Since North Korea is a fairly closed society, it is difficult to know a great deal about the state of religion in the country. When North Korea was created with the Communist government of Kim Il Sung in power,in 1945, it initially equated religious groups with foreigners and with oppression; thus members of all churches and temples suffered discrimination, imprisonment or execution. This persecution increased with the Korean War of l950 to1953, during which time the government identified large numbers of religiously active persons as “counter-revolutionaries” and imprisoned or killed many of them. This persecution again surfaced in the 1970’s when a constitutional revision added a clause encouraging the “freedom of antireligious activity.”
However, the government began to moderate and change its policy towards religion during the 1980’s. At this time, a campaign was launched with focused on Kim Il Sung’s “benevolent politics”. As part of this campaign, the government allowed a number of religious organizations to form and to function. These organizations were allowed to meet with foreign church groups and international aid organizations; this caused a number of foreigners to question the sincerity of religious beliefs of these groups. These groups continue to operate and a number of foreign religious figures, including representatives of the Pope, Billy Graham, religious delegations from South Korea, etc. have visited North Korea. In 2000 and again in 2002, representatives from the Vatican visited the country. During these visits, the North Korean Catholic community in Pyongyang met with them; in 2002, the delegation celebrated the Feast of the Ascension at the Changchung Church in Pyongyang. Much of the religious activity associated with foreigners centers around humanitarian relief; during the food crisis, religious organizations were pivotal in supplying food, especially to school children.
The North Korean Constitution provides for “freedom of religious belief”. However, it also stipulates that religious “should not be used for purposes of dragging in foreign powers or endangering public security.” The official government statistics state that North Korea has 10,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, 4,000 Catholics and 40,000 members of the Chondogyo Young Friends Party, a government approved group based on a traditional religious movement. South Korean church groups give much higher estimates but these are only estimates. At least two Protestant and one Catholic Church have operated in Pyongyang since 1988. One of the Protestant Churches is dedicated to the memory of “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung’s mother, who was a Presbyterian deacon.
It is estimated that there are 300 Buddhist temples in North Korea. The government regards these as cultural relics but allows religious activity in a number of them. On June 4, 2002, Kim Jong Il (“Dear Leader”) visited the Ryangchon Buddhist temple and made comments about preserving the country’s cultural relics.
While government sponsored religious groups appear to function freely, all underground or non approved religious groups suffer oppression and their members may be imprisoned or executed. However, in 1992, the government again changed the constitution and deleted the clause regarding “freedom of antireligious propaganda;” instead the Constitution authorized religious gatherings and provided for “the right to build buildings for religious use.” Efforts at national reconciliation since the inter-Korean summit in Mid-June, 2000 have resulted in closer contacts between South and North religious organizations whose role has been to promote social and cultural exchanges.
Several schools for religious education do exist in North Korea. There are three-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy. A religious studies program was established at Kim Il Sung University in 1989 and most of its graduates work in the foreign trade sector. In 2000 a Protestant seminary was reopened with help from foreign missionary groups.
The ideology of “Juche” or self reliance has been raised to the position almost of a state religion. In addition, the “cult of personality” of both “Great Leader,” Kim Il Jung and “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il have joined with this idea and their veneration has become a kind of state religion. All citizens, including members of Christian churches and Buddhist temples, must join in revering these leaders and considering “Juche” as exemplifying State and society’s needs; to refuse is to invite imprisonment or execution and is considered to be opposed to the national interest. Thus Juche and the veneration of the two “Leaders” is a religious phenomenon.
Juche itself is Kim Il Sung’s interpretation of the Marxism ideology for the Korean situation. It is based on the reality of isolation that North Korea has experienced and turns this reality into a positive philosophy. Juche is a humanistic centered ideology in which man, defined as the masses, or ordinary people, is considered to be the master and creator of his own destiny. According to this ideology, “The revolution in each country should be carried out responsibility by its own people, the masters, in an independent manner and in a creative way suitable to its specific conditions.” It stresses that man is the master of history and plays a decisive role in transforming and shaping the world he lives in. Juche also stresses the idea of each nation having a national character and a national way of development. The independence of each nation in an International setting should allow each nation to fulfill its national character and to develop according to its own national principles.