The Church in North Korea

North Korea’s cryptic response to the Pope’s visit to Seoul is emblematic of the nation’s complicated relationship with religion in general. Its constitution formally grants citizens religious freedom, but in reality, religious practice is punishable by public execution or banishment to the nation’s kwan-li-so prison camps.

The few churches in Pyongyang are maintained by the state in order to give the appearance of religious practice; congregants are actors bussed in to services for the benefit of tourists.

It hasn’t always been this way. North Korea actually has a long history with Christianity. Catholic missionaries first arrived on the Korean Peninsula in 1784. There, prominent Korean Studies historian Andrei Lankov reports, the Church took root with such success that by the 1920s, Pyongyang was known among missionaries as “the Jerusalem of the East.” Kim Il-sung himself grew up in a Christian household, and was reportedly a church organist as a teenager.

In her book Escape from North Korea, journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick writes of North Korea’s underground church. Figures reporting on the size of such organizations are inherently subject to inaccuracy, but her estimate puts their number at 200,000 to 400,000 adherents, somewhere around 1% of North Korea’s population.

Though their numbers are small, Christians in North Korea are important for at least two key reasons. First, they are faithful in quiet opposition to an ideology of state propaganda that amounts to a religion of dictator worship. The modest ideological diversity they represent is anathema to authoritarianism and may constitute the seeds of a freer future North Korea.

Second, Christians are key actors in what Kirkpatrick calls Asia’s underground railroad – a network of safe houses that help North Korean defectors escape to China and beyond. Defectors’ testimonies bring to light the heinous human rights abuses of the Kim regime, which will eventually oblige the international community to respond. The defectors also reach out to their family and friends in North Korea with reports of the outside world, exposing what the state propaganda calls “paradise on earth” for the hellish prison it really is.

[Huffington Post]

North Korea’s Juche a major world religion

The website Adherents.com classifies North Korea’s “juche” (self-reliance) ideology as a religion.

“From a sociological viewpoint, juche is clearly a religion”, considering that it is so influential in its adherents’ lives and that it is exclusive of other ideologies, Adherents.com states.

Furthermore, juche ranks in the top ten of the world’s major religions judged on the number of believers. Including the world’s four major religions — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism — Juche (19 million followers) is number 6, just after Sikhism (23 million).

This means that juche actually outnumbers several better-known religions, including Judaism (14 million), Bahai (7 million), Jainism (4.2 million), Shintoism (4 million), and Zoroastrianism (2.6 million).

Juche has all the necessary religious elements, including a founder (Kim Il-sung), a successor (Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un), a sacred ground (Mangyongdae), an organization (Workers Party and the military), doctrines, and precepts.

A prevailing view in academia likewise considers juche a religion. Rhee Sang-Woo, former president of Hallym University, said, “Juche is in the same vein as a monotheistic religion. North Korea is a strict theocracy.”

North Korea has 10 principles designed to uphold its monolithic one-party system. Article 3, Clause 6 of these 10 principles — a set of guidelines for everyday life — stresses the need to “respectfully care for, and thoroughly protect, the Dear Leader’s portraits, statues, and publications.”

Shin Eun-hee, a professor of religious studies at Simpson College in the U.S., regards juche as a “spiritual force that has sustained the North Korean people since the 1990s.”

Regarding juche as a major religion, we are reminded once again that it is not easy to free the North Korean people spiritually.

[Excerpt of Chosun Ilbo article by Lee Seon-min]