Korean Religious Belief -The once united country of Korea now divided into North and South Korea. The north was supported by China and the south by America in a bloody civil war in the 1950’s. The result of the war was a communist north and a ‘western’ south; one could also say a communist north and a free south. Korean Religious Belief Whatever terms you use to describe the two ‘countries’ or states, this webpage is about religion in North Korea and religion in South Korea. There was a religious tradition in Korea before it was unified and religion continues to flourish in the south, but what of the north?
The Dear Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, died in December 2011, so will that mean more religious freedom now? Kim Jong-il and his son, heir and successor attained divine status in North Korea and any criticism of the status quo meant imprisonment or death, possibly of the whole family of the unbeliever. South Korea, meanwhile boasts some of the largest Christian congregations on Earth. One Pentecostal congregation has over 75,000 members – enough to make any diocese envious in any religion.
The fact is that, before the revolution, when the country was unified, Korea had thriving communities of Shamanism, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism (not in any particular order). This equals any diverse religious community in the world. The political cult of the totalitarian leader replaced these various different religions in the north and ‘any other religious ideas’ were prohibited. Shamanism is the traditional Korean religious belief and that centres around a person, the Mudon (shaman), who is a local go-between between the living and the forces of spirit, nature and the occult. It is otherwise known as possession shamanism, which means that the shaman becomes possessed by a spirit who descends to the physical plain to offer guidance and help.
Buddhism came to Korea in the Fourth Century and it became a sort of state religion. The ruling monarchs adopted Buddism as their own religion between the Tenth and Fourteen Centuries. This situation changed when a form of Confucianism came into vogue, which put more emphasis on patriarchy. This form of Confucianism stressed the role of ‘the father’ and duty to the father. The ‘father’ was the head of the family and the ruler was the ultimate head of the nation. By paying homage to ‘the father’, the family was allowed to expect privileges. The system of patronage was adopted. This is the system that can be seen in North Korea: the subjects revere and pay homage to their ‘father’ – the ruler – and in return the ruler is expected to take care of his family – the nation.
The Catholic Christians arrived in the late Eighteenth Century and preached the Gospels, especially in the north, although the first Christians in Korea were young oriental idealists, especially Chinese. What will happen in the ‘new’ regime of North Korea only time will tell, but early signs are that nothing will change in the near future. However, hunger and lack of money might provide the impetus to break the North Korean government’s stranglehold on society, which will probably lead to an explosion of religious activity as it did in Russia and even China.