There are no known official statistics of religions in North Korea. However, based on estimates from the late 1990s and the 2000s,North Korea is mostly irreligious, with the religious life dominated by the traditions of Korean shamanism and Chondoism. There are small communities of Buddhists and Christians. Chondoism is represented in politics by the Party of the Young Friends of the Heavenly Way, and is regarded by the government as Korea's "national religion" because of its identity as a minjung (popular) and "revolutionary anti-imperialist" movement.
In ancient times, most Koreans believed in their indigenous religion socially guided by mu (shamans). Buddhism was introduced from the Chinese Former Qin state in 372 to the northern Korean state of Goguryeo, and developed into distinctive Korean forms. At that time, the Korean peninsula was divided into three kingdoms: the aforementioned Goguryeo in the north, Baekje in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast. Buddhism reached Silla only in the 5th century, but it was made the state religion only in that kingdom in the year 552. In Goguryeo the Korean indigenous religion remained dominant, while Buddhism became more widespread in Silla and Baekje (both areas comprehended in modern South Korea).
In the following unified state of Goryeo (918-1392), that developed from Goguryeo incorporating the southern kingdoms, Buddhism flourished even becoming a political force. In the same period, the influence of Chinese Confucianism penetrated the country and led to the formation of Korean Confucianism that would have become the state ideology and religion of the following Joseon state.
The Joseon kingdom (1392-1910), strictly Neo-Confucian, harshly suppressed Korean Buddhism and Korean shamanism. Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and their number dropped from several hundreds to a mere thirty-six; Buddhism was eradicated from the life of towns as monks and nuns were prohibited from entering them and were marginalised to the mountains. These restrictions lasted until the 19th century.
In this environment, Christianity began to rapidly gain foothold since the late 18th century, due to an intense missionary activity that was aided by the endorsement at first by the Silhak and Seohak intellectual parties, and then at the end of the following century by the king of Korea himself and the intellectual elite of the crumbling Joseon state, who were looking for a new social factor to invigorate the Korean nation. In the late 19th century, the Joseon state was politically and culturally collapsing. The intelligentsia was looking for solutions to invigorate and transform the nation. It was in this critical period that they came into contact with Western Protestant missionaries who offered a solution to the plight of Koreans. Christian communities already existed in Joseon, however it was only by the 1880s that the government allowed a large number of Western missionaries to enter the country. Protestant missionaries set up schools, hospitals and publishing agencies. The king of Korea and his family tacitly supported Christianity. From the late nineteenth century, the northwest of Korea, and Pyongyang in particular, became a stronghold of Christianity. As a result, Pyongyang was called the "Jerusalem of the East".
At the dawn of the 20th century, almost the totality of the population of Korea believed in the indigenous shamanic religion and practiced Confucian rites and ancestral worship.Korean Buddhism was nearly dead, reduced to a tiny and weak minority of monks, despite its long history and cultural influence, because of 500 years of suppression by the ruling Neo-Confucian Joseon kingdom, which also disregarded traditional cults.
During the absorption of Korea into the Japanese Empire (1910-1945) the already formed link of Christianity with Korean nationalism was strengthened, as the Japanese tried to impose State Shinto and Christians refused to take part in Shinto rituals. At the same time, numerous religious movements that since the 19th century had been trying to reform the Korean indigenous religion, notably Chondoism, flourished. Christianity became widespread especially in the north of the peninsula, as did Chondoism which aimed to counter Christian influence.
The Korean peninsula was divided into two states in 1945, the communist north and the anti-communist south. Most of the Korean Christians, that had been until then in the northern half of the peninsula, fled to South Korea. By contrast, most of Korean Chondoists remained in the newly formed North Korea. At the time of the partition they were 1.5 million, or 16% of North Korea's population. They participate to the politics of North Korea through the Party of the Young Friends of the Heavenly Way. In 1994 the Central Guidance Committee of the Korean Chondoist Association organised an impressive ceremony at the newly constructed Mausoleum of Dangun (mythical founder of the Korean nation) near Pyongyang.
According to some estimates in 2005 in North Korea there are 3,846,000 (16% of the total population) believers of Korean shamanism, 3,245,000 (13.5%) Chondoists, 1,082,000 (4.5%) Buddhists, and 406,000 (1.7%) Christians.
In 2007 there were approximately 800 Chondoist churches throughout the country and a large central building in Pyongyang, 60 Buddhist temples (maintained more as cultural relics than places of worship), and 5 Christian churches--three Protestant churches, one Catholic church, and one Russian Orthodox church, all of which located in Pyongyang.
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 stated that "citizens have religious liberty and the freedom to oppose religion." 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 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 Buddhist Federation, the Korean Christian Federation, and the Chondoist Church and Chondoist Party.
This cult of the Kims, together with the doctrine of Juche (self-reliance) are said by some to have religious overtones. Juche appeared in the 1960s as an idea of national autonomy but it has developed universal characters. The doctrine proclaims that human beings should break free of any dependency on spiritual ideas and realize that, working together, they can achieve all their goals without supernatural assistance. It promises believers that, through joining the Juche community, they can overcome death and become immortals. According to the Juche teachings, human beings only exist in social contexts. There is no human that is utterly alone, who has no relationships or interactions with other humans. Human beings will continue to exist even after physical death only if the society that defines them continues to exist.
Some scholars see Juche as having Confucian features, but without the Confucian ancestral kinship structuration of society. Rather, Juche's aim is a national community. Moreover, Juche has as its spiritual focus the mythified figure of Kim Il-sung. He gained mythical connotations already in the 1930s for his heroic actions against the Japanese occupators. In Juche writings, Kim Il-sung and his successors are at times portrayed as divine beings. In addition, the North Korean Juche calendar counts the years starting from the birth of Kim Il-sung in 1912.
Other studies see Christian influences in Juche. Between 1989 and 1992, discussions about unification and compatibility of Juche and Christianity took place between North Korean, South Korean and Korean American theologians. Park Seung-deok, a Juche scholar from Pyongyang, concluded that Juche and Christianity share common goals and values.
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. One interpretation has held that all open religious activity in North Korea was persecuted and eradicated after Kim Il-sung took power, only to be revived in the present as part of a political show. Another interpretation has held that religion survived and has genuinely been revived in the past few decades.
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. 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 United Nations' 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. Prior to the war, the Christian population of 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 was often of a higher socio-economic class than the rest of the population, which may have prompted its departure for fear of persecution. 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.
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. On the basis of accounts from the Korean War as well as information from defectors, an interpretation has held that the North Korea was the only state in the world to have completely eradicated religion by the 1960s. 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 North Korea (created 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 they do represent genuine faith communities that survived the persecutions. An interpretation has considered that these religious communities may have been believers who genuinely adhered to Marxism-Leninism and the leadership of Kim Il-sung, thus ensuring their survival. This interpretation has been supported by recent evidence gathered that has shown that the North Korean government 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 government were Christians and they were buried with high honours (for instance Kang Yang Wook was a Presbyterian minister who served as vice president of North Korea from 1972 to 1982, and Kim Chang Jun was a Methodist minister who served as vice chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly). Differing interpretations often agree on the disappearance of religion under Kim Il-sung in the first few decades of his rule. The government 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.
Chondoism ( Ch'?ndogyo) or Cheondoism (South Korean spelling) is a religion with roots in Confucianised indigenous shamanism. It is the religious dimension of the Donghak ("Eastern Learning") movement that was founded by Choe Je-u (1824-1864), a member of an impoverished yangban (aristocratic) family, in 1860 as a counter-force to the rise of "foreign religions", which in his view included Buddhism and Christianity (part of Seohak, the wave of Western influence that penetrated Korean life at the end of the 19th century). Choe Je-u founded Chondoism after having been allegedly healed from illness by an experience of Sangje or Haneullim, the god of the universal Heaven in traditional shamanism.
The Donghak movement became so influential among common people that in 1864 the Joseon government sentenced Choe Je-u to death. The movement grew and in 1894 the members gave rise to the Donghak Peasant Revolution against the royal government. With the division of Korea in 1945, most of the Chondoist community remained in the north, where the majority of them dwelled.
Chondoism is the sole religion to be favoured by the North Korean government. It has political representation as the Party of the Young Friends of the Heavenly Way, and is regarded by the government as Korea's "national religion" because of its identity as a minjung (popular) and "revolutionary anti-imperialist" movement.
Korean shamanism, also known as "Muism" ( Mugyo, "mu [shaman] religion") or "Sinism" ( Singyo, "religion of the shin (hanja: ?) [gods]"), is the ethnic religion of Korea and the Koreans. Although used synonymously, the two terms aren't identical: Jung Young Lee describes Muism as a form of Sinism - the shamanic tradition within the religion. Other names for the religion are "Sindo" ( "Way of the Gods") or "Sindoism" ( Sindogyo, "religion of the Way of the Gods").[note 1]
In contemporary Korean language the shaman-priest or mu (hanja: ?) is known as a mudang (Hangul: hanja: ) if female or baksu if male, although other names and locutions are used.[note 2] Korean mu "shaman" is synonymous with Chinese wu, which defines priests both male and female. The role of the mudang is to act as intermediary between the spirits or gods, and the human plain, through gut (rituals), seeking to resolve problems in the patterns of development of human life.
Central to the faith is the belief in Haneullim or Hwanin, meaning "source of all being", and of all gods of nature, the utmost god or the supreme mind. The mu are mythically described as descendants of the "Heavenly King", son of the "Holy Mother [of the Heavenly King]", with investiture often passed down through female princely lineage. However, other myths link the heritage of the traditional faith to Dangun, male son of the Heavenly King and initiator of the Korean nation.
Korean Muism has similarities with Chinese Wuism, Japanese Shinto, and with the Siberian, Mongolian, and Manchurian religious traditions. As highlighted by anthropological studies, the Korean ancestral god Dangun is related to the Ural-Altaic Tengri "Heaven", the shaman and the prince. The mudang is similar to the Japanese miko and the Ryukyuan yuta. Muism has exerted an influence on some Korean new religions, such as Chondoism in North Korea. According to various sociological studies, many Christian churches in Korea make use of practices rooted in shamanism as the Korean shamanic theology has affinity to that of Christianity.
In the 1890s, the twilight years of the Joseon kingdom, Protestant missionaries gained significant influence, and led a demonisation of the traditional religion through the press, and even carried out campaigns of physical suppression of local cults. The Protestant discourse would have had an influence on all further attempts to uproot Muism.
There is no knowledge about the survival of Korean shamanism in contemporary North Korea. Many northern shamans, displaced by war and politics, migrated to South Korea. Shamans in North Korea were (or are) of the same type of those of northern and central areas of South Korea (kangshinmu).
Buddhism ( Pulgyo) entered Korea from China during the period of the three kingdoms (372, or the 4th century). Buddhism was the dominant religious and cultural influence in the Silla (668-935) and subsequent Goryeo (918-1392) states. Confucianism was also brought to Korea from China in early centuries, and was formulated as Korean Confucianism in Goryeo. However, it was only in the subsequent Joseon kingdom (1392-1910) that Korean Confucianism was established as the state ideology and religion, and Korean Buddhism underwent 500 years of suppression, from which it began to recover only in the 20th century.
Buddhists are a minority in North Korea, and their traditions have developed differently from those of South Korean Buddhists after the division of the country. Buddhism in North Korea is practiced under the auspices of the official Korea Buddhist Federation, an organ of the North Korean state apparatus. North Korean Buddhist monks are entirely dependent on state wages for their livelihood as well as state authorization to practice. As of 2009, the leader of the Korean Buddhist Federation is Yu Yong-sun.
There are only 60 Buddhist temples in the country, and they are viewed as cultural relics from Korea's past rather than places of active worship. Also, there is 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 Myohyangsan in central North Korea. Recently, South Korean Buddhist leaders have been allowed to travel to North Korea and participate in religious ceremonies or give aid to civilians.
Despite the North Korean government's official stance on religion, Buddhism along with Confucianism both still have an effect on cultural life in North Korea as they are traditional religions of traditional Korean culture.
Christianity (Chos?n'g?l: ; MR: Kurisudogyo) became very popular in northern Korea from the late 18th century to the 19th century. The first Catholic missionaries arrived in 1794, a decade after the return of Yi Sung-hun, a diplomat who was the first baptised Korean in Beijing. He established a grassroots lay Catholic movement in the peninsula. However, the writings of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who was resident at the imperial court in Beijing, had been already brought to Korea from China in the 17th century. Scholars of the Silhak ("Practical Learning"), were attracted to Catholic doctrines, and this was a key factor for the spread of the Catholic faith in the 1790s. The penetration of Western ideas and Christianity in Korea became known as Seohak ("Western Learning"). A study of 1801 found that more than half of the families that had converted to Catholicism were linked to the Silhak school. Largely because converts refused to perform Confucian ancestral rituals, the Joseon government prohibited the proselytisation of Christianity. Some Catholics were executed during the early 19th century, but the restrictive law was not strictly enforced.
Protestant missionaries entered Korea during the 1880s and, along with Catholic priests, converted a remarkable number of Koreans this time with the tacit support of the royal government.Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries were especially successful. They established schools, universities, hospitals, and orphanages and played a significant role in the modernisation of the country. During the Japanese colonial occupation, Christians were in the front ranks of the struggle for independence. Factors contributing to the growth of Catholicism and Protestantism included the decayed state of Korean Buddhism, the support of the intellectual elite, and the encouragement of self-support and self-government among members of the Korean church, and finally the identification of Christianity with Korean nationalism.
A large number of Christians lived in the northern half of the peninsula (it was part of the so-called "Manchurian revival") where Confucian influence was not as strong as in the south. Before 1948 Pyongyang was an important Christian center: The city was known as the "Jerusalem of the East".
Many Korean Communists came from a Christian background. Kim Il-sung's mother was a Presbyterian deaconess. He attended a mission school and played the organ in church. In his memoir With the Century he wrote: "I do not think the spirit of Christianity that preaches universal peace and harmony contradicts my idea advocating an independent life for man". In 1945, with the establishment of the communist regime in the north, however, most Christians fled to South Korea to escape persecution. Christianity came to be discouraged by the North Korean government because of its association with America.
In the 1980s, North Korea produced its own translation of the Bible, which has since been used by Southern missionaries attempting to evangelize the North. By the late 1980s, it became apparent that Christians were active in the governmental elite. In those years three new churches, two Protestant and one Catholic, were opened in Pyongyang.
Other signs of the regime's changing attitude towards Christianity included holding the "International Seminar of Christians of the North and South for the Peace and Reunification of Korea" in Switzerland in 1988, allowing papal representatives to attend the opening of the Changchung Cathedral of Pyongyang 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 North Korean government. 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 that his country has 10,000 Protestants and 1,000 Catholics who worship in 500 home churches. In 1992 and 1994, American evangelist Billy Graham visited North Korea. He met Kim Il-sung, giving him a Bible, and preached at Kim Il-sung University. In 2008, his son Franklin Graham visited the country. In 1991, North Korea invited the Pope to visit. In 2018, the government invited Pope Francis to visit. In late 2018, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church visited North Korea, meeting with officials and leading a service at the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity in Pyongyang.
North Korean Christians are officially represented by the Korean Christian Federation, a state-controlled body responsible for contacts with churches and governments abroad. In Pyongyang there are five church buildings: the Catholic Changchung Cathedral, three Protestant churches inaugurated in 1988 in presence of South Korean church officials, and a Russian Orthodox church consecrated in 2006.
The internationally supported Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2010, operates with a Christian ethos. Christian aid groups, including the American Friends Service Committee, the Eugene Bell Foundation, and World Vision, are able to operate in the country, but not allowed to proselytize.
In 2016, Christmas was celebrated in North Korea, but with the religious overtones downplayed.
There is a mosque in the Iranian embassy in Pyongyang called Ar-Rahman Mosque, the only mosque in the country. The mosque was likely built for the embassy staff, but visits by other foreigners are deemed possible, too. Every Friday prayers, most Muslims would pray at Ar-Rahman Mosque regardless of their differences in sect.
Grayson, 2002. pp. 158-161was invoked but never defined (see the help page).