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Christianity in North Korea

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Christianity in North Korea

Religion in North Korea[1]

  Irreligion (64.3%)
  Korean Shamanism (16%)
  Cheondoism (13.5%)
  Buddhism (4.5%)
  Christianity (1.7%)

Traditionally religion in North Korea primarily consisted of Buddhism and Confucianism and Korean shamanism. Since the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century, there is a Christian minority. New religions have arisen during the last century, the most prominent one being Cheondoism, based on traditional shamanism. North Korea is purportedly an atheist state[2][3] North Korea sees organized religious activity as a potential challenge to the leadership.[4]

Religious demography

Population estimated at 22.7 million. The number of religious believers was unknown but was estimated by the government to be 10,000 Protestants, 100,000 Buddhists, and 4,000 Catholics. Estimates by South Korean and international church-related groups were considerably higher. In addition, the Chondogyo Young Friends Party, a government-approved group based on a traditional religious movement, had approximately 40,000 practitioners, according to the Government.

According to Religious Intelligence UK the situation of religion in North Korea is the following:[1]

  • Irreligion: 15,460,000 (64.3% of population, the vast majority of which are adherents of the Juche philosophy)
  • Korean Shamanism: 3,846,000 adherents (16% of population)
  • Cheondoism: 3,245,000 adherents (13.5% of population)
  • Buddhism: 1,082,000 adherents (4.5% of population)
  • Christianity: 406,000 adherents (1.7% of population)

Conflict with state ideology

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 Korean Christian Federation, and the Ch'ondogyo Youth Party.

Despite these official religions, much more attention is paid to the personalities of the deceased "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung and the "Dear Leader", his late son Kim Jong-il. Their portraits are omnipresent in streets, schools, public buildings and all private homes. The ideological statements and scriptures produced by the two leaders are the main basis of education for both children and adults. The story of the Kims' descent is surrounded with mythology. At public events, songs are sung that depict the leaders as saviours of the country as well as of each individual citizen.

This cult of personality, together with the doctrine of juche (self-reliance), has resulted in a deliberate replacement of the religions that flourished in the North before the rise of socialism. According to human rights observers, this change of regime put an end to free religious activities, as the government only sponsors selected religious groups to create an illusion of religious freedom.[5] It is unlikely that the annulment in 1992 of the constitutional clause which explicitly prohibited religious activities and endorsed the opposition of religion brought any actual change in the situation.

DPRK state ideology is itself rooted in a synthesis of the various religious creeds, including Christianity, which were present in Korea prior to Allied occupation.[6] The tenets of Cheondogyo outlined in 1911 by Son Pyeong-hui in particular were significantly drawn upon in the formation of Juche ideology and the atheistic, utopianistic, quasi-sacred collectivism characterizing North Korean discourse.

Earlier restrictions of religion were enforced by the Japanese, who occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. A similar reason for intolerance existed in that time – the Japanese imperial cult.

History of anti-religious campaigns

It is very difficult for outside observers to know what has happened to North Korean religious bodies over the past 60 years due to the extreme isolation of the state, and as a result significantly differing interpretations exist among academics about what has happened.

One interpretation has held that all open religious activity in DPRK Korea was persecuted and eradicated after Kim Il Sung took power, only to be revived in the present as part of a political show.[7] Another interpretation has held that religion survived and has genuinely been revived in the past few decades.[7]

Kim Il Sung criticized religion in his writings, and North Korean propaganda in literature, movies and other media have presented religion in a negative light. The Juche philosophy often took the place of religion and taught Koreans to see religion as an unscientific delusion. Kim Il Sung's attack on religion was strongly based on the idea that religion had been used as a tool for imperialists in the Korean peninsula. He criticized Christians for collaborating with the UN forces against him during the Korean war, although he praised Christians who supported him.

Accounts from the Korean war speak of harsh persecution of religion by Kim Il Sung in the areas he controlled.[7] Prior to the war, the Christian community in the Korean peninsula was most heavily concentrated in the North; during the war, many of these Christians fled to the South. Some interpretations have considered that the Christian community in the DPRK was often of a higher socio-economic class than the rest of the population, which may have prompted its departure for fear of persecution.[7] The large-scale destruction caused by the massive air raids and the suffering experienced by North Koreans during the Korean War helped foster hatred of Christianity as being the American religion.[7] Religion was attacked in the ensuing years as an obstacle to the construction of communism, and many people abandoned their former religions in order to conform to the new reality.[7] On the basis of accounts from the Korean war as well as information from defectors, an interpretation has held that the DPRK was the only state in the world to have completely eradicated religion by the 1960s.[7] Buddhism was thought to have been eradicated, under this interpretation and its reappearance later was thought to be a show. ‘The Federation of Korean Christians’ in DPRK Korea (the umbrella organization of Christians in DPRK Korea, which began in 1970), under this interpretation, has been considered a ‘fake’ organization meant to present a favourable image to the outside world. Other interpretations have thought that perhaps they do represent a genuine faith communities in the DPRK that survived the persecutions. An interpretation has considered that these religious communities may have been genuine believers who genuinely adhered to Marxist-Leninism and the leadership of Kim Il Sung, thus ensuring their survival.[7] This interpretation has been supported by recent evidence gathered that has shown that the DPRK may have tolerated the existence of up to 200 pro-communist Christian congregations during the 1960s, and by the fact that several high-ranking people in the DPRK’s government were Christians and they were buried with high honours (Kang Yang Wook was a Presbyterian minister who served as vice president of the DPRK from 1972 to 1982, and Kim Chang Jun was a Methodist minister who served as vice chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly[7]). Differing interpretations often agree on the disappearance of religion under Kim Il Sung in the first few decades of his rule. The DPRK never made an open public policy statement about religion, leading to unresolved speculation among scholars as to what exactly the government’s position was at any point in time.[7]


Traditionally, religious life in North Korea was similar to that in South Korea, with which it formed one country until 1948. Most of the country's population consisted of Buddhists and Muists, though there were sizeable minorities of Christians and followers of the syncretic Cheondoism (religion of "the Heavenly Way").


Organized Buddhism is practiced under the auspices of the official Korean Buddhist Federation and has essentially been incorporated into the DPRK state apparatus, North Korean Buddhist monks being entirely dependent on state wages for their livelihood as well as state authorization to practice.[8] As of 2009, the leader of the Korean Buddhist Federation is Yu Yong-sun.[9] There are some 300 Buddhist temples in the country (e.g. Pohyonsa), but they are viewed as cultural relics from Korea's past rather than places of active worship. Buddhists in North Korea reportedly fare better than other religious groups, particularly Christians, who are said to face persecution by the authorities. In fact, Buddhists are given limited funding by the government to promote the religion, because Buddhism has played an integral role in traditional Korean culture.[10] Also, there is officially a three-year college for training Buddhist clergy.

A limited revival of Buddhism is apparently taking place. 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.[11] Recently, South Korean Buddhist leaders have been allowed to travel to North Korea and participate in religious ceremonies, and South Korean Buddhist organizations have played important roles in giving aid to North Korean civilians and steps toward reunification.[12]


Cheondoism ("Heavenly Way") grew out of the Tonghak movement during the 19th century. It stresses the divine nature of all people and contains elements found in Korean Buddhism, Korean Shamanism, Confucianism, and Catholicism. It is the only religion in North Korea which has a corresponding party representing it: the Chondoist Chongu Party.


Korean Shamanism or Muism is the oldest religion in Korea that is still practiced. Shamanism has been influenced by the arrival of Buddhism and Confucianism in Korea.


A church building constructed at Sorae, Korea (now Ryongyon County, South Hwanghae Province, North Korea) in 1895 by Korean Christians
The Russian Orthodox Church in Pyongyang
A church in Pyongyang

The first Christian missionary (a Catholic) arrived in Korea in 1785. Because the spread of Christianity was prohibited by the government, the number of Roman Catholics did not rise beyond 23,000 by 1863. Korean Christians were persecuted by the government until the country launched its Open Door Policy with Western countries in 1881. Protestant missionaries began entering Korea during the 1880s. They established schools, universities, hospitals, orphanages, and played a significant role in the modernization of the country. Before 1948, Pyongyang was an important Christian center, with a significant minority of the city's population identifying as Christian.

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. By 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. In 1988, for the first time since the Korean war, Christian communities were allowed to hold worship services in the open in churches. In this year three new churches, the Protestant Pongsu and Chilgol Churches and the Roman 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 on November 1988, allowing papal representatives to attend the opening of the Changchung Cathedral in that same year, and sending two North Korean novice priests to study in Rome. A Protestant seminary in Pyongyang taught future leaders of the DPRK.[7] 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 at Kim Il Sung University.

The North Korean government considers Christianity (especially Protestantism) to be closely connected with the Western world and heavily suppresses it. The facts and figures concerning Christianity published by the DPRK's government,[13] like those concerning Buddhism,[14] are disputed by almost all foreign observers. Although independent verification is impossible, it is assumed that there are a large amount of underground Christian groups. Many defectors from North Korea have attested that any form of adherence to the Christian faith, even the mere possessing of a Bible, can be considered a reason for arrest.[15]

In Pyongyang there are four church buildings. One of them (the Changchung "Cathedral") is officially said to be Catholic although it has no functioning priest, and the other two are Protestant. Two of these churches were inaugurated in 1988, in the presence of South Korean church officials. A Russian Orthodox church was consecrated in August 2006.[16][17] Religious freedom advocates say the buildings were constructed for propaganda purposes only. Foreigners, always guarded by state minders, can attend religious services. Eyewitnesses report that the sermons mix political and religious messages glorifying the DPRK, and that some of the pastors seem to have had no genuine religious training.[18] Christianity in North Korea is officially represented by the Korean Christian Federation, a state-controlled body responsible for contacts with churches and governments abroad.

During Christmas, some North Korean Christians celebrate the holiday in secret. Small groups congregate in secret underground places to perform religious functions, according to Chun Ki-won, pastor of the Durihana group, these people risk their lives by doing so.[19]

In 2014, US-based Christian organization Open Doors announced that for the 12th year in a row, North Korea was the #1 country where persecution of Christians for religious reasons is the worst.[20] Open Doors estimates that 50,000–70,000 Christians are detained in North Korean prison camps.[21] Human rights groups such as Amnesty International also have expressed concerns about religious persecution in North Korea.[22]

Freedom of religion

In North Korea, the Constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief", but the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is purportedly an atheist state.[2][3] The US and South Korean governments are the main sources of information of religion in North Korea and the two countries are technically still at war and it has been said that this is just anti-North Korean propaganda.

Government policy continues to interfere with the individual's ability to choose and to manifest his or her religious belief. The regime continues to repress the religious activities of unauthorized religious groups. Recent refugee, defector, missionary, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reports indicate that religious persons engaging in proselytizing in the country, those who have ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border in the People's Republic of China, and specifically, those repatriated from China and found to have been in contact with foreigners or missionaries, have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties. Refugees and defectors continued to allege that they witnessed the arrests and execution of members of underground Christian churches by the regime in prior years. Due to the country's inaccessibility and the inability to gain timely information, the continuation of this activity remains difficult to verify.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Religious Intelligence - Country Profile: Korea, North (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea)". 2007-10-13. Retrieved 2014-02-21. 
  2. ^ a b World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia. Marshall Cavendish. Retrieved 2011-03-05. North Korea is officially an atheist state in which almost the entire population is nonreligious. 
  3. ^ a b The State of Religion Atlas. Simon & Schuster. Retrieved 2011-03-05. Atheism continues to be the official position of the governments of China, North Korea and Cuba. 
  4. ^ "North Korea confirms US citizen is arrested". BBC News. April 14, 2011. 
  5. ^ "The World Factbook". CIA. Retrieved 2014-02-21. 
  6. ^ Mathesius, Konrad (2008). "Peering Behind the Curtain on the Question of Political Religion in the DPRK". Congress (KR: AKS). Retrieved 2014-02-21. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Ryu, Dae Young (2006), "Fresh wineskins for new wine: a new perspective on North Korean Christianity", Journal of Church and State 48 (3) .
  8. ^ "Another Korea Buddhism in North Korea". Buddhist channel TV. 2007-01-15. Retrieved 2014-02-21. 
  9. ^ Jeong, Yong-soo (5 January 2009). "Buddhist leader gets North’s South policy spot". JoongAng Ilbo. Retrieved 2013-05-20. 
  10. ^ Demick, Barbara (October 2, 2005). "Buddhist Temple Being Restored in N. Korea". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-05-20. 
  11. ^ "North Korea – The Role of Religion". US: Country studies. Retrieved 2014-02-21. 
  12. ^ "Buddhists from both Koreas hold ceremony on Mt. Kumgang, North Korea". KR: Hani. 2012-10-15. Retrieved 2014-02-21. 
  13. ^ FAQ: Christian, Korea DPR 
  14. ^ "Q&A on Buddhism in DPRK". JP: Korea NP. 1945-12-26. Retrieved 2014-02-21. 
  15. ^ Lloyd Parry, Richard (29 August 2013). "'"Kim's former girlfriend 'executed over sex tape. The Times. Retrieved 31 August 2013. 
  16. ^ . Korea is one Retrieved 2014-02-21. 
  17. ^ The church of the Life-Giving Trinity consecrated in Pyongyang. The Russian Orthodox Church delegation on a visit to the KPDR, CN: Orthodox .
  18. ^ "N Korea stages Mass for Pope". BBC News. 2005-04-10. Retrieved 2014-02-21. 
  19. ^ Gheddo, Piero (2013-12-28). "North Korean Christians celebrate Christmas in secret underground tunnels". Asia News. IT. Retrieved 2014-02-21. 
  20. ^ "Christian Persecution Rankings: Where Christian Persecution Exists". World Watch List. US. 2013-01-24. Retrieved 2014-07-21. 
  21. ^ "50,000~70,000 North Korean Christians Detained in Gulags". Daily NK. 16 August 2006. Retrieved 21 April 2010. 
  22. ^ "North Korea: Freedom of Movement, Opinion and Expression". Amnesty International. 2009. Retrieved 4 March 2014. 

Library of Congress Country Studies.

External links

  • Nautilus Institute on religious freedom in DPRK
  • Religion in North Korea: Country Studies
  • Culture of North Korea -
  • Video from NGO Open Doors About Christianity in North Korea
  • Jangchung Catholic Church
  • Jongbaek Russian Orthodox Church in Pyongyang
  • Video of a Pyongyang Protestant Church
  • Video of a Pyongyang Protestant Church
  • Video of a Pyongyang Protestant Church
  • Video of a Pyongyang Russian Orthodox Church
  • Video of a Pyongyang Russian Orthodox Church
  • Video of a Pyongyang Roman Catholic Church
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