Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Michael S. in Cambodia asks:
Do North Koreans believe in ghosts, spirits, or hauntings?
North Korea’s ruling principles are based on Juche ideology, which is itself based on Marxist materialism. As you may know, Karl Marx was a sharp critic of organized religion, saying it was “the opium of the people”. In essence then, the basic principles of North Korean socialism are strongly opposed to and incompatible with religious beliefs.
Even though the North Korean constitution officially states that it allows the freedom of religion, this freedom simply does not exist in the North. As such, I had to learn continuously about the negative effects and harms of a religion while growing up in North Korea. This environment therefore makes many North Koreans agnostic, but some of course conduct religious activities behind closed doors, often however with serious consequences.
So, given the worship of a God is very difficult in North Korea, does this mean we don’t believe in spirits, ghosts and the after-life too?
Although Christianity is almost non-existent in North Korea, you might be surprised to learn that we actually do have very strong concepts of ghosts or spirits in the DPRK. And in fact Shamanism, or human communication with the spirit world, is something that is very popular in North Korea, where it crops up most often in the form of fortune-telling.
Like anywhere in the world, when things get too much and life gets unbearably hard, people like to know what is ahead of their future. Spiritual beings can help in this regard, and as a result, many North Koreans invest their money in fortune-telling. North Koreans, you see, would rather trust the spirits than the party or nation.
“Many North Korean defectors speak to fortune-tellers in advance to ask them for advice on the best dates to bring their remaining families across the border to South Korea”
Some North Koreans are so engrossed with folk religion and the spirit world that they even ask fortune-tellers to advise them on the best dates to move house or to get married. And many North Korean defectors speak to fortune-tellers in advance to ask them for advice on the best dates to bring their remaining families across the border to South Korea.
Sometimes fortune-tellers tell horror stories or stories about life after death, and those being told of their future tend to spread these stories on. You see, North Koreans who weren’t taught about Marxist theory tend to find these stories particularly captivating – and they want to believe them, for numerous reasons. So while Marx’s theory of materialism says that there is no afterlife, the spiritual world simultaneously talks about reincarnation – something which many North Koreans find to be comforting. And like anywhere else, North Korean people are of course most afraid about death, so these tales are popular in many circles
As you might expect, the North Korean government tends to get insecure about Shamanism and fortune-telling. Officially they try to discourage people from paying a visit to fortune-tellers through special propaganda campaigns from time to time. But fortune-telling is so engrained in society that it is too late for this propaganda to have any impact: even government officials feel skeptical about the propaganda, for a story about ghosts or souls is no longer a strange story to them.
“One fortune-teller I used to know in Pyongyang once told me that Kim Jong Il used to get the fortune tellers to pick the dates he would go out and make his visits!”
But despite the official line, North Korea’s top elites are known to invite famous fortune-tellers to Pyongyang with warm hospitality, often in order to find out more about their future. What’s more: even the very top of the leadership is said to consult with fortune-tellers! Obviously, I can’t guarantee that this is true, but one fortune-teller I used to know in Pyongyang once told me that Kim Jong Il used to get the fortune tellers to pick the dates he would go out and make his visits!
Personally, I paid numerous visits to fortune tellers when I lived in Pyongyang. One of the most famous fortune tellers I remember was called the “baby fortune teller”. He was a grey-haired old man and every night in his dream a spirit appeared who would tell him who would visit him the next day – also informing him of their entire past and future.
Because he became so famous, some people travelled for days to see him from rural areas far away. Sometimes he would go missing. But when he returned, he would often come back in an expensive car with lots of gifts. According to him, he was visited by the wives of all top elites.
In a way, North Korea became one big religious nation – but it also became a grave full of lies. That’s because North Korean propaganda is like its own religion. The propaganda suggests that immortality is possible through its endorsement of Kim Il Sung’s ideology. The propaganda says that while your body will perish after death, the political life is immortal. Such beliefs made Kim Il Sung the only God in North Korea — and a belief system that would sometimes demand people’s lives.
So while North Korea refuted Marxist materialism – its official ideology made Kim Il Sung a God – and in a way, it left its people to be captivated by folk religion.
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Editing and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
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