When it comes to religion in North Korea and the DPRK and its relationship with religion there are a lot of misconceptions. North Korea is officially an atheist state, much like many communist countries before it, BUT unlike Albania for example it has never banned religion.
In fact religious freedom is very much protected by the Constitution of the DPRK.
Much like China though being a member of a religious order bans you from being a member of the Workers Party of Korea, although not all people parties, which we will get to later.
What is the main North Korean religion?
We could therefore say that the main religion in North Korea is atheism, although that is not an actual religion. The main practiced religions in North Korea from a traditional sense are Buddhism, Christianity and Chondoism the later of which has its own political party, which we will get to later.
Some outsiders would say that Juche is the state religion of North Korea, or the North Korean religion, but again this is a political belief and one we will deal with in more detail later.
Can I practice my religion in North Korea?
Contrary to popular belief you can be religious in North Korea as a visitor, as well as bring your own holy book with you. We have personally brought many religious people to North Korea, who are respected by the North Koreans, even if they feel they cannot bow, or the like due to their beliefs.
What you cannot do though is spread your religion in North Korea – something not unlike other countries in the world. So, when you hear the tail of the guy who got arrested for “forgetting his bible”, remember there was a little more context to things.
Religion in North Korea – Christianity
Much like in China religious organisations are not independent of the government and are required to be patriotic organisations. They are therefore run by government agencies.
The Christian organisation in North Korea is called the Korean Christian Federation, which you can read about here.
Christianity in North Korea is very much misunderstood, Kim Il-Sung famously went to church and his mother was religious. Even now it is possible to go to Church in North Korea as a tourist and even visit the Church attended by the Presidents mother. Here you will see a strange mix of religious texts, as well as propaganda – you can reach about the Church here.
To read about going to church in North Korea click here.
Buddhism in North Korea
Buddhism is another religion in North Korea that has a rich history throughout the Korean peninsula and thus the DPRK. There are a number of Buddhist temples and monks, and it is not unheard of for there to be exchanges between buddhists from the north and south.
Again though and like Christianity it is governed by a patriotic association, namely the Korea Buddhist Federation who you can read about here.
Some have questioned whether Buddhism is tolerated as a religion of North Korea, but from what we have seen at least it is, with the exchanges with foreign countries being very real.
Chondoism in North Korea
Chondism is partly seen as a national religion of North Korea from where it has its roots. Literally translated as “heavenly way” it is mixture between Christian and Confucianism to a large extent.
To read a detailed report on what Chondoism is click here.
In fact the religion is to an extent so important that there is even a political party represented in the North Korean parliament that make up part of the national front of the country. Interestingly this is in contrast to the main Workers Party of Korea who do not let religious people in North Korea join the party.
Thus in this sense it is possible to be part of organized religion in North Korea, as well as be part of politics.
The Moonies in North Korea
One of the more controversial elements to religion in North Korea is that of the late Reverend Moon and the so called Moonies, who are a new religious movement or cult depending on your take on things. Now Mr Moon was born in North Korea, did some time in prison before he fled.
In later years he formed not only his church but things such as the World Anti-Communist League. He was also very good friends with President Kim Il-Sung. Long story short he owned the Pothonghang Hotel, which not only had a Moonie Church, but frequently had members going to pay homage to him. Of course no North Koreans are Moonies (officially), but still ranks as one of weirder elements to religion in North Korea that we have encountered.
It is therefore possible to practice your religion in North Korea as a Moonie, but not possible for you to convert North Koreans into joining the church.
Religion in North Korea – Underground Churches
Another controversial one and perhaps the most damaging. These tend to be ran by North Americans who sneak bibles over the border and the like. Their general belief, which I have had told to me is that they are there to save souls.
This usually causes lots of problems, many of which have been well documented, such as in Dandong and along the border all the way up until Russia. It has often been linked to the underground church movement in China, which is also banned and illegal.
Many of the arrests in both Korea and on the Chinese border have been related to these religious zealots.
Eastern Orthodox Church in North Korea
Directly linked to the Russian expat scene who are mostly linked to the embassy, but also include those doing business. During Soviet times there would have been more Russians in the DPRK of the Eastern Orthodox faith.
Due to the large portion of Koreans that lived in Russia and particularly Sakhalin during the times of the Soviet Union, some of whom returned to the DPRK, there are some practitioners of the Eastern Orthodox Church in North Korea.
A vast majority of the Koreans of the former USSR are of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Religions in North Korea – Islam
This is a similar situation to the mosque at the Iranian embassy which allows both Sunni and Shia practitioners, although there is not and has never been a Muslim minority in the Korean peninsula.
But, whilst not a religion of North Korea, some Koreans in Central Asia are known to have converted to Islam.
Christians in Rason
Another controversial one, but also perhaps the most active. There are many Christians doing business in Rason ranging from everything from travel agencies to pig farms and again not without their controversy.
Kenneth Bae was one such evangelist who was caught trying to overthrow the government. This did not go so well, Jesus did not arrive at the specified time and he spent time in prison. When it comes to religion in North Korea while many Christians are doing good things, some really are not.
North Korea Religion – Is North Korea atheist?
When it comes to religion in North Korea many people assume that the state is atheist. In fact the only ever officially atheist state was Hoxhaist Albania. Although with that being said you cannot be religious and be a member of the Workers Party of Korea.
So, when it comes to North Korean religion while you are legally protected to practice your faith, you are for all intents barred from the seats of power. This is actually the same in the Peoples Republic of China, a fact that few people actually know. .
Religion of North Korea – Is Juche a Religion?
The state ideology of Juche, as well as the alleged cult of personality to the leaders have often erroneously been compared to religion. In fact this is not the case and North Koreans certainly do not see either a religion.
The state ideology of Juche is though pushed heavily and plays a key role almost one might add to religious like levels.
To read about the political parties in North Korea click here.
Religion in North Korea in 2023?
With the closure of the country due to the Covid-19 pandemic not much is known about how much religious activity has gone on in the DPRK, nor how the churches and religious buildings have coped whilst being closed.
It is likely though that without embassies there to support them and Christians no-longer at their border, there is much less going on right now.