North Korea is a secretive state, which often finds itself in the spotlight thanks to its unique political policies and nuclear weapons program. Beyond this, however, there is also an often overlooked social and religious structure prevailing in the country. The official state religion is Juche, a concoction of Marxism-Leninism and a hero worship of the Kim dynasty. The mystery surrounding the country means it is difficult to monitor and observe religious life in the country, but inspite of these obstacles, it is possible to gain some insight into the religious landscape of North Korea.
Juche, which literally translates as ‘self-reliance’, is the official ideology of the North Korean state and is practised by all its citizens. It appears to borrow heavily from Marxism-Leninism, while integrating Korean-specific elements such as reverence of the Kim dynasty. It prescribes the total submission and obedience of citizens to the ruling party and Kim family. Juche plays a central role in all formal ceremonies and gatherings as a mark of deference and loyalty to the state. Although primarily a political ideology, Juche has long been referred to as a religion by academics and experts.
The Changing Place of Christianity
Before the formation of the North Korean state, Protestant and Catholic Christian denominations were widely recognized and practiced. However, the North Korean government has always been suspicious of Christianity and viewed it as a foreign import, thus making it something of a pariah in the country. This has led to a severe shrinking of religious freedom and disruption of existing Christian communities. A rapid decline set in after the state officially declared Juche as its ideology in the 1970s. Despite this, North Korea has one of the last remaining underground Christian movements that survives to the present day.
Cults of Personality
In addition to Juche, North Koreans also pay homage to the ‘personality cult’ of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The two founders of the North Korean state are venerated with near divine status in the country, with citizens obliged to pay homage to their portraits and statues. Idols of the two Kim’s are a common sight in the country and are featured prominently in official ceremonies and gatherings. For all intents and purposes, the personality cult of the Kim dynasty has usurped the place of a state religion in North Korea.
Buddhism was the dominant religion between the 10th and 14th centuries in Korea, but its fate was altered with the arrival of Catholicism and Protestantism in the 19th century. Buddhism had a particularly hard time under the rule of the North Korean state, with practitioners facing discrimination, repression and prosecution since the 1950s. Despite this, reports from defectors and visitors suggest that Buddhism is still practiced in North Korea, mostly in the form of shamanism and ancestor worship, while Buddhism itself is not practised openly or officially.
The Politics of Religion and Atheism
The politics of religion in North Korea are characterized by complex and changing dynamics. The country is officially atheist and is wary of any foreign religion cultures and beliefs, particularly those that can be linked to the foreign powers it vies for control over in the region. On the other hand, North Korea is also willing to exploit religion for its own political and economic purposes, as evidenced by their de-facto adoption of Juche in the 1970s. Thus, the North Korean state engages in a game of two-sided manipulation of religion.
Foreign Religions and Missionaries
Foreign missionaries and proselytizers of international religious denominations are either not allowed into North Korea or face significant opposition if they attempt to do so. Furthermore, those citizens that are suspected of having foreign religious sympathies are watched and punished by the authorities. The North Korean state has no qualms about using death penalty sentences to punish those accused of apostasy, while other less serious offenses are met with imprisonment or unpaid labour sentences.
Freedom of Religion
North Korea is cited by the United Nations and various human rights groups as one of the worst violators of religious freedom. Citizens are allowed to practice their faith inside their homes and observe traditions. Moreover, the government allows foreign Christian and Buddhist organisations to provide humanitarian assistance to its Rohingya Muslim population. However, North Korea is far from tolerant when it comes to religious freedom, and there is no room for political dissent or any religious beliefs outside of Juche.
In recent years, North Korea has experienced a growth in religious practice at home and kept up with the global trend of religious liberalism. This can be observed in the country’s changing attitude towards the Christian minority and its accommodation of foreign missionaries and aid workers. Despite its officially atheist stance, North Korea has also shown a willingness to engage with its neighbours on religious matters and strengthen its relations with neighbouring countries through interfaith dialogue.
Juche in Practice
It is difficult to assess the extent to which citizens of the DPRK are actively practising Juche, as the country is notorious for shrouding its citizens in a veil of secrecy. Nonetheless, the state’s determination to promote Juche remains steadfast and visible. The cult of personality of the Kim family is constantly reinforced and Kim Il Sung’s image is ubiquitous in the DPRK. This is used in conjunction with other propaganda tools, such as huge military parades and regime-sponsored holidays, to continually inculcate Juche into the North Korean national consciousness.
The North Korean state has been unwaveringly hostile to any religion seen as a foreign import. It has, however, taken measured steps towards engaging the foreign interfaith community in recent years. In particular, North Korea opened its doors to a delegation of Christian and Buddhist organisations in early 2019 in an attempt to encourage inter-religious dialogue and understanding. The delegation conducted a fact-finding mission and provided North Korean citizens with much needed aid and comfort during the visit.
Social Impact of Juche
The spread of Juche has had a powerful influence on North Korean society, relegating traditional faiths into obscurity and virtually expelling them from public life in the country. A by-product of this is a growing sense of nihilism and indifference among the populace. This is evidenced by reports of increased levels of spiritual and psychological stress among citizens, possibly as a result of the lack of spiritual guidance or meaningful belief system.
Although much of the religious landscape of North Korea remains hidden from outside observers, it is possible to gain some insight through the accounts of defectors and visitors. While the official state religion is Juche, which is a combination of Marxism-Leninism with a cult of personality for the Kim family, North Koreans are known to practice Buddhism and Christianity secretly. The North Korean state has no qualms about punishing apostasy with death penalty sentences and continues to be one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world.