- Guest Editor’s Introduction
The topic of this special issue is “North Korea and Religion.” At first glance, religion and North Korea are two subjects that may not appear to be closely associated. North Korea is a communist country and Marxist Communism has traditionally been very negative towards religion. Although North Korean communism has often strayed far from its Marxist roots, in relation to religion, the North Korean regime has actually gone beyond many communist regimes in its repression and control of religious organizations. As shown by several articles in this special issue, the policy of the North Korean state towards religion has gone through several phases and its relations towards religious organizations have been complex, ambivalent, and unpredictable, in many ways in line with much of the regime’s behavior on other issues.
In his article on Buddhism in North Korea for this special issue, Bernard Senécal mentions that scholars have posited four main phases in North Korea’s policy on religion. The first phase before the Korean War involved cooptation and increasing control as the government attempted to both discourage religion as superstitious, but also use religious organizations and subvert them to gain support for the new regime. Suppression and eradication was characteristic of the next phase from the time of the Korean War up to around the early 1970s. During this period, the North Korean regime pursued a policy of removing any trace of influence by any organization, including religions, which could act as an independent and alternate center of power. Religious believers were persecuted, places of worship closed down, and worship services in many cases forbidden. The vacuum created by the outward disappearance of religion was filled by the increasing importance of Juche (or Chuch’e, “self-reliance”) ideology and the personality cult of the Kim family, which took on many religious characteristics, as indicated by Hyang Jin Jung’s article in this special issue. Since the 1970s, there has been a tightly controlled and selective restoration of religious activity. This was caused by new North Korean contacts with the South and other countries. A display of religious freedom and religious plurality held important [End Page 5] symbolic value for the North in its public relations. On a more practical level, Northern religious organizations could act as parallel links to the outside world through contacts with their Southern counterparts and, in the case of Christian churches, with other religious organizations elsewhere in the world. This trend has continued since the end of the Cold War in 1989, as the North Korean constitution has been further relaxed in relation to religion and places of worship have been constructed or renovated. However, it is clear that these religious associations have no independence from the regime. Believers are few, tightly controlled, and under heavy suspicion. It is for these reasons that it would be very difficult to discuss only “religion in North Korea” and why any special issue with such a title would be very thin.
However, this does not mean that religion is irrelevant when discussing North Korea. There are believers in different religions in the North and there are increasingly public displays of permissible religious worship in the North. More importantly, the issue of North Korea has affected religious organizations outside of the country, most especially but not exclusively in South Korea. How to deal with North Korea and concerns for co-religionists in the North have fuelled diverse actions as well as disputes within different religious groups. Religious organizations have been major vehicles of aid, especially after the Cold War. An awareness of this fact may be one of the reasons why North Korea is making a greater show of openness towards religion. For those North Koreans who have left the country, either in the 1940s and 1950s or more recently, religion may have acted as motivation to leave in pursuit of more favorable circumstances. Religion has also acted as a support for these former North Koreans, as shown in the articles by Marie-Orange Rivé-Lasan and Jin-Heon Jung, as they build new lives in their lands of refuge. Religious groups have also seen new opportunities with these newcomers and there...