite the official ban on shamans and the animistic folk religion in which they are embedded, South Korean sources report that the extreme economic hardships endured by North Koreans for most of the 1990s stimulated a revival of folk religious practices, particularly shamanic fortune-telling. There have been no reports in the North Korean press to substantiate such claims, however. The beliefs, and even some of the practices, of Korea's centuries-old folk religion probably survive in North Korea's villages and possibly even its cities. Nevertheless, with no official shaman or folk religion association in North Korea, it is impossible to estimate how many believers and practitioners there are today.

Taejong-kyo, the Cult of Tan'gun

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Taejong-kyo, the Cult of Tan'gun, “harkens back to the legendary founder of the Korean race, the god-man Tan'gun who was born of the union of a she-bear and the son of the Creator. The story of Tan'gun, who was in effect the grandson of God and whose story is Korea's foundation myth, was first written down by the Buddhist monk Ilyon in the thirteenth century. However, it was not taken seriously or given much importance until the early twentieth century, when an anti-Japanese activist named Hong'an Nach'ol had a shattering vision in which he felt himself appointed by the spirit of Tan'gun to found a religion honoring the Great Founder. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The religion, at first known as Tan'gun-kyo and then as Taejong-kyo, is at the heart of a nationalist religious movement that has lasted almost a century. Faced with persecution by the Japanese during the colonial period, the followers of Taejong-kyo exiled themselves to Manchuria for safety. Under pressure from Japanese authorities who resolved to annihilate Taejong-kyo as a threat to the Japanese emperor cult, Hong'an Nach'ol finally committed suicide. After Japan's defeat in 1945, the surviving members of Taejong-kyo returned to South Korea and eventually established a simple shrine in Seoul that contains a portrait of Tan'gun and is the site of commemorative events on Korean Foundation Day, October 3, which refers to Tan'gun's mystical birth in the year 2333 B.C.

“The importance of Taejong-kyo as the religion honoring Tan'gun has been outrun by the cult of Tan'gun that has developed in North Korea under the leadership of the late President Kim Il-sung and his son and successor Chairman Kim Jong-il. In the early 1990s the North Koreans announced that they had discovered the tomb of Tan'gun near the capital city of Pyongyang and had unearthed the bones of the god-man and his wife. The government then moved the grave to a more auspicious location and built an elaborate mausoleum for the remains of Tan'gun and his wife, apparently appropriating the authority and tradition of Tan'gun for the North Korean regime itself. There are even some who believe that Kim Il-sung's body will eventually be reburied in Tan'gun's new tomb, thereby merging the two Great Leaders.”

Buddhism in North Korea

Buddhism entered Korea around in the A.D. 4th century and was the predominant organized religion on peninsula until the 14th century. A limited revival of Buddhism took place in the 1970s and 80s. This includes the establishment of an academy for Buddhist studies and the publication of a twenty-five-volume translation of the Korean Tripitaka, or Buddhist scriptures, which had been carved on 80,000 wooden blocks and kept at the temple at Myohyang-san in central North Korea. A few Buddhist temples conduct religious services. "There is a striking difference between Buddhism and other religions. It is deeply embedded in Korean culture and history. Buddhism is still very familiar to North Koreans," Yun Hyu Won, an official with the Seoul-based Jogye Order of Buddhism, told the Los Angeles Times. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 2, 2005; Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Buddhists in North Korea are represented by the Korean Buddhist Federation, which claims to have about 10,000 members, served by some 300 monks working in approximately 70 temples. There do not appear to be any major doctrinal differences between Buddhists in North Korea and those in South Korea. Unlike the majority of monks in South Korea, however, monks in North Korea are married and do not shave their heads. Moreover, their clerical robes resemble those worn when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule and are quite different in both color and style from the clerical garb favored by South Korean monks these days. Another major difference between Buddhism in South Korea and Buddhism in North Korea is that there are no nuns in the Korean Buddhist Federation, though there are thousands of nuns in South Korea. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Buddhism is permitted an institutional presence in Juche-dominated North Korea because of the contributions Buddhism has made over the centuries to Korean culture. Buddhist temples in North Korea are maintained primarily as manifestations of the architectural and artistic accomplishments of the Korean people in centuries past, not as sites for worship and religious ritual today. Moreover, the North Korean government in 1988 printed a 25-volume vernacular translation of the Korean Tripitaka to call attention to Korea's history of scholarly achievements, not to promote belief in Buddhism. Another reason the government allows the Korean Buddhist Federation to exist is that monks sometimes provide a useful channel for interaction with Buddhist believers in South Korea and elsewhere.

Buddhist Temple and Monks in North Korea

Tim Sullivan wrote in National Geographic: “The monks followed us out to the parking lot. It was a cool autumn morning, and there was silence inside the Ryongthong Temple, a hillside complex of Buddhist shrines outside the North Korean city of Kaesong. Centuries ago Kaesong was home to Korea’s kings, and Ryongthong was a bustling religious center. But this morning the temple was empty. There were no ringing bells, no worshippers lighting incense — only two monks in gray robes walking through the complex with ostentatious serenity. Down in the city, loudspeakers on Kaesong’s empty main street were bellowing songs of praise for Kim Jong Un, the young man North Koreans now call the Supreme Leader. [Source: Tim Sullivan, National Geographic, October 2013]

“I briefly interviewed one monk, dutifully scribbling a few banalities in my notebook. “Buddhism helps people be clear, clean, and honest,” he said. A Buddhist temple in North Korea would seem a natural place for a reporter to ask about freedom of worship. Researchers say six decades of a one-family dictatorship have effectively crushed organized religion here. But if I asked, and one of the monks even hinted at any unhappiness with the regime, I knew he would go to prison, disappearing into a hidden gulag that human rights workers say holds between 150,000 and 200,000 people. So I didn’t ask, and we walked out shortly after.

“In the parking lot, though, as we slid open the door to the van that ferries us everywhere, the monks reappeared. A minder was beside them. All looked at us expectantly. Then the older monk spoke. “I know what you want to ask,” Zang Hye Myong said. Suddenly it was obvious why the monks had followed us. Minders do not introduce journalists to dissidents, and Ryongthong was no enclave of political critics. It was, as I should have known all along, a temple of totalitarian fakery, a movie set in which the stone steps and ornate wooden doors were barely worn. The monks were actors in a theatrical performance about North Korea’s religious freedom. We were the audience.

“So I grumbled the question they were waiting for: “Are you free to practice your religion?” The monk looked victorious. “Westerners believe it is not allowed to believe in religion in my country.” He shook his head sadly. “This is false.” He was proof, he said, of the freedoms given to Koreans by the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and now protected by his grandson Kim Jong Un. He looked directly at me to make his final point, as if he’d been practicing the line: “I want you to take the truth to the world.”“

North Korea's Buddhists Willing to Fight for Their Country

Julian Ryall wrote in The Telegraph: “North Korea's Buddhists have thrown off their religion's traditional commitment to peace and harmony to express their commitment to the destruction of what they described as "US imperialists" and the "traitors" of the South Korean government. "The villains' unprecedentedly hideous provocations are touching off the bitter resentment and anger of all Buddhists in the DPRK," the central committee of the Buddhist Federation of Korea said in a statement. [Source: Julian Ryall, The Telegraph, March 30 2016]

“The organisation has been roused to fury by ongoing US-South Korea military exercises, including manoeuvres simulating an attack on the headquarters of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. "Neither nuclear bombs nor 'special operations' of the U.S. can ever destroy our earthly paradise and fortress of single-minded unity", the federation said, according to the state-run Korea Central News Agency. "All the Buddhists in the DPRK will courageously turn out in the sacred all-people battle to throw the aggressors and provocateurs into a hell-like cauldron", the federation said. It added that the coming conflict would be similar to the "sacred war" that Buddhist priest Sosan fought to "wipe out the enemies".

“The religious group's declaration echoes similar threat by trades unions, workers and students in recent days. Union members have announced they are ready to "join the powerful revolutionary ... army in the battle to blow up the den of the Park regime". State media have also reported that 30,000 secondary school students are demanding to be allowed to join the military "with a strong will to annihilate the heinous provokers".

Buddhists and Attitudes Towards Buddhism in North Korean

By some estimates Buddhists make up about two percent of the North Korean population. Practicing Buddhists include about 10,000 members of the official Korean Buddhist Federation. Buddhist temples are considered museums and cultural artifacts not active places of worship. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “North Korea claims to have...hundreds of Buddhist temples. But people who have visited say the temples are mostly guarded by elderly couples who call themselves monks but do not wear monastic clothing and appear to be married in contradiction of celibacy rules imposed by most Korean orders. "There are temples and there are people who claim to be monks, but there is a real question about whether there are Buddhist rites and meditation practiced there," said David Hawk, the human rights expert.

“But Buddhists apparently have fared better than Christians, who have been sent to labor camps or even executed for practicing their religion, defectors have said. Hawk said he had not heard of any such cases involving Buddhists. They are more tolerant of Buddhists, maybe because North Korea hasn't had a tradition of socially conscious Buddhists, so people are not as much of a threat to the regime," he said.

“The monk supervising the construction” of the temple at Kumgang “acknowledges that North Koreans regard the Shingye temple as a cultural relic rather than a house of worship. "The North Koreans are not interested in the religious aspects of Buddhism. But they are interested in their cultural heritage," said Jejeong, who like other monks uses only one name. He says the Buddhists' purpose here is not to proselytize, but to give North Koreans an opportunity to revel in the culture that they share with the South. "I think culture is an easier path toward unification than politics or economics .... That is why I was interested in this project," he said, speaking over the buzz of a chain saw.

Persecution of Religion in North Korea

Donald L. Baker wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “ Article 68 of the constitution of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea states, "Citizens have freedom of religious belief." That same article adds, "No one may use religion as a means by which to drag in foreign powers or to destroy the state or social order." The North Korean government has used that second statement to legitimize its strict control of all religious activities within its borders. Moreover, the North Korean government adopted Juche as its official ideology, stating in article 3 of its constitution that Juche ideology is "the guiding principle of its actions," making Juche the equivalent of an official religion. [Source: Donald L. Baker, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: “All religious groups are prohibited from conducting religious activities except through the handful of state-controlled houses of worship, and even these activities are tightly controlled. According to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, individuals face persecution for propagating religion, possessing religious items, carrying out religious activities (including praying and singing hymns), and having contact with religious persons. [Source: United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, International Religious Freedom Report North Korea 2017]

“The North Korean regime reviles Christianity the most and considers it the biggest threat; it associates that faith with the West, particularly the United States. Through robust surveillance, the regime actively tries to identify and search out Christians practicing their faith in secret and imprisons those it apprehends, often along with their family members even if they are not similarly religious. According to the State Department, the North Korean regime currently detains an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 individuals in political prison camps known as kwanliso. Reports indicate tens of thousands of these prisoners are Christians facing hard labor or execution.

Cracks in North Korea’s Prohibition of Religion

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It would be an overstatement to say there is a sizable religious revival in North Korea.With the possible exception of communist-era Albania, no communist country had managed to so thoroughly eradicate organized religion. But there is little doubt that it is seeping back in through porous borders and challenging the idiosyncratic doctrine of juche that reveres founder Kim Il Sung and his son, current leader Kim Jong Il, as gods. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2005]

"Juche as a worldview has lost much of its heavenly mandate because of the famine and the collapse of the economy," said David Hawk, a leading human rights investigator who recently completed an extensive study of North Korea for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent agency funded by Congress.

“In the study, to be released today, the commission found that the practice of religion is increasing inside North Korea, prompting a reaction from the regime. "Some North Koreans are testing prohibitions against religious activity," Michael Cromartie, chairman of the commission, said in a statement. At the same time, "there is renewed government interest in ensuring that North Koreans coming back from China are not 'infected'

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: Daily NK, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, 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, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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