The Role of Religion

North Korea Table of Contents

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, Daoism, and Buddhism. Belief in a world inhabited by spirits is probably the oldest Korean religion. Daoism and Buddhism were introduced from China around the fourth century A.D., the latter becoming predominant during the Silla Dynasty (668-935), but reaching its height during the Kory Dynasty (918-1392). Buddhism suffered a decline, however, and Buddhists were persecuted to some extent during the Chosn 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.

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 P'yongyang was an important Christian center; one-sixth of its population of about 300,000 residents were converts.

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

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. P'yongyang 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.

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 chuch'e principle that the creative energies of the Korean people in the past must be appreciated.

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 P'yongyang. 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 OctoberNovember 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.

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.

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 chuch'e 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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress