I received a question via contact page which I find quite interesting:
What religion/s do North Koreans practice? Do they go to a church or kind of temple like the Chinese maybe?
The answer is a long one.
North Korea is officially an atheist country. Or at least it has been since the ascent of the Kims. Even the DPRK official guide book won’t mention ‘religion’ in its contents.
But let’s start in chronological order.
Until the year 300 AD Koreans of the entire peninsula mainly believed in an indigenous shamanic religion known as Mu. The Mus were shamanic intermediaries between their people and the gods of nature so you can expect their rituals to be something similar to ancient Greek religion where sacrifices to the Sun, Moon, Ocean were on the daily agenda.
Then the years 370’s BC come and Korea sees a wave of invasions and a range of “foreign visits”. It is here where Koreans come to know Buddhism for the first time thanks to the Chinese, more precisely the Former Qin Dynasty. Over the years Buddhism flourished into becoming more of a political influence. In the year 900-1000 we see the arrival of Confucianism, always from the Chinese. At the time Korea was divided in three kingdoms under the rule of one sole king. This king welcomed new doctrines and eventually transformed them into a more Korean stile of religion with traditions of their own.
Even Christians arrived and endured a long battle against the Japanese Empire, in the attempt to establish Shinto.
In 1945 though the freedom of expression of any kind changed dramatically. Cold war sparks proxy conflicts all over the Asian continent and Korea find itself divided: North with the Soviet-Communist and South with the US-led anti-communist.
As the country is divided in two opposite sides many have time to flee south while many others, especially the more autochthonous communities, remain in the North.
Several constitutions have been drafted ever since and many of them literally express freedom of religion, like Article 14 of the 1948 constitution:
citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea shall have the freedom of religious belief and of conducting religious services
Even though this is clearly stated, reality is quite different. And furthermore, dear Reader, ever since the Kims rose to power it has been incredibly difficult to obtain any sort of reliable statistic information regarding the population. if there’s such information available it is obviously very questionable.
When the Korean peninsula split there were still indigenous religions and most of the ones I mentioned before. However the regime rapidly started to oppress and interfere with the individual freedom. The government has exercised extremely closed scrutiny and control over religious groups. Until this very day. The regime continues to repress the religious activities of unauthorised religious groups. If people are people are caught engaging in preaching, and specifically, those repatriated from China and found to have been in contact with foreigners or missionaries, normally are arrested and subjected to harsh penalties. Due to the country’s inaccessibility and the inability to gain timely information, the continuation of this activity remains difficult to verify.
Why all this harsh treatment against freedom of religion? Reasons are fundamentally two:
1- Communism is adverse to religion and the cold pragmatism of its adherents would argue against priests, preachers and churches that God doesn’t stop floods or guard against invasions, therefore their belief is found with no base.
This is because Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin saw religion as a form of retarding human development.
2- Marxism might have been the reason why religion is not acceptable in North Korea, but if we dig deeper we find that religion contrasts vehemently what Kim Il Sung created: a cult of image. Kim Il Sung followed the Marxist doctrine until he came up with the idea of Juche: self reliance. This is a concept that we will explore deeply in my next post.
However, briefly, Juche’s philosophy celebrates the power of man, of self reliance, of the State, and you can see it manifested in forms of supernatural powers attributed to the Leaders.
This cult has led to make the Kims the indisputable leaders of the country. Their portraits are hung everywhere. Every house by law has to have a painting of Father and Son in each main room. Same goes with main squares and monuments. Even libraries.
Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il worked to build a cult of their image: they have visited every town and corner of the country. Farms, factories, hospitals are either named after the date they visited or have meaning built into their grouting.
Their deification makes it impossible to tolerate religion beliefs of any kind because such would strongly contradict its very mission. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and he is still venerated nowadays as the country’s ‘Eternal President’.