Every week, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Today’s question is: Is there any ‘underground religion’ in North Korea? Does actual religious practice survive today?
This is just my opinion, but Koreans seem to be a people with a deep sense of religiosity.
Many of the foreign religions that have come to Korea have become prevalent and enjoyed great success. The history of our country has unfolded alongside the rise and fall of these religions, which of course include Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity.
Maybe it’s because of this devout religiosity that the Kim family can command so much loyalty, and a worthless novice can be subject to such flowery praise and rule the whole country.
In the past, Chinese emperors used superstition to emphasize their legitimacy and command the loyalty of the people, and would call themselves “sons of heaven.”
Hundreds and even thousands of years have passed since then, and a new era has come: one of science, technology, and logic.
Ironically, however, there is still someone in North Korea who designates himself a “son of heaven,” and there are ordinary people who show religious zeal towards everything he does.
Of course, there are all manner of conditions that make this possible, but the loyalty of the common people who love him cannot always be explained with logic.
North Korea was a land of very devout Christians before Kim Il Sung’s communist regime came to power. Sungsil Middle School in Pyongyang was the best seminary in the whole of Korea. This school was the alma mater of Kim Hyung Jik, father of Kim Il Sung.
Even after he moved to China, Kim Il Sung served as a Sunday school teacher. The given name of his mother, Kang Pan Seok, was a Koreanisation of Saint Peter. She was a church deacon. Kim Il Sung’s grandfather and uncle were also pastors at the same church.
As such, North Korea was a religious land in which Christianity was prevalent. But following the establishment of Kim Il Sung’s communist regime, Christianity was subject to brutal repression. Korean Christianity is still so conservative and firmly against communism because of this history: after the establishment of the regime in North Korea, religion declined and many believers were killed in prisons or camps.
After liberation and the Korean War, the remaining religious people moved to the South where they and their descendants formed the basic hierarchy of Korean Christian society that exists to this day.
Ironically, Christians who fled south due to persecution by the North Korean authorities turned South Korea into the world’s second largest exporter of missionaries.
The underground church in North Korea has been almost completely destroyed. There were families who gave small scale worship services – but when such people were caught, they were executed, regardless of whether they were male or female.
Families of believers used the covers of novels to disguise their bibles, and sat together and worshipped quietly. Of course, the children were sworn to secrecy, but occasionally, the authorities would find them out by chance. There were cases were those caught starved themselves to death in prison.
The biggest problem for the authorities, however, was that of North Korean refugees who had escaped from North Korea after the economic crisis and had become Christianized by meeting Korean missionaries and pastors in China. They were protected by the church, and learned Christianity at the same time.
Such people vowed they would preach Christianity, and hundreds of them re-entered North Korea.
As a result, when State Security Department agents arrest a defector, they focus their investigation most of all on whether he or she has been in contact with Christianity or attempted to go to South Korea. If they find either to be true, the arrestee will undoubtedly be killed.
But North Korea’s economic difficulties have also brought about a revival of shamanism.
Because people were worried about their future, they began to search for shamans to tell them their destiny or read their fortune. As a result, Shamanism became a very popular religion.
Even high-ranking North Koreans are attracted to shamanism, and there are rumors that Kim Jong Il went to see Mudang [shaman priestesses] too.
Anxieties about an uncertain future have made North Korea into a religious nation, but even now people are living from day to day without religious freedom.
Written by Ji-Min Kang
Translation by Daniel Tudor
Featured image by Adam Westerman