Up until the late 4th century AD, Korea was dominated by its native indigenous religion that was socially guided by shamans. However, it was during this time that the country was introduced to Buddhism and Confucianism from China. Under the Kingdom of Goryeo (918-1392), which had unified the country, Buddhism became a major force in the country and flourished. However, after the Kingdom of Goryeo was replaced by the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), Korean Confucianism became the official state ideology and religion. During this period Buddhism and native Shamanism being harshly suppressed, restricted and persecuted.
Christianity arrived in the country in the early 17th century, but by the middle of the 18th century it had been outlawed, and Christians were persecuted harshly until the opening of Korea in 1876 with the Kanghwa Treaty. After this the Joseon state started to collapse politically and culturally, persecution of Christians was disallowed, and the religion quickly gained a large foothold in the country. This was all short lived as Korea was then annexed by Japan from 1910 until 1945. During this time Japan's religion of State Shinto was forced on the country. Following the end of World War Two, Korea was divided into two countries in 1948 as America, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China could not come to an agreement on the Korean solution of a unified country.
Religion in the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea:
The status of non-religious people in North Korea, who account for almost two-thirds of the population, is influenced by a variety of different factors. In North Korea's original 1949 constitution, it states that there is freedom of religion and religious services. In 1972 an amendment was added saying that there is religious liberty and people also are free to oppose religion. In the 1992 amendment, which was kept in the 1998 constitution, it says that there is freedom of religion and that religious buildings and ceremonies are allowed.
Despite what the Constitution says many suspect the ruling Kim family has eradicated religion in the country over many years and are only sponsoring official religious groups to give the illusion of freedom of religion and to deflect human rights criticism. However, it is almost impossible for outside observers to know what goes on it the country, so people can only guess based on the writings of founder Kim II-sung (1912-1994), people who have defected from the country or from intelligence reports. The country also promotes state-sponsored atheism, since it is communist and has a national doctrine of Juche that says people should break from being dependent on spiritual ideas. All of these factors over decades led to a country that is very irreligious, as practicing or promoting can have extremely dire consequences if not officially sanctioned by the government.
As mentioned in the introduction, Korean Shamanism is the oldest and native religion of Korea and the Korean people. In Korean Shamanism the shaman-priest acts as a medium between the spirits or gods and the human plane of existence by performing rituals to try and resolve problems. Myths on them vary by saying that the shaman-priests are descendants of the Heavenly Kings or descendants of his male son. The major belief of Korean Shamanism is in the Haneullim or Hwanin, who is the utmost god and the source of all beings. Towards the end of the Joseon Kingdom, the religion was heavily demonized and suppressed by the growing Christian population of Korea. Following the division of the Koreans and the resulting Korean War (1950-53), many of the followers of Korean Shamanism in North Korea are known to have migrated to South Korea to escape from the government. No one knows about the current status of the religion in North Korea, but estimates place that about 16% of the population practices the religion in secret.
Chondoism is a religious movement in Korea that was based on and inspired by the Donghak neo-Confucian movement of the mid 19th century that came about in reaction to the encroachment of Western powers and the loss of Korean culture and religion. Chondoism evolved in the early 20th century as a religion following the Donghak Peasant Revolution (1894-95), when the third patriarch of the Donghak movement decided the religion had to be modernized to legitimize it and prevent persecution. It was at this time that he officially changed the name of Donghak to Chondoism. The religion has its origins in Korean Confucian but also has pieces of Korean Shamanism in it. The major focuses of the religion are on personal cultivation, social welfare and the rejection of any kind of afterlife. The religion is ostensibly represented in the politics of North Korea by the minor Chondoist Chongu Party, which is one of the four parties included in the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, under the leadership of the communist party of North Korea. Today it is estimated that around 13% of North Korea's population follows the religion. Very little is known about the religion's activities but it is the only religion favored by the government and is also seen as Korea's ethnic religion. The religion has been represented at international religious conferences and events by the state-sponsored Chondoist Church and Chondoist Party.
As was previously mentioned Buddhism is the second oldest religion in Korea and was at one point the dominant religious, cultural and political force of the country, before being suppressed for around half a millennium by the Joseon Kingdom. Buddhism started to slowly recover in Korea in the beginning of the 20th century but that progress stopped in North Korea following the division of the country and the Korean War, which caused most Buddhists to flee into South Korea. The Korean Buddhist Federation, which was set up as a part of the North Korean government, governs and scrutinizes Buddhism in the country and represents the religion at international religious conferences. Buddhist monks in the country need state authorization in order to practice the religion legally and are totally dependent on state wages to maintain a living. There are 60 Buddhist temples in North Korea but most are not used for active worship, but instead stand as cultural relics. The country does have an academy for Buddhist studies, which also offers training for Buddhist clergy. Currently, Buddhism makes up around 5% of North Korea's population and has fared better than other religious groups under the Kim family.
Christianity, Islam, and Other Beliefs
As mentioned in the introduction Christianity was rising quickly in Korea in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century. The religion became very popular in the northern part of Korea, especially after the 1908 Manchurian revival. Missionaries played a major role in the modernization of the country and later supported the struggle for independence against the Japanese. Before the division of Korea Pyongyang, North Korea's capital had a population that was around 16% Christian and was a center of the religion. After the establishment of North Korea as communist state, most of the Christians fled to South Korea to escape from persecution. The religion was especially disliked in North Korea due to its ties to the West, especially America.
The Korean Christian Federation, set up by the government, plays a similar role to the Korean Buddhist Federation, by monitoring the religion in the country and it represents the religion at international religious conferences. In recent decades attitudes towards Christianity have become less hostile with the establishment of the five churches in Pyongyang, letting papal representatives visit the country and even sending North Korean novice priests to study in Italy. The only presence that Islam has in the country in at the Iranian embassy in Pyongyang where the only mosque in the country, the Ar-Rahman Mosque, is located. The mosque is for the embassy staff, as well as other foreigners to use. Besides this Islam, as well as any other religions, as no known presence in the country.
The Future Of Religion In North Korea
The future of religion in North Korea is most likely going to keep the same status quo that it currently has for the foreseeable future. Barring a massive change in the ideology of the current government and leadership or the government being overthrown or collapsing, nothing is likely to change with how North Korea treats religion and those who practice religion.