Religious Persecution and Power in North Korea

David Rhee November/December 2016

The denial of religious liberty and the establishment of the state-sponsored religion of Juche has enabled the Kim dynasty to maintain power in North Korea. Change will come only when the people of North Korea are afforded the right to religious freedom so they can choose to worship a deity other than the one created and imposed by the Kim regime.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a hereditary dictatorship where political power has been passed down through three generations of the Kim family. The fact that one family has sustained power over a nation supposedly built on Leninist-Marxist principles is remarkable, especially considering the economic hardships experienced by the North Korean people during much of the Kim dynasty. North Korea has suffered a series of devastating famines since the 1990s that have resulted in the deaths of millions as well as stunted the growth of an entire generation of children. An empty stomach will motivate an individual to risk their life in order to bring forth change. That is why food shortages are often the fuel that drives political revolutions. For instance, famine played a significant role in spurring the French Revolution. Food crises driven by the spike in global food prices contributed to the political unrest in North Africa and the Middle East earlier this decade. In North Korea, however, famine has done little to impede the citizenry’s allegiance to the Kim family. North Koreans continue to worship and adulate the Kims even as they suffer.

The History of Religion in Korea

Religion has long been an important part of Korean culture. The inhabitants of the Korean peninsula were practicing a form of shamanism as far back as the fourth century.1 It was around that time that Buddhism and Confucianism were introduced to Korea via China. Confucianism ultimately became the dominant philosophy of the Korean ruling classes, while Buddhism maintained broad appeal among the masses. Catholicism was the first Christian denomination to be introduced to Korea, when Catholic missionaries reached the “Hermit Kingdom” in the sixteenth century.2

Protestant Christianity arrived in Korea during the nineteenth century. In 1866 a Welsh Presbyterian named Robert Thomas headed to Korea on the American trade ship General Sherman. The ship came into military conflict with Korean troops. Most of the crew was killed, and according to one account, Thomas was arrested and beheaded. Thomas had been distributing Bibles during the trip, and he ultimately gave his final copy to his executioner, Park Chung-won, who later became a Christian and established a church in Pyongyang.3 The first missionary to have a meaningful impact on Korea was the Reverend Dr. John Ross of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.4 Ross believed that evangelism was most effective when carried out through native converts rather than through foreign missionaries. His process of indigenous evangelization took place through the distribution of Scripture. In 1887 Ross completed and distributed the first Korean translation of the New Testament. Ross also selected the Korean term for God, Hananiim, which is a Korean word for the Ruler of Heaven.

It is worth noting that the capital city of North Korea, Pyongyang, was once regarded as the “Jerusalem of the East,” as it was a place where hundreds of churches existed and Western missionaries actively engaged in numerous humanitarian projects.5 Pyongyang was the site of the Great Revival of 1907, which fostered the spread of Christianity throughout the entire Korean peninsula and even into Manchuria.

Religious persecution has a long history in Korea. Much of the persecution derived from the pervasive influence of Confucianism on Korean society, as well as the Hermit Kingdom’s enmity toward anything foreign. It was during the Choson dynasty that the governmental system was framed by Confucian ideals. Korea adopted a Confucian system of education whose purpose was to supply a trained bureaucracy that would serve as advisors to the king.6 These Confucian-trained government officials tended to be wary of anything foreign, and Christianity was no exception. Christians were looked upon with suspicion for their refusal to respect and partake in Confucian traditions such as the worship of ancestors. In 1791 two Catholics, Kwon Sangyon and Yun Chich’ung, were arrested and executed for not performing the ancestral rites.

The Korean government had concerns that Christianity was a tool being used by subversive foreign powers. The Sinyu Persecution of 1801 was a significant governmental suppression of the Catholic Church. It started because a young scholar, Hwang Sayong, drafted a letter that appealed for a Western army to protect the fledgling Catholic Church. Korean authorities intercepted Hwang’s letter, and its contents were all that they needed to prove that Catholicism endangered the political independence of Korea.7 In 1815 the Urhae Persecution took place as a result of the discovery of foreign missionaries on Korean soil, which raised the fear of subversion of the Korean state by foreign powers.

Between 1910 and 1945 Japan occupied the Korean peninsula. The Japanese sought to impose their religious traditions, including Shintoism. During this period Koreans were forced to take part in Japanese Shinto worship, which included worship of the emperor. Korean Christians perceived such acts as being idolatrous. Between 1938 and 1945 some 2,000 people were arrested for refusal to comply with mandatory attendance at Shinto shrine events.8

Many Christians also resisted Japanese demands to acknowledge Shinto mythology as a creed, and this resulted in the church being singled out for harsh retribution from the Japanese occupying forces. The Japanese military engaged in burning down churches and executing significant numbers of Christians. In one notable incident Japanese troops herded villagers into the local church and then set it aflame. Missionaries were the first to smuggle out reports about these atrocities, and it was the mission boards in their home countries that forced Western governments to condemn Japanese brutality.

The suppression of religious freedom came to an end once the Japanese forces withdrew from the Korean peninsula following World War II. Christianity and Buddhism, having endured through the years of Japanese occupation, still had significant numbers of followers despite Japanese efforts to eradicate them. According to the North Korean Central Yearbook published in 1950, it was estimated that there were in North Korea right after the national liberation approximately 2 million religious believers, including 375,000 Buddhists, 200,000 Protestants, and 57,000 Catholics.9

Juche—The State Religion of North Korea

When Kim Il Sung took power in the newly formed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he began a systematic campaign of indoctrination based on his own interpretation of Stalinist ideology. Religion would initially have no place in Kim’s Leninist-Marxist inspired society. Kim considered Christianity to be a superstition and a hindrance to the socialist revolution.10 He also considered religion to be a tool of the ruling class to exploit and oppress the people. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Kim’s secret police embarked on intense efforts to eradicate religious belief. All churches, temples, and other religious sites were closed. Bibles and other religious literature were destroyed. Religious leaders were either executed or sent to concentration camps. However, instead of completely expunging religion from North Korean society, Kim created a new religion that would be used for self-serving purposes. He named his new religion “Juche.”

At the time Korea was liberated from Japanese rule on August 15, 1945, Kim Il Sung was an army captain in the Soviet Union’s 88th Special Brigade. He was chosen by the Far East Command of the Soviet Union’s State Security Commission to become a puppet to represent the U.S.S.R.’s interests in Korea. Kim returned to Korea through Port Wonsan on September 19, 1945, aboard the Soviet warship Pugachev, with no political base at all inside the country. However, backed by the Soviet Army, Kim established his new regime on September 9, 1948.11 Stalin made Kim’s rise to power possible, and his death in 1953 created a sense of instability to Kim’s rule.

So Kim created Juche as a tool to justify his status as the leader of North Korea. Also, with the death of Stalin, Kim could no longer depend on the backing of the Soviet Union, so he used Juche as the rationale for ridding North Korea of foreign influences. Juche, which means “self-reliance” in Korean, summoned the people of North Korea to purge themselves of foreign influences and develop a loyalty and reliance on their own culture. It also became a mechanism to deify Kim Il Sung, who was presented as “God” to the North Korean people.12 According to Juche doctrine, Kim was omniscient and omnipresent. He was also the progenitor of the Korean race, who must be deified and worshipped by all.13 Juche later became the rationale to justify the passing of power from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il. Just as Kim Il Sung is “God,” his son Kim Jong Il is a surrogate Jesus Christ.14

The U.S. State Department’s 1996 Human Rights Report observes that worship of the Juche ideology and Kim Il Sung and his family had reached the level of a state religion.15 All DPRK citizens are required to adhere to Juche, which has no tolerance of other religions, which are viewed as presenting a challenge to the Kim regime’s ideological foundations. Kim Il Sung was the longest ruling dictator in the world at the time of his death. That fact alone demonstrates the success of Juche as a tool for maintaining political power.

Religious Persecution Today

Article 68 of North Korea’s constitution ensures the right to freedom of religion. However, it also attaches the condition that religion must not be used to bring in foreign influences or as the pretext to engage in activities that are harmful to the state.16 It is the government that ultimately decides whether a religion meets this test; there cannot be any religion in North Korea except for those approved by the authorities, and they will proscribe any religion that poses a threat to the Kim regime. Thus religion in North Korea is permissible only when it benefits the Kim family. Article 68 was added to the constitution amid the famine of the 1990s in order to procure aid from the rest of the world.17 It was during this time that North Korea began a series of posturing measures intended to dupe the rest of the world into believing they suddenly were committed to protecting civil and human rights. North Korea essentially practices a “parallel” policy toward religion, whereby it takes advantage of religion for political purposes on the international stage, while suppressing it internally. The government tries to appear to the international community as if it is tolerating religion and guaranteeing religious freedom, while in reality it is repressing religion within its borders.

One manner in which North Korea maintains its façade of religious liberty is through the operation of three religious organizations: the Buddhist Federation, the Korean Christian Federation, and the Korean Catholic Association. The Protestant Korean Christian Federation claims to have 10,000 members, and the Catholic Association claims to have about 3,000 members. In reality, these are shell organizations that do nothing to facilitate the practice of Buddhism, Catholicism, or Protestant Christianity in North Korea.18

There are two Protestant churches and a Catholic church that have been built in Pyongyang since 1988. Although the churches have received widespread international publicity, several analysts believe they are opened only when foreign visitors request to attend services. They appear to be propaganda facilities established for visiting foreigners, such as tourists and religious leaders. When in use, the government fills the pews with individuals posing as Christians. A Washington Post correspondent who attended services in two of the churches reported that the four Protestant congregants he was allowed to speak with could not name the first book of the Bible. Similarly, a British journalist met with a national leader of the Protestant federation who could not even name the first three books of the Bible.19

Documenting human rights abuses in North Korea is extraordinarily difficult because it is one of the most closed societies in the world. The few Westerners permitted into the country are largely confined within the Pyongyang area, where they are vigilantly supervised. The government’s tight security makes defections of North Korean citizens rare.20 The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) is an NGO with access to every North Korean defector admitted into South Korea. Since 2003 the NKDB maintains an archive that contains testimonies of defectors who witnessed human rights abuses.21 As of July 2013 the NKDB Unified Human Rights database has kept files on a total of 46,713 human rights violations in North Korea. Of those, 1,034 or 2.2 percent, of all cases were related to religious persecution.22 Among those who provided information on religious persecution cases in North Korea, 36.8 percent were eyewitnesses to religious persecution, 17.5 percent were colleagues of victims, 6.7 were actual victims of religious persecution, and 5.1 were relatives of victims. The reason the proportion of victims and their relatives is low is that most of them were sent to prison camps and thus unable to defect.

If a person is arrested because of religious activities within North Korea, they will be subject to intense interrogation. It has been reported that victims are severely punished in political prison camps.23 Once an individual ends up in a political prison camp, it is kept secret whether they are alive or not. Although imprisonment is the most common punishment for those who have had contact with religion, victims are also subject to other punishments, such as public or secret executions, which serve as warnings to other people about what will happen if they too engage in the worship of a deity other than the Kims.24 The regime is also very harsh on defectors who are deported from China because of concerns that they have been exposed to other religions.

Ways to Bring About Change

In 1997 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggested that declining economic conditions would motivate the people of North Korea to demand reforms from the Kim regime. Albright’s assessment underestimated the massive impact the decades of intense religious indoctrination has done to the psyche of the North Korean people.25 Juche is a religion that encourages North Koreans to prevail through the hardships and to find joy in the suffering. To North Koreans, tough times are not a reason to rebel, but instead an opportunity to demonstrate their unceasing faith in their divine leaders.

The only way to inspire the North Korean people to rise up against the Kim regime is by revealing the deceptiveness of Juche. North Koreans must be shown that Juche is a religion that benefits the Kim family and their cohorts at the expense of ordinary North Koreans. They need to see that Juche is not a religion worthy of their faith. They might realize this if given the opportunity to compare it to other religions.

The U.S. should collaborate with religious groups to promote religious liberty in North Korea. The State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom is committed to assisting religious NGOs to promote religious freedom.26 Therefore, this government agency should support religious NGOs working to disseminate information into North Korea. The financial backing of the U.S. government will empower NGOs with the resources to disseminate religious materials into North Korea; literature and other information that will take the blinders off the eyes of the North Korean people, who have been restricted to just one distorted religion.

Freedom of religion is a basic human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says the right to choose a religion is essential. This includes “the freedom to choose a religion, to change a religion, to confess a religious belief, to not express a religious belief, and to choose not to have any religion.”27 The people of North Korea are denied all of these freedoms, and the result is their unwitting compliance with a repressive regime that causes them to live in a state of suffering. The only way to end the Kim regime is to let North Koreans know that Juche is not their only option when it comes to religion. They deserve to know that there exists a God of love and mercy, who, unlike the Kim family, values the life of every person and desires to bless all who worship Him. If they are given the freedom to choose, the people of North Korea will shed their distorted image of god as depicted by Juche, and embrace the true God.

1 James Huntley Grayson, Korea: A Religious History (London: Routledge Curzon, 2002), p.19.

2 Grayson, p. 140.

3 Zoe Smith, Religion and Belief in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: A Report of the All Party.

4 Grayson, p. 156.

5 Ibid., p. 158.

6 Ibid., p. 107.

7 Ibid., pp. 143, 144.

8 Ibid., pp. 160, 161.

9 Yeo Sang Yoon, White Paper on Religious Freedom in North Korea 2013 (Seoul: Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, 2013), p. 62.

10 Nina Shea, In the Lion’s Den: A Shocking Account of Persecution and Martyrdom of Christians Today and How We Should Respond (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), p. 68.

11 Thomas Belke, Juche: A Christian Study of North Korea’s State Religion (Bartlesville, Okla.: Living Sacrifice Book Company, 1999), p. 172.

12 Belke, p. 62.

13 Ibid., p. 3.

14 Ibid., p. 62.

15 Jae Jean Suh, ed., White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea (Seoul: Korea Institute for National Unification, 2002), p. 124.

16, Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of)’s Constitution of 1972 With Amendments through 1998, (accessed Apr. 18, 2016).

17 Yoon, p. 45.

18 Suh, p. 121.

19 Shea, p. 69.

20 Ibid.

21 Yoon, p. 139.

Article Author: David Rhee

David Rhee is an adjunct professor of theology and Bible studies at Horizon University, Los Angeles, California.