Religion is banned in North Korea

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Due to the country's isolation, it is difficult to get a complete and comprehensive picture of the actual situation of freedom of religion and belief in North Korea.

Traditionally, Buddhism and Confucianism were practiced in North Korea. In addition, there were a few members of Christianity and the Chondo religion. Today North Korea is officially an atheist nation, autonomous religious activities hardly exist any more, and if they exist, then only in secret. The religious-political situation differs from that in all other states in that the personality cult around the state's founder, Kim Il Sung, has gradually developed into an ideology that in many respects can no longer be distinguished from a religion. Today, North Korea can be described as a theocratic hereditary monarchy.

Although the North Korean state ideology differs from conventional definitions of religion, it can at least be understood as a quasi-religion411. It is the unreservedly most important ideological-pseudophilosophical current in North Korea. For example, paying homage to the numerous statues and portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are commonplace. Images of the Kims on paper must never be kinked, thrown away, or even burned, but must be disposed of according to a specially designed rite. This "Kim cult" knows a myriad of ceremonies and rituals which are obligatory for all North Koreans and which almost without exception make North Koreans followers of the Kim cult. It must be doubted whether this is done out of their own convictions.


Demographic proportions of religious communities

It is difficult to make reliable statements about the demographics of the religious communities, parts of the population practice Korean shamanism in secret, are members of the Chondo religion or Buddhist or Christian beliefs. Reliable figures are not available for the simple reason that a public commitment to a religion is associated with immediate disadvantages and dangers. In addition, it must be taken into account that in the whole of East Asia, not only on the Korean peninsula, multiple confessions (e.g. to Christianity and Buddhism at the same time) are common.

In North Korea, a small, but not exactly quantifiable number of people identify with the Christianity. In Pyongyang there is a state Protestant and a Catholic Christian association as well as a Catholic, a Russian Orthodox and two Protestant churches, in which Christian services are held under state control and form. The Russian Orthodox Church of Pyongyang was completed and inaugurated in 2006 as a concession to the Russian Federation on the one hand and as an urban attraction on the other. It belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate, which also licenses the clergy working in it (of North Korean origin, but trained in Russia). In December 2018, the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk near Moscow, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfejew, visited the church and held an Orthodox service.


Legal situation

North Korea joined the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (UN Civil Covenant) on September 14, 1981. On August 25, 1997, the Secretary-General of the United Nations received a notification dated August 23, 1997 from the government of North Korea that it was withdrawing from the civil pact. Since the pact does not contain a resignation, the Secretariat of the United Nations sent the government of North Korea an aide-memoire on September 23, 1997, in which the legal situation resulting from the notification is explained. As stated in this Aide-Mémoire, the Secretary-General of the United Nations is of the opinion that withdrawal from the civil pact does not seem possible unless all states party to the pact agree to such withdrawal. Such approval was not obtained. On this occasion, in its General Comment No. 26 "Continuity of Obligations" of December 8, 1997, the Human Rights Committee expressed the legal opinion that a termination of the civil pact or a resignation from it is fundamentally not possible under international law.

The primacy of the Kim cult actually has constitutional status. The veneration of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il is enshrined in the preamble of the constitution, even if not formulated in the individual articles.

Article 68 of the Constitution initially grants religious freedom in principle in its first paragraph, but puts it into perspective again decisively in the second paragraph, which states that exercising religious freedom must not be used as a pretext for admitting foreign powers or the state or the government to damage social order. Article 67 also grants freedom of speech, press, assembly, demonstration and association.

Statements by all three representatives of the Kim dynasty must be memorized by the North Koreans in compulsory ideology sessions. To openly contradict this canon is in fact called blasphemy understood and pursued. The traditional religions Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism all only exist on the fringes in today's North Korea. A public commitment to any religion is associated with immediate disadvantages and dangers for the persons concerned. The criminal law is formulated very generally and gives the courts the possibility of arbitrary interpretation.


Restrictions on freedom of religion and belief by state actors

The veneration that all North Koreans, without exception, must show the Kims, requires that all attitudes, regardless of whether of a secular or religious nature, that the A.Demeanor of the Kim cult could even be put into perspective, be persecuted with all the harshness of the dictatorship. Public religious creeds and declarations of affiliation are severely persecuted.

Although constitutionally enshrined, neither freedom of religion or belief, nor freedom of opinion, press and assembly is guaranteed to any significant extent in everyday reality. The state controls not only politics, but all of social life. Any type of association can only be registered under state control and guidance and exist only as part of the state organization. The control is incumbent on the so-called people's committees, which roughly correspond to the German municipal administrations. As a matter of principle, the state does not allow any associations of a civil society outside of its own structures, and thus also does not permit the association of religious communities.

The Songbun system divides the people in North Korea from birth into the three groups "reliable", "neutral" and "hostile" based on an assessment of the family history, which always refers to the - actual or assumed - attitude towards the Labor Party and the Kim dynasty. Ascent from one "caste" to the next is only possible extremely rarely, but a descent very quickly. People and their descendants who are known to be members of individual religions have been and are particularly often classified in the "hostile" category, with corresponding disadvantages in everyday life.

The meaning of religion and its practice are severely restricted by the Kim cult. The traditional religions Buddhism, Christianity and - if they can be called a religion at all - Confucianism only play a marginal role in today's North Korea. Then there is the Chondo religion, a syncretistic religion that was only founded in the 20th century.

In terms of intellectual history, Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism were formative in Korea. The Buddhism enjoys certain freedoms, even if Buddhists as well as all North Korean citizens are not allowed to question the claim to omnipotence of the Kim cult. There is a state Buddhist federation and a Buddhist theological college where monks are trained. In total there are about 300 temples in the whole country, the majority of which are seen as a monument and cultural asset of Korean history, not as a place of practiced and living faith, much less of Buddhist community life. As far as carried out at all, events carried out in the temples are reduced to the purely ceremonial.

The Chondo religion is the only officially recognized religion of Korean provenance. It is the only religion with its political arm, the "Chondoist Chongu Party", represented as part of the North Korean bloc parties in the Supreme People's Assembly (since March 10, 2019 with 22 of 687 seats). It loyally supports the Kim dynasty and the Party of Labor of Korea and recognizes the primacy of the Labor Party and the Kim cult.Neither religion nor its scriptures play a role in everyday life, and they are practically absent from state media.

The Christianity is met with the greatest skepticism because of its western origins, but also because of its role in the age of imperialism. Christian missionaries generally do not receive work permits. People with a missionary background who come under a different legend (e.g. as a teacher, development expert or representative of humanitarian organizations) and then nevertheless try to evangelize, put themselves in mortal danger. Importing and possessing a Bible is a criminal offense, this also applies to members of the local churches. In Catholic and Protestant services, sermons are given on the editorials of Rodong Sinmun, the country's most important daily newspaper, while Christian beliefs are absent.

The founder of the Unification Church, too Moon movement known as Sun Myung Moon (1920 - 2012), had a good relationship with the Kim family during his lifetime. There is still a large, modern center of the Moon sect in Pyongyang, but it is not known whether, and if so, what kind of activities take place there.

There are numerous reports from human rights organizations about political prisoners who are imprisoned for their religion or public commitment to their religion, blasphemy, violations of the prohibition of possession of Bibles and similar reasons. Exact or reliable figures are not available.

411 Undoubtedly, there are many features that still distinguish North Korean ideology from traditional definitions of religion, including the lack of eschatological conceptions. However, simply because the world of thought of conventional religions - in North Korea especially Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity - are viewed and persecuted by the state leadership as competitors, the state ideology can at least be understood as a quasi-religion.